Updated: Feb 12
The West may be coping with the transition to online education, but the same cannot be said of the developing world... Our latest guest-written article in the Global Ambassador series speaks of his personal experiences with the state of education in West Bengal.
I’m sitting in front of my laptop late at night trying to recollect a conversation I had with a twelve-year-old construction worker who was working at a quarter-acre block near my home. The conversation, though it lasted only five minutes, was fascinating, as the boy anxiously got back to his job. Pritam, not his real name, was not a local - rather from a district just north of Kolkata, India, and had only been working for three months. Evident from his skinny frame, baggy hand-me-down attire and the compulsion to work, it was no surprise that belonged to a poor family. In his very unique Bengali dialect, Pritam went on to say that the government school he was enrolled in conducted online classes for students of the ninth and tenth grade (14 to 16-years-old) and eleventh and twelfth grades (16 to 18-years-old), while the rest of the classes remained shut. He had spent time sitting at home, occasionally helping in household chores, or spending his days at the field engaging in various games with his peers. However, such days were limited as the family had no savings to rely on and hence more hands at work were preferred. So, giving up on his education, the boy travelled to Kolkata to learn masonry, ending up being used for odd jobs.
This is a serious situation: its gravity must be realized.
The worldwide pandemic was a turning point for most of the sectors, especially education, with its dynamics changing forever.
Adaptation to change is inevitable and human dependence on technology is manifest in the modern world, but previously changes have been gradual so they are easily accepted. The shift in education from an in-person to an online model has been forced by the pandemic. The suddenness of the change gave much less time to get used to the new mechanisms. In the developed world, online meetings were a norm and, hence, the transition towards online education was relatively smooth. However, for the least developed and developing countries, the transition phase was slow and the academic calendar was pushed back to more than half a year. Since no one can be prepared for such a global pandemic, disorganization among educational boards led to mismanagement due to uncertainty and time-constraints: developing an organized plan requires time - especially for a country with 1.38 billion people.
Back to the case of Pritam. If online education was spreading slowly, becoming the norm, why would someone give up on that and move into a job with minimum wages? Until now, we've had a macro view of the situation. However, in the developing and underdeveloped regions away from the major metropolitan centers, educational institutions may not have enough resources to provide online education. Often, recruited staff are underqualified and, in the extraordinary situation of the pandemic, even more helpless. Some governmental resources were at least being used to provide help to the students of the final four years of school, but often not even that. Due to both financial and technological constraints, junior classes were closed, resulting in many students missing out on foundational learning. The implications of this cannot be understated: children who should learn and get equipped for a better future are forced to sit at home, without a clue when their institution is going to reopen. For a poor family with very little to rely on, ‘wasting’ their child’s year in uncertainty was traded for sending them away to work.
A second aspect of the issue is that technology is expensive and online education is unaffordable. Huge numbers of people live in developing and developed regions of the world yet governmental reach has not been sufficient. A lack of technical know-how inhibits the use of technology and the few who are equipped with outdated gadgets cannot access the internet due to lack of awareness and affordability. As per data from UNICEF, schools have been closed for almost a full year for 168 million children worldwide, most of them being from Latin America and the Caribbean, the Middle East and North Africa, and South Asia. 888 million children worldwide still face disruptions in education due to partial lockdowns. In India alone, 247 million children were impacted with the sudden transition into an online mode of learning.
It is the grim reality today that 1 in 5 students cannot attend schools and 1 in 4 students miss out on higher educational classes. In such trying times when survival was questionable, education became a luxury to many. The global economic slowdown motivated many young children to give up on school and look for alternate ways of earning a livelihood to support their families. Pritam’s story is applicable to millions and millions of unlucky children across the globe. We must realize that an educational divide is being created, purely on the basis of an economic divide. This is not readily apparent in the short run, but it will become obvious in the long run. We as a society stand on morals based on equality among all. A lack of opportunity has always persisted for the lower rungs of the society and education was a provision that allowed merit to be deterministic of one’s social position. The costs of online education have widened the gaps between the haves and the have-nots, resulting in the persistence of inequalities.
It is at times like these that humanitarian organizations such as NGOs must step up, taking up more responsibilities, travelling to the most remote areas around the world to provide educational services, as well as healthcare, to as many as they can. The Anganwadi in India have been doing a phenomenal job in this regard. Centralized investment in online education and provision of all necessary gadgets to students is crucial so that students don't face difficulties in adapting to a new education environment. The move towards online education might have been forced, but it was inevitable. The needs of the hour are trained experts who can spread this new form of education to the most remote parts of the world, and a centralized plan with proper guidance as a way ahead.
Written by Srinjoy Majumder