Preserving Equality in Online Education

The silver bullet of technology has not only managed to pierce sectors like finance, law, healthcare, etc. but also the predominantly conservative sector of education. Pandemic was the catalyst for steering a range of investments and innovation in the online learning space. Not surprisingly, the industry is set to grow by $2.28 billion during 2022-2026, progressing at a CAGR of 19.50% during the forecast period.[1]

The rapid adoption and need of online education platforms have inspired pedagogical approaches to make tech-based education more engaging and interactive. It is anticipated that integration of blockchain, gamification, artificial intelligence, immersive technologies, learning analytics, etc. will make the online learning experience more adaptative and personalised to the needs of each individual student.

While the world of virtual education may have opened lucrative avenues, its impact dwells differently on students, teachers, schools, parents, and the industry as a whole. 


Supreme Court’s View on Online Education

During the pandemic, schools switched to the digital medium, and as such, the right to education was virtually denied to children belonging to the disadvantaged group (DG) or economically weaker section (EWS). The Supreme Court, headed by a three-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and B.V. Nagarathna in October 2021, stated that the digital divide, against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, has produced “stark consequences.”

The top court was hearing a plea by the Action Committee on Unaided Recognised Private Schools in connection with the access to technology by children who are attending online classes and the funding needed for the same. It was a petition filed by the private school managements challenging the Delhi High Court order of September 2020 directing them to provide their 25% quota of EWS/DG students online facilities free of charge. The High Court had said that the schools could get themselves reimbursed from the government.

The Delhi government appealed to the Supreme Court against the High Court’s order, saying it had no resources to reimburse the school for the online gadgets. Though the Supreme Court had stayed the High Court order in February 2021, the bench led by Justice Chandrachud said both the Centre and states like Delhi could not bow out of their responsibilities towards young children.

The court observed that the disparity exposed by online classes had been heart-rending. The technology gap caused by online classes defeated the fundamental right of every poor child to study in mainstream schools. The court also ruled that the right to education for little children hinged on who could afford gadgets for online classes and who could not. Many students had to take temporary breaks, and in the worst case, drop out, due to a lack of resources to access the internet, for online education as their families could not afford them. Moreover, the risk of the children, who dropped out of school, being drawn into child labour or child trafficking was high. The needs of young children, who are the future of the country, cannot be ignored, it said. Though schools were gradually opening due to the receding curve of the pandemic, the need to provide adequate computer-based equipment and access to online facilities for children is of utmost importance.

The needs of young children who represent the future of the nation cannot simply be ignored. A solution must be devised at all levels of Government – State and Centre to ensure that adequate facilities are made available to children across social strata so that access to education is not denied to those who lack resources. Otherwise, the entire purpose of the Right to Education Act, allowing EWS students to learn alongside mainstream students even in unaided schools, will be defeated.

The court further held that Article 21A (the right to free and compulsory education for children aged between 6 and 14) must be a reality. It directed the Delhi government to develop a plan to help children in the EWS category and added that the Centre and State governments should jointly work to develop a realistic and lasting solution to ensure children are not denied education due to lack of resources. The said bench further said: “It is necessary for the Delhi government to come with a plan to uphold the salutary objective of the RTE Act. Centre to also coordinate with state governments and share concurrent responsibilities for the purposes of funding.”

It also appreciated the Delhi High Court’s order directing the Delhi government to provide computer-based equipment and an internet package free of cost to EWS children in private and government schools. The Bench asked the Delhi Government to come out with a plan to effectuate the ‘salutary object’ upheld in the High Court’s decision. The court said the Centre should join in the consultations. The issues raised in the present proceedings will not only cover unaided schools but also government and aided schools. The Bench issued notice in the private school’s management petition and ordered it to be tagged with the pending Delhi Government petition.


Guidelines for Digital Education

COVID 19 accelerated the adoption of technology and brought about a dynamic shift in the sector. However, it was also realised that technology may improve the quality of dissemination of education; but it can never replace the classroom teaching and learning experience. While adopting the blended and hybrid model of education, a balance needs to be struck in learning and taking advantage of technology, and helping children become socially and emotionally healthy individuals and responsible citizens.

Bearing that in mind, Pragyata Guidelines for Digital Education were released by the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s Department of School Education and Literacy. At the beginning of the academic year 2021-22, the school education department informed all the schools to follow these guidelines while conducting online classes. According to the guidelines, the maximum screen time per day for kindergarten/preschool students has been limited to 45 minutes. However, for classes 1 to 5, schools can conduct two sessions of 1.5 hours per day for not more than 5 days in a week. For classes 6 to 8, screen time has been limited to 2 hours and for classes 9 to 12, limited to a maximum of 3 hours per day.


The Two Sides of Online Learning

Online classes offer a comfortable learning environment for students and offer tremendous growth opportunities, but it does instil a sense of isolation. Students, especially those belonging to younger age groups, thrive in a socially simulated environment. However, given the set-up of online classes, children fail to develop the ability to identify social norms and etiquettes. Further, online classes also limit the time and attention teachers can extend to their students. As a consequence, students that require extra attention and guidance fail to perform well. Also, online education may be accessible, but it is not affordable. Virtual learning requires expensive gadgets like computers, laptops, tablets, or smartphones. Hence, students in the economically weaker sections are left behind.

On the plus side, exhaustion and added costs of commuting are avoided in online education. In addition, online learning platforms offers a variety of courses and programmes that empower students to explore opportunities outside the realm of their curriculum. Moreover, since it is not possible for teachers to constantly monitor the activities of all students, online classes instil a sense of responsibility and self-discipline in them as they are made to realise that their actions and negligence will have a long-term impact on their future.

Mapping and understanding the positives and negatives of online education will enable educational institutes and the ed-tech industry to pioneer strategies for more efficient delivery of education. At the same time, the legislature must take a pro-active stance in ensuring that the fundamental right to education is protected in all manner and forms without any compromise on the well-being of learners.

During the pandemic, schools switched to the digital medium, and as such, the right to education was virtually denied to children belonging to the disadvantaged group (DG) or economically weaker section (EWS). The Supreme Court, headed by a three-judge bench of Justices D.Y. Chandrachud, Vikram Nath and B.V. Nagarathna in October 2021, stated that the digital divide, against the backdrop of the COVID pandemic, has produced “stark consequences.”


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