Finally, after years of deliberation, the Centre rolled out the National Education Policy (NEP) in 2020, which, unlike other government plans and policies, appears to have a vision, a focus and a road map in terms of deliverables. More importantly, it is an education plan that is rooted in our culture and heritage, and is in sync with modern India’s reality, the global challenges that it faces and on what needs to be done to equip the younger generation to successfully meet those challenges.
However, in view of Covid-19 and the glaring disparities that it has thrown up among the digital haves and have-nots, some aspects of this policy pertaining to e-learning and virtual classrooms have to gain priority over others. With school and college classes going online, students hailing from indigent families are at a terrible disadvantage since they do not have smartphones or laptops to cope with online education. Although Indians have over a billion mobile phones, it is estimated that over 80% of the student population was at a disadvantage because not all devices are “smart” enough to provide online connectivity to a classroom.
The NEP took note of the importance of online and digital education and said there has to be equitable use of technology and that new circumstances and realities require new initiatives. Since the policy was approved by the Union Cabinet in the midst of the raging Covid-19 crisis last July, it said that epidemics and pandemics necessitate alternative modes of education “whenever and wherever traditional and in-person modes of education are not possible”.
The policy therefore recognised the importance of leveraging the advantage of technology and said “carefully designed and appropriately scaled pilot studies” should be undertaken to determine the benefits of online and digital education. However, in view of the fact that the pandemic has spawned a new era of virtual classrooms, the government will have to scale up its response and go well beyond pilot projects. The policy itself recognises the yawning gap between the rich and the poor in this regard. It says the benefits of online education cannot be leveraged “unless the digital divide is eliminated through concerted efforts, such as the Digital India campaign and the availability of affordable computing devices”. It also concedes that it is important that the use of technology for online and digital education “adequately addresses concerns of equity”.
Therefore, since the government is conscious of this gap and of how it will adversely impact the education of millions of children who are incapable of owning these devices because of their poor economic situation, it will have to come up with some out-of-the-box solution to tackle this problem.
Since the Union Budget is just a few weeks away, the Ministry of Education must canvass the idea of the Ministry of Finance coming up with a novel scheme to incentivise the purchase of laptops and smartphones by students. Of the two, smartphones are cheaper but are not advisable for long-term usage to connect with the virtual classroom because of the strain on the eyes.
The news from the market is that the demand for laptops has shot up, many children are sharing computer devices and purchase of these devices are on the priority list of parents across the country, despite issues regarding affordability. Many computer companies are also coming up with innovative financing models to push sales. However, the government will have to come up with a policy to incentivise the manufacture and purchase of low-cost devices, which will enable the less privileged students to cope with the demands of online education. One could think of student models of smartphones with larger screens and compatible with the needs of Zoom calls and multimedia activity. But this can never be a satisfactory substitute for a laptop that provides a physical keyboard and a bigger screen, essential for students to handle class assignments.
Several states have already taken the initiative to help poor students. As the pandemic disrupted regular classes, the Haryana government decided to distribute free tablets to all students from Class 8 to 12 in state-run schools. The students have to return the devices to the school when they pass out of Class 12. The education minister of Tamil Nadu has announced that the government proposes to distribute tablets to three lakh students from Classes 6 to 8 in government schools. The Punjab government, on the other hand, decided to distribute smartphones to school students.
Assam decided to give every meritorious student passing out of Class 10 with scores of 75% and above, `20,000, to enable them to buy a laptop. The Union government could also come up with a scheme that would be jointly funded by the Centre and the states. It could also encourage investment of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) funds to provide these devices to needy children.
The Karnataka High Court has, in fact, directed the state government to tap CSR funds to distribute laptops to students in government schools. The NEP rightly emphasises on early childhood care and education and foundational literacy and numeracy, upgradation of teaching skills, equitable and inclusive education. It says “learning should be holistic, integrated, enjoyable and engaging”. The Union Budget 2021 will hopefully come up with a clutch of incentives and a policy that will hasten the achievement of these goals.
A SURYA PRAKASH (email@example.com)
Vice-Chairman, Executive Council, Nehru Memorial Museum & Library