If you’re based in urban India, the probability of someone from your social circle attending online classes is quite high. With access to facilities like high speed internet and an array of devices, ranging from laptops, tablets and smartphones, virtual education is the most suitable alternative during these uncertain times. However, is online education a reality or a far-fetched dream for students residing in rural India?
A large part of the student population in rural India does not have access to trained faculty, consistent power supply and other infrastructure urban Indians often take for granted. As per the estimations of the Union Rural Development Ministry, around 5,000 villages are yet to get electricity, a big challenge to be tackled.
The COVID-19 pandemic has added to these pre-existing issues. From limited access to high speed internet and technological devices, lack of awareness about the digital world, to the dearth of trained teachers, schools are facing multiple interruptions in smooth functioning.
Rajnikant Sukhsham Mendhe is a rural school teacher based in Gorhe Budruk, in Pune. He has been conducting online classes ever since the pandemic struck. Mendhe says, “Ever since the COVID-19 lockdown was first imposed in March 2020, digital tools have not been available to many. Many parents do not have smartphones. Even the parents who do own one could often not afford to recharge it.” Even if the devices were accessible by students, Mendhe adds, “In case students somehow get to use others’ phones, due to poor internet connection videos tend to start buffering.” This, on top of so much screen time negatively impacting students’ health, has made online education a bumpy journey.
Online education has been a completely new experience for students as well as teachers, both trying to figure out how to move out of a traditional classroom setting. Mendhe says, “The interactions I used to have with my students are totally cut out now. Sometimes it is difficult to explain some concepts which could have been explained in an easier way face-to -face. However, teachers everywhere are adjusting to the ‘new normal’.”
Ashim Roy, a school teacher from West Bengal, had to face problems that were beyond the scope of technology. Roy is one of the 3 teachers at a rural primary school located on the outskirts of Haldia in East Medinipur district of the state. “Due to the pandemic, our school was shut from March 2020. There was no option of online classes, since the students come from extremely economically marginalised backgrounds. Adding to it, after the cyclone Amphan in May 2020, our school was completely ravaged,” says Roy.
However, financial effort made by locals and other influential people has come as a glimmer of hope for Roy’s school. Roy says, “Without the effort of these people, it would have been difficult to rebuild the school and bring back our students to school.”
While Roy’s school survived through the tough times with local help, major NGOs are also assisting rural schools in other parts of the country. ThinkSharp Foundation, a Mumbai-based NGO is a beacon of hope for students. The organisation is assisting Mendhe’s students at the government funded Zilla Parishad School in Gorhe Budruk, Pune, to gain access to electronic devices.
“The efforts of Santosh Phad from the ThinkSharp Foundation, alongside the fundraising campaigns of The Milaap Foundation, helped in arranging 60 tablets for our students, from August 2020,” Mendhe says. Mendhe has also noticed increasing attentiveness of students after receiving these tablets. “After receiving these tablets, students began paying more attention to academics,” he adds.
Thus, while the digital divide has posed serious concerns for students and teachers across rural India, the future looks bright. With active government missions like Digitalindia and increasing exposure to digital technology, rural India can learn better and faster. Local and national governments must coordinate together with the IT and edtech sectors to speed up the process of bringing innovative and cost-effective online education tools to rural India. Online education can work wonders in this direction and help the socio-economically marginalised communities to achieve their life goals given a strong and equipped basic ground infrastructure.
Edited by Anjali Hans
Some resources to help you learn more about education in rural India: