Laxmi, ten years old, may never return to school. Her school closed its doors after the first wave of Covid-19 struck India in early 2020, and her parents can no longer afford to send her.
Laxmi was enrolled at a local private school, which cost £21 ($26) per year and was paid for using family loans.
They chose the school partially because they were concerned she would not be comfortable traveling to the government-funded school in the next community, which has since reopened.
Her parents were also concerned about the public school’s teaching quality and the lack of restroom facilities.
“I have three girls,” she says. The oldest is Laxmi. We had assumed that after she had received her education, her life would be different from ours.
“I didn’t want my children to have the same life as me,” her mother, Rekha Saroj, adds, “even though my husband and I barely make anything.”
While the pandemic inspired a flurry of new online education platforms aiming at democratizing schooling for Indian children, these resources have simply not been available to the country’s poorest families.
“Student digitization may be beneficial, but what about us?” “How can we have a better future if we don’t have access to money or the internet?” Mrs Saroj asks.
There are various initiatives available for children in government schools to promote digital education, including DIKSHA, an online service for schools with information in 32 languages.
Despite their good intentions, it appears that these measures had little influence on children while schools were closed due to the pandemic. Only 40% of enrolled children received any form of learning materials or activities from their school during the week of the report’s survey, according to India’s Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) in 2021.
The issue was most serious for the youngest children, who had the least access to technology. According to the survey, nearly a third of children aged five to eight do not have access to a smartphone at home to aid their learning.
The research stated that “the proportion of families that had some contact with teachers was strongly skewed towards better-off families.”
“The [Indian school] system is mostly structured for rich youngsters, who are the clear victors in this unequal race,” says one expert. Jean Drèze is an economist from Belgium who specializes in India.
“Schools were shuttered for nearly two years, owing to pressure from well-off parents who were unconcerned about the learning gap because their children were studying online at home.”
The schooling system essentially abandoned children who did not have access to online instruction.” As India’s schools reopen, he claims that “much too little is being done to support children who have been left behind” in order to close the gap.
So, what, if anything, can technology do to bridge this gap?
Mihir Gupta is a co-founder of Teachmint, an online platform that allows teachers to schedule courses, deliver materials, and communicate with students.
According to Mr. Gupta, the program covers 10 million instructors and students in 5,000 cities and towns.
He recognizes, however, the substantial hurdles of reaching students in disadvantaged communities with unreliable internet connections.
“We realized early on that the diversity in internet bandwidth across India is a hurdle in reaching more and more instructors,” he explains. Teachmint’s service has been optimized to work with weaker internet connections and on mobile devices rather than laptops and desktop computers as a result.
Nonetheless, Anjela Taneja, the director of Oxfam India’s Inequality Campaign, believes that much more has to be done immediately.
“Children struggled to study remotely even in homes with access to high-tech or low-tech resources,” she says.
She goes on to say that a “conducive environment” for learning at home is often absent, with girls in particular suffering because they frequently take on household chores in addition to studying, whereas boys are “preferentially” given electronics.
The government claims that BharatNet, a project to provide rural areas with speedier internet connections, is helping to boost rural communities.
According to a spokeswoman for India’s Education Ministry, 52,567 government schools have received internet connections through the scheme, which began in 2012.
It also stated that schools that are currently waiting for a link can take advantage of government-funded television, radio, and other educational programs.
Shiv Kumar works with Oxfam in Uttar Pradesh’s impoverished areas. His mission is to increase the number of children who attend school on a regular basis.
“The condition in Indian villages is depressing. “Persuading parents to send their children to school is difficult,” he argues.
Many of the houses he visits do not have access to the internet or a smartphone.
He’s developed something called a’mohalla’ class to aid. Mr. Kumar will go to a residence and invite youngsters to come in, where he will teach them.
He shows the students the Hindi alphabet, numbers, and other educational tools on his smartphone.
This sort of supplementary schooling, which gives two to three hours of extra education per week but relies on community volunteers, is becoming more widespread in rural India.
“We’re talking about digitalizing education,” he says, “but how is that conceivable for rural parents with little resources?”
Many children believe they are being left behind. Sivani, a sixteen-year-old from Uttar Pradesh, is concerned that her window of opportunity has closed. She completed her education when she was ten years old.
“I wanted to study but didn’t have the financial resources to do so,” she explains. “My parents believe that staying at home and caring for the family is more essential than going to school.
“I’m not the only one who feels this way. Many girls in my village don’t go to school… how will our lives change if we don’t go to school?,” she wonders.