Monday, Jul 04, 2022

Will Budget 2022 Bridge The Digital Gap In Education?

The announcements do not offer anything new or try to address the existing issues such as the huge shortage of human resources and infrastructure in education, say some experts

Asserting the Centre's push for digital education, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Tuesday announced several initiatives aimed at promoting online learning and training in the country. A digital university, 750 virtual labs to enhance thinking skills in science and mathematics and expansion of the "One Class, One TV Channel" programme under the PM e-VIDYA scheme from the present 12 TV channels to 200 are among the initiatives that will be implemented in the coming year, as mentioned in the Union budget 2022-23.

Although many edutech companies heaped praises on the finance minister, stating that the initiatives would help streamline their curriculum in line with an increasing demand for online education, a section of experts is apprehensive about the real benefits of this kind of digital expansion of learning methods.

The announcements will bridge neither the education nor the digital divide that the pandemic has created over the past two years, say some experts. Gurumurthy Kasinathan, director and lead, education and technology, IT for Change, a Bengaluru-based NGO, says that the budgetary proposals are inadequate to bring digital equality. “Huge digital infrastructure at the family level is missing in the budget. If you start 200 channels, it will not be a medium to educate children. They have to go to the school, sit in the classroom and learn with other children,” says Kasinathan, adding that the bigger issue is the education divide which the budget has completely ignored.

“Children from poor families have forgotten many things as they have not gone to schools for two years and that gap cannot be filled digitally. Every child has to be taught in the classroom in a manner that the education gap can be filled,” he explains.

He feels that there should have been an increase in the allocation towards support for schools in the budget. Kasinathan points out that additional teachers are required and that the existing teachers do not have anything other than textbooks. A lot of other additional materials, such as library books and teaching-learning materials, are missing in government schools and are required, he adds.

Some experts say that all open and correspondence universities are running on the online mode and, in a way, are all digital universities. So, the announcement does not offer anything new or try to address the existing issues, such as the huge shortage of human resources and infrastructure in education.

M.M. Ansari, a former member of the University Grants Commission, is of the view that from 1996 till the release of the National Education Policy 2020, governments have been talking about the use of new information and communication technology, such as computers, internet, mobile, etc. as the medium to impart education. “We have seen during the pandemic that digital education has certain limitations as well as challenges. Uneducated parents find it difficult to assist their wards during online classes. So, the digital divide has widened the gap of the already existing education inequality,” says Ansari. “Even if the government provides all the courses and material online, every student does not have a computer, smartphone, continuous power supply and Wi-Fi in his or her village,” he adds. 

Educationists argue that while the digital medium can enhance the accessibility of content, the quality of education will remain an area of serious concern. “Educational institutions are training grounds for personality and interpersonal development skills. Just like you cannot create good cricketers, footballers and hockey players through online education, you cannot produce top quality professionals, scholars, researchers and teachers through digital education,” says an accomplished educationist from one of the top private universities, requesting anonymity. “Is our government school education good enough to prepare millions of kids to accept e-learning that will be served through mobile, computers and television?” he asks. 

Another reputed educationist, running a chain of private universities in India and abroad, says that at the supply level, the government announcements sound good but question if the government is aware of the demand side. “Will children learn on their own? The government might create e-content and a medium through which it will be delivered to your doorstep but that will not fulfil the demand at the primary and secondary level,” he argues. There is a need for funds and investments in gamification and virtual reality to make digital content and e-learning more interesting, he opines. “Imagine a Tom and Jerry cartoon show with educational content in it,” he adds.

Amid criticism, some entrepreneurs running private educational institutions believe that the budgetary provisions will compensate for the loss that the children have suffered during the pandemic. “Students, particularly in government schools, have suffered because of the pandemic for the last two years. The 'One Class, One TV Channel' programme will provide supplementary education to children to make up for the loss of formal education due to Covid-19," says Manpreet Singh Chaddha, chairman, Genesis Global School, a private school in Delhi NCR.

Shreya Reddy, director, finance and administration, CMR University, Bengaluru, says that there is an emphasis on deeper penetration of the PM e-VIDYA scheme to reach a relatively wider populace. “With the expansion in the number of TV channels, it should now be easier for states to provide supplementary education in their respective regional language for classes 1 to 12. This is a right step towards ensuring that basic education reaches all, even in the midst of varying Covid-19 situations,” says Reddy.

“The budget has also highlighted the Union government's focus on establishing a digital university which is expected to make e-content accessible to a majority of the Indian populace through smartphones, tablets and computers. This could lead to deeper penetration of technology, especially in the tier II and tier III regions of the country where access to technology has been limited as compared to urban areas,” Reddy adds.