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The pandemic is a stumbling block in the fight to ensure literacy: But, what next?

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Around 320 million students in India have been affected due to the lockdown of the schools and institutes. That covers around 23.7% of the population of India. What do you think will happen if we don’t come up with a solution now? Every minute of delay in correcting or implementing solutions for this situation will probably make a child leave education forever. I don’t want to think of such a scenario, and neither should you.

The only way to prevent this situation from happening is to act now. The future doesn’t seem favourable for the people doing mundane or repetitive work as artificial intelligence is almost at our doors, and the future is not looking bright.

India is one of the youngest countries globally as it is in a period of ‘demographic dividend‘ and we need to leverage this, rather than make it a burden, by upskilling the youth and investing in education. When you compare the population in the age group 0–9 that is 241 million, with the age group 10–19, which is 252 million, one can see that India is at the peak of its demand for education. We need to act now.

Due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic for the past seven months, schools and institutes have shifted to the online mode of teaching. But, at least 27% of students do not have access to smartphones or laptops, according to an NCERT survey with over 34,000 students and parents. Our focus should be on how to cater to these children’s problems. When you think of how many from this 27% of children will go back to school once the school opens, the situation is bleak. They might not want to pursue an education in the future once they see that they are lagging compared to their peers. If we improve the infrastructure of online education, it will help us with the present situation and build towards the final goal of digital India. We can later use this existing infrastructure to improve education quality by leveraging the digital medium.

We have proposed some models on how the government can improve the existing online medium of education to accommodate the 27% of children and work towards digital India. When the lockdown started, BYJUs had added free live classes on its platform. They said that their live classes would “remain free for students across the country until the current situation persists.” Similarly, started the Toppr Asha program, supported by the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation, as a part of its CSR activity. But it was limited in its scope, because it has some conditions, as the students had to be comfortable taking tests in English and had to have a smartphone at home with a stable internet connection. Such conditions do not ensure a pan-India approach, and hence the solution has to be more inclusive.

The NEP 2020 Advantage

The education sector can leverage the aspects of the National Education (NEP) Policy 2020 to build its infrastructure. The current spending of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in the education sector is around 1–2%, which is not sufficient to meet the required criteria for education standards.

With NEP 2020, the percentage spending of GDP towards the education sector is kept at 6% which substantially increases the weightage to the education sector. This increase can significantly help in building the education infrastructure in India, by delivering online tools which is the norm of the future. Increased spending on developing the virtual infrastructure will help in increased internet penetration in the villages which will aid in the continuity of education to the children in villages.

One more advantage of NEP 2020, I feel, is the inclusion of vocational skills in the school curriculum. These skills include Programming, Data and Analytics, Marketing, Communications, Design, and more. These kinds of skills are essential to the job markets but not included in the curriculum till graduation level. So, teaching the aspects of technology and Programming will help the children gain technical knowledge pertaining to technology, which will help them continue with their education during pandemic times.

Leveraging Doordarshan And All India Radio (AIR)

During the pandemic, the Indian government can also leverage media channels like Doordarshan, and radio channels like the All India Radio (AIR), to provide education to the school children. Detailed schedules of classes and teachings can be made and circulated to students through these media channels.

Students can then watch the classes through Doordarshan or listen to them via radio and continue their education through virtual means. This method has been experimented with in some states like Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, to name a few, and it has seen some significant results in the continuing education of the school children.

In Andhra Pradesh, the teachers in government schools are made to continue with the class activities like assignments and homework by making use of technological tools like WhatsApp, Telegram, and more. Teachers are made to create a WhatsApp group consisting of their respective class students and the children are asked to submit the assignments based on the classes telecasted in the Doordarshan and AIR. This helps the students to apply the theoretical knowledge learned through virtual means.

The ‘JIO Effect’

JIO has been a major disrupter in the telecom network, dismantling the hegemony of such players as Airtel. Considering how Reliance is such an important player, the government could join hands with Jio to not only increase telecom infrastructure and network penetration to the more undeveloped and inaccessible areas of the Indian geography but also provide the necessary means to access that network, i.e. basic smartphones.

Though it might increase losses at first, in the long run, this will go along with Jio’s current policy of market expansion through penetrative pricing. We have done an estimate for how much the government might have to spend on this initiative. We assume the government will subsidize the JIOs tablet by contributing to 50% of the cost of the tablet that will come around to be 1750 (50% of 3500) and because of the same government can make a deal with JIO to subsidize internet monthly expenses for the students for around 100 rupees per month. So, we estimate the cost to be around two thousand crores. But I feel this will be a huge boost to the ultimate plan of digital India also.

I believe that to avoid the situation and to move towards a ‘Digital India’, we must work towards removing the education divide caused by the unavailability of services to the students.

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