The disruptive effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are borne disproportionately by already disadvantaged social groups. When all educational institutions across India shifted to online and distance learning modes in March 2020 to comply with a nationwide complete lockdown, the already significant disadvantages encountered by rural Indian schoolchildren were exacerbated. Rural schoolchildren have historically been disadvantaged in terms of educational quality and opportunities compared to their urban counterparts, as stressed by two recent large-scale survey reports – the Annual State of Education Report 2020 (ASER) and the Household Social Consumption on Education in India (2017–2018) survey.
Against the backdrop of a yawning rural–urban digital divide, state governments employed a mix of methods to implement distance learning for rural schoolchildren. The ASER 2020 survey highlights that these efforts have yielded disappointing results. During the reference week, approximately
- 20 per cent of rural children had no textbooks at home
- 28 per cent of students had received no educational assistance from family
- 29 per cent of children had not engaged in any educational activity
- 66 per cent of children had not received any instruction from their school
- only 11 per cent had attended live online classes
- 32 per cent of children with smartphone access had not received any materials.
In addition, access to devices and the internet does not guarantee ability of use for educational purposes. As the key indicators of household social consumption on education in India show, only 20 per cent of people in the 5–35 age group had basic digital literacy, while only 8.5 per cent of women knew how to use the internet.
This experience offers three broad insights into the nature of Indian rural education where future development efforts can be directed.
1. Teaching schoolchildren is a specialised, professional activity
Their lofty status in predominant Indian cultures notwithstanding, the public perception of teachers (especially government and rural teachers) is not favourable. School teaching is also perceived as something any educated person can manage. It can be hoped that with millions of families now tasked with their children’s education, there will be a greater appreciation of the work of schoolteachers, which should subsequently lead to more efforts towards enhancing their salaries and professional capacity.
2. Educated parents and a conducive home environment are essential
School closure suddenly shifted the locus of all educational activities to the child’s home and family. While the number of first-generation learners in rural India is steadily decreasing (see ASER Centre, 2019, pp. 304–305), many students still do not receive educational or motivational support at home. Better educated parents are more capable of supporting their children’s education through direct assistance, having higher expectations, and providing more resources. Therefore, adult and lifelong education should be treated as important aspects of improving rural education (Atchoarena & Sedel, 2003). With limited physical space and money for educational resources in most rural households, a positive study environment at home can be created through simple acts such as not assigning household/farm chores to children, not turning on the television when the children are studying, and by asking them questions about what they did in the school that day (Weiner, 1991).
3. Limited ways in which technology can support education
Even if issues of access to suitable devices and network connectivity were resolved, technologies cannot meet the pedagogical and social requirements of rural education. Technologies require the support of traditional educational inputs such as dedicated learning environments, hands-on classroom activities and supportive family environment. Most importantly, they require capable teachers who can use them along with other pedagogical materials to suit the needs of individual students. For rural students, teachers are often the only source of motivation and guidance which are essential in ensuring students continued enrolment. Future policymaking efforts would be remiss to focus on EdTech at the cost of traditional educational inputs (Atchoarena, Wallace, Green, & Gomes, 2003).
Prolonged school closure can seriously affect lifetime educational achievements of rural Indian children (Azavedo, Hasan, Goldemberg, Iqbal, & Geven, 2020). Prompt remedial actions and policy measures must be adopted to ensure these children are not denied of their fundamental right to education.
ASER Centre (2019). Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018. New Delhi. http://img.asercentre.org/docs/ASER%202018/Release%20Material/aserreport2018.pdf
Atchoarena, D., & Sedel, C. (2003). Education and rural development: Setting the framework. In D. Atchoarena & L. Gasperini (Eds.), Education for rural development: Towards new policy responses (pp. 35–76). Paris: IIEP, UNESCO.
Atchoarena, D., Wallace, I., Green, K., & Gomes, C. (2003). Strategies and institutions for promoting skills for rural development. In D. Atchoarena & L. Gaperini (Eds.), Education for rural development: Towards new policy responses (pp. 239–310). Paris: IIEP, UNESCO.
Azavedo, J. P., Hasan, A., Goldemberg, D., Iqbal, S. A., & Geven, K. (2020). Simulating the potential impacts of Covid-19 school closures on schooling and learning outcomes: A set of global estimates. Washington, DC: World Bank. Retrieved from http://pubdocs.worldbank.org/en/798061592482682799/covid-and-education-June17-r6.pdf
Weiner, M. (1991). The child and the state in India: Child labor and education policy in comparative perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.