Is e-learning the best bet during lockdown?

24 Apr 2020

It’s less egalitarian than TV in delivering education. Net-based learning holds promise provided the digital ecosystem improves

Opinion: Bornali Bhandari Charu Jain and Ajaya K Sahu  

The NCAER Skills Report 2018 discussed the immense potential of online learning albeit as complementary to more traditional methods. In the current situation online education is turning out to be a substitute to traditional modes. Is India ready for this switch in terms of its infrastructure and digital readiness of children?

Infrastructure readiness has to be assessed in terms of household assets ownership versus school facilities because of the lockdown that is characterised by social distancing. The National Statistical Organisation (NSO) 75th Round survey on ‘Social Consumption of Education in 2017-18’ had probed households’ ownership of computers and access to the internet.

The computer was a catch-all for devices like desktop laptop notebook netbook palmtop tablet (or similar hand-held devices). Specifically the smartphone was not included in this list. Further the survey probed if a household member of age five years and above had used internet to find evaluate and communicate information from any location during the last 30 days preceding the date of survey via any of the above-mentioned devices and smartphone etc.

The analysis only includes households which had students aged between 5-29 years and were currently enrolled and attending school. The survey showed that 8.3 per cent of households had computers and 21.6 per cent had internet facility. Further a larger share of households had access to internet facility versus ownership of computers. However there are large variations between rural and urban areas and intra-regional gaps as well. In urban areas 20 per cent of households had computers and 39.8 per cent had access to internet (see Table). The corresponding numbers in rural areas were 4 per cent and 15 per cent respectively. In the top two urban quintiles 68.3 per cent and 50 per cent of households had internet access respectively. This number was 18 per cent in the bottom-most urban quintile. Twenty-nine per cent of households had internet access in the top-most rural quintile and 5.7 per cent in the bottom-most quintile.

Digital skills

The Indian youth are also characterised by limited digital skills. Only 17.6 per cent of the youth could use a computer and 18.4 per cent could access internet. As per the NSO (2019) the ability to use of computer could include any of the following tasks — copying or moving a file or folder using copy and paste tools to duplicate or move information within a document sending e-mails with attached files (example document picture and video) using basic arithmetic formulae in a spreadsheet connecting and installing new devices (example modem camera printer) finding downloading installing and configuring software creating electronic presentations with presentation software (including text images sound video or charts) transferring files between a computer and other devices writing a computer program using a specialised programming language.

The ability to use internet meant that the household member was able to use internet browser for website navigation using e-mail and social networking applications etc. to find evaluate and communicate information. Therefore relatively speaking only the top most urban quintiles in India are the most ready for online education. State/UT education policy during the lockdown needs a more egalitarian means of delivering education. One alternative to online education is delivery of education via television.

The Delhi Government is ahead of the curve in thinking about it. The National Family Health Survey 2015-16 shows that 86 per cent of urban households and 51.5 per cent of rural households had colour television. In the short-run the television holds a much more viable equitable cost-efficient and scalable alternative than online education.

A caveat remains that is how will children be assessed on their understanding of these lessons? Help or parental guidance at home especially in bottom quintiles may also be limited. Private tuitions are also not currently available.

The current crisis has acted as a fillip to encourage digital education. However to achieve its potential in the medium run Indian schools need to be better equipped digitally which in turn needs to be measured appropriately by various statistical agencies. There is on-going research in NCAER to construct education satellite accounts for two States. These tools may be potentially used to analyse the contribution of digital education.

Students need to learn digital skills for its own sake and improving quality of education. The emphasis on online education has to be accompanied with changes in curriculum textbooks teacher training examination systems and pedagogy. Last but not the least quality of traditional education has to be improved too.

Bornali Bhandari is a Senior Fellow; Charu Jain an Associate Fellow; and Ajaya Sahu a Senior Research Analyst at the National Council of Applied Economic Research. Views are personal.

Published in:  Business Line, April 24, 2020