With the pandemic relenting a bit (fingers crossed), we were able to make a much-awaited trip to Assam, to witness firsthand, the issues that are being faced on ground by students in rural Assam and to be able to offer support to our last mile partners & stakeholders.
The field visit in Assam was to meet GVM in Nalbari, to be able to interact with student & parent groups as well as to visit schools and to meet teachers and headmasters across several districts of lower Assam.
On landing in Assam, we were welcomed by the rain showers making our drive through verdant Assam, nothing short of spectacular. That we were able to make pit stops at local eateries run by entire families serving hygienic, local delicacies was both a gastronomical delight and a study in local entrepreneurship.
Two family run restaurants are worth mentioning: KHORIKAA & MAINAO.
In order to truly understand the impact of technology on an aspect as ubiquitous as education, one needs to unravel several layers of stakeholders & systems. Over the course of our visit, we had several meaningful conversations with community members, schools, teachers and students in multiple districts to understand the context and collate our findings that can support change in these communities.
In order to generate a deeper understanding of the aspirations and use of technology for learning, we conducted a series of focus group discussions, which went on to reveal a number of resource gaps in the education system.Systemic Issues
The first thing that emerged was the systemic issue of the lack of functioning computers, curriculum and staff to support early education in technology. Access to knowledge is clearly limited and selective as there is a huge shortage in government school teachers, due to various policy failures. As a consequence, it is seen that while students are supposed to begin learning and using technology by grade 4, they are not exposed to it till grade 9 and in some cases, much later.
While the pupil teacher ratio (PTR) is as per goal in most districts of Assam, it does not directly translate to a manageable class size and adequate human resources. Schools often lack teachers with computer expertise and have to allocate those classes to other teachers. Additionally, during our inquiry into this shortage, it was revealed that the computer teachers are often contracted and hence receive low pay, thereby reducing their retention in non-lucrative or underdeveloped areas. Local teachers lack the training or the resources to take up these classes and therefore technology takes a backseat.
Even those students who are provided with computer classes in school, do not get a beneficial amount of one-on-one interaction with the machine. The classes often contain more than 40 students and more often than not, less than ten working computers. A skewed student to computer ratio impacts the long-term career options and aspirations of students as well as their current exposure to scholarships and opportunities.
The silver lining however is that despite this being a widespread issue, there are schools that stand out where headmasters lead by example & have taken the initiative to upskill themselves and encourage students and teachers to learn within the limited environment by maintaining labs and ensuring training. These initiatives require support and guidance to create a holistic model of self-sustaining problem solving.
Embedded Gender Divide
While there is a clear skew in terms of socio economic category, there is yet another segment that is slowly falling off the radar. This is to do with girl children who are prevented from accessing these classes not just due to monetary constraints but also on account of restrictions in movement fuelled by safety concerns. Clearly the digital divide is disproportionately impacting students from already marginalized groups.
Low Proliferation of Smartphones
Online education of course is severely constrained by the extremely low proliferation of smartphones or tablets in the lower socioeconomic strata. A study by the Smile Foundation revealed that approximately 56% of Indian students do not have access to smartphones, a number which invariably increases in rural areas amongst lower socio-economic strata. Smartphones are largely limited to one device per household or in cases where more than one device is present, the other device is largely traveling with an earning member and is unavailable for use by the student. Use of mobile devices for education purposes therefore is severely restricted. Students largely use it only when encouraged by teachers, however, due to a lack of resources in the community, teachers prefer to avoid asking their students to do projects that need technology. Most parents use their smartphones for entertainment and shopping but do not engage with online courses, teaching material or apps provided by the government. There is a potent need for building awareness and multi-sectoral cooperation to ensure that the disconnect between these areas and areas with higher accessibility does not translate into a gap of opportunities, skills and employment.
Clearly there is a lot to be done. From encouraging the participation of corporate players to spend their CSR budgets for online education to offering free to use online tools to teachers to improve the quality of education delivered, there are enough & more initiatives that can be of help. The Union government is banking on the Bharatnet project, which aims to provide broadband to 250,000 gram panchayats in the country through optic fiber to improve connectivity. What is also important is to raise the spending on education. On that front, however, the news is far from bright with the education ministry’s budget for digital e-learning being slashed to Rs 469 crore in 2020-21 from Rs 604 crore the previous year. Link to the news article