Disrupt, Divide, and Develop – The Effects of Covid-19 on Education

The pervasive nature of the Covid-19 pandemic has created one of the largest disruptions of education in human history, countervailing all efforts to provide education for all children. It caused unprecedented changes and continues to change numerous aspects of education that we took for granted. In March 2020, schools around India began closing to avoid the spread of Covid-19. These sudden closures led to confusion and uncertainty amongst students, especially those who were appearing for their board exams. For other students, these abrupt closures brought about a perplexing break from school. These ostensibly temporary closures were made permanent once the nationwide lockdown was effectuated and students were separated from their schools.

According to data by UNICEF and UNESCO, more than 1 billion children were at risk of falling behind due to school closures during the pandemic. Schools for more than 168 million children globally have been completely closed for almost an entire year. Around 214 million children globally, which is equivalent to 1 in 7 children, have missed more than three-quarters of their in-person learning. Furthermore, more than 888 million children worldwide continue to face disruptions to their education due to full and partial school closures. 

In India, the closure of 1.5 million schools in 2020 impacted 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools. In early March 2021, only eight States and Union Territories had reopened classes 1 to 12; 11 had reopened classes 6-12 and 15 had reopened classes 9-12. However, the ongoing second wave has caused the complete closure of schools yet again, as well as either the cancellation or postponement of board exams, competitive exams, and entrance exams. 

We began a new academic year like never before – from our homes. To continue the process of education, schools were compelled to adapt, adopt, and evolve. The biggest change has been the abandonment of traditional notions of schooling and the shift to online learning and teaching. Teachers have had to adapt to teaching online, a complete shift for those who’ve had many years of traditional classroom teaching experience. The fun and exciting trip to school has been diminished to clicking a link to join our classes. Interactive classes have become eerily similar to videos on our laptop or phone screen with a tincture of interaction arising when teachers ask us whether we’re present. The extreme sport of completing notes just before the teacher calls out our names has become the tedious process of scanning our notes and sending them as a pdf. Eating with our friends in the school canteen has been replaced with us eating alone during classes. Our classmates have become little rectangles on our screens. Outdoor sports have disappeared from the list of extracurriculars that we did in school. The end of school or college life is marked by video calls instead of grand graduation ceremonies. A lot has changed. 

These changes have led to some pernicious problems. The blurring of lines between school and home has led to students feeling overworked. This holds true for teachers too as they answer questions, clear doubts, and create lesson plans at all hours of the day. Students often have to study and sleep in the same rooms now. According to scientific studies, this often leads to a decrease in productivity and concentration. Students, especially younger ones, are easily distracted during online classes, despite attempts to marshal concentration and focus, as a classroom atmosphere is non-existent. Teachers are unable to pick up cues such as body language and facial expressions, making it challenging to connect with and understand their students. Problems such as eye strain and headaches are more common now due to the drastic and unavoidable increase in screen time for students. Online classes are often disrupted by copious internet problems, power cuts, background noise, and vexing software problems. All forms of practical education have been eliminated. A lack of clarity on important events such as board exam and entrance exam dates has led to the upheaval of students’ plans that were formulated before the pandemic began, fueling a rise in students’ anxiety and uncertainty.  

Covid-19 has also been a catalyst to the widening of socio-economic gaps in society on numerous fronts. While the virus cossets no one, the fact that it has disproportionately affected students belonging to less affluent households, especially those in rural India, is indubitable. Undoubtedly, access to the internet and an appropriate device are the lifelines of online education. 

A UNICEF report from August 2020 highlighted that only 24% of Indian households have access to the internet. While television and radio were purported as an alternative, there is no substitute for an actual teacher. A more recent survey conducted by Learning Spiral in February 2021 revealed that more than 50% of Indian students in rural and urban areas don’t have access to the internet. Moreover, only 47% of the households that have access to the internet own a device that can access the internet. It also revealed that, while 27% of all Indian households have access to the internet, only 28% of those are in rural India, even though rural India comprises of nearly 71% of India’s households.

Families in rural India are plagued with other impediments to online education –  insufficient or no smartphones, having to borrow smartphones (and therefore may not get them at the time needed), not having enough money to buy an appropriate internet package, and patchy connectivity even if they have internet access. The severity of these problems is incalculable and more prevalent than in urban households.   

Assuming that the problems stop here would be specious. The closure of schools has obstructed the “Mid Day Meal Scheme”. India has about 120 million children enrolled in the scheme in over 1.26 million schools across the country. However, due to the disruptions caused by Covid-19, many States and Union Territories have been forced to stop this initiative, depriving children of their basic nutritional needs. This scheme also serves as a huge incentive for children to attend school. Therefore, its removal may negatively impact both their health and their education. Furthermore, incidents of domestic abuse and child labour have drastically increased as students can no longer be protected by going to school. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has been atrocious but there has been a silver lining. The pandemic has led to an “academic revolution” that, unfortunately worsened certain differences in our society, but has also alleviated certain differences. 

Even before Covid-19, there was high growth in and adoption of education technology. Projections have shown that the overall market for online education may be valued at $350 Billion by 2025. There has been a significant surge in the usage of language apps, virtual tutoring, video conferencing tools, online learning software, etc. This is not only providing alternative paths for education but it is also future-proofing education. Through programs such as Coursera and edX, students can attend classes that they normally wouldn’t have had access to. India is considered the largest marketplace for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) after the USA.

In certain aspects, online learning has made school more inclusive and obviated numerous hindrances to education. The use of videos in class greatly benefits visual learners. The use of tools such as online polling and chats have improved the class participation of those who otherwise may have hesitated to speak up. Notes, videos, and other study material that are sent to students can be reviewed anytime so the pressure on students to complete their work “before the bell” has been reduced. Furthermore, differently-abled students who found it difficult to attend school in-person can now attend classes with their friends from their homes. 

As students are attending classes from their homes, commuting to school no longer blocks their schedules. This gives them more time for extracurriculars such as internships, online courses, and online competitions. It also allows them more time to do the things they enjoy such as singing, cooking, writing, and painting. Students are also honing their online collaborative skills and improving their digital literacy, this will immensely benefit them in the future as the entire world shifts online.    

Hopefully, the move to online learning creates a new, permanent, and more effective method of educating students. While this “new normal” has had certain benefits, we must remember the value of education for all and prudentially strive to shrink the divide caused by this unavoidable transition to online learning.     

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