Published: 30th December 2021
The Rural Conundrum: The struggle to take online education from India to Bharat
The commodification of education is not the only hurdle. The twin, interconnected issues of access and availability also play a major role in the lower adoption of online learning in rural areas
When the education sector in India was disrupted by the pandemic, its online learning space reaped dividends. Funding flowed into EdTech start-ups, enrollment in online programs soared, education became more accessible and quality-oriented. The only problem? This development was limited to the upper quarters of the socio-economic stratum.
For a major portion of India's population, the state of online learning has barely changed. Education is costlier, more exclusive and more niche than ever before — and the numbers tell a damning story. Online learning was aimed at solving the affordability, accessibility and availability conundrum for less-privileged learners, who often also lack access to high-quality educational infrastructure.
A Promise Unfulfilled
The commodification of education is not the only hurdle. The twin, interconnected issues of access and availability also play a major role in the lower adoption of online learning in rural areas, where most students do not have access to either the high-speed internet connectivity needed to access online learning or the digital devices with which to do so. UNICEF estimates that fewer than 1 in 10 students in India have access to the internet – the second-lowest in the Southeast Asia region, above only Afghanistan. On-ground data support this assertion — in August 2021, only 8% of rural students in India were found to have regularly attended online classes. It does not help that most educational content available online is not in the native vernacular used by the learners. Most rural students in India are neither fluent in nor familiar with English, the language of choice for a majority of online learning platforms while their competency in Hindi, the most commonly used ‘Indian’ language, also cannot be taken as a given. Not only does this raise a major barrier to the adoption of online learning in rural India but also impacts the quality of education delivered.
Then there is the matter of perception. In a country where less than 50% of households own a digital device and almost 75% don’t have access to the internet, many parents, students and educators are extremely skeptical of online learning, which they consider to be less effective than offline learning. This skepticism is deeper in rural India where, in a 2015 study by the Socio-Economic Caste Census (SECC), 75% of the population sustained itself at less than INR 33 per day. The adoption of online learning in semi-urban and rural regions across India is much lower than in the urban and Tier-I markets in part also due to a lack of motivation. Low-income-group households see no point in facilitating online learning for their children in the absence of incentives such as mid-day meals.
Last, but not least, the quality of any service or product is somewhat associated with its costs. The more it costs, we seem to think the more desirable and valuable it is. This is why, even as business models providing low-cost loans for online courses gain traction, freely available quality educational content is often overlooked. Consequently, fewer students are proactively accessing free educational material to complement their in-class learning experience, eschewing even lectures from tutors hailing from distinguished academic institutions in favour of costlier alternatives.
Why online education must be freed from its shackles
With an estimated 146 days of school shutdowns since the outbreak, students in semi-urban and rural areas, already lagging behind their urban peers in terms of the quality of education and access to learning tools and opportunities, have fallen even further behind.
To stakeholders in the Indian education landscape, it becomes clear that this situation must change — and soon. It must begin with a review of the BharatNet initiative to ensure that high-speed internet is available and accessible in all parts of the country. Private telecom operators can also be incentivised to bolster the connectivity infrastructure in underserved regions.
It would also help to encourage the participation of corporate players in the online education space. For instance, the government can direct organisations to route a percentage of their CSR spending towards online learning initiatives amongst students hailing from rural and/or underprivileged backgrounds or to provide them with the digital devices they would need to access online learning resources.
Public and private schools, on their part, can adopt free-to-use online tools for teachers to improve the quality and efficacy of education delivered and aid the transition to a digitally-enabled education framework. Government bodies across all levels – national, state or local – can also mandate the inclusion of trusted and free online learning platforms and tools, such as NPTEL or Khan Academy, to complement the academic curricula and classroom-based pedagogy. Awareness campaigns for parents, learners, and educators in rural areas will also be needed to drive the adoption and acceptance of online learning in these regions.
A major knock-on benefit of the shift to online education is the advantage of tech-enabled pedagogy. Till now, teachers have been heroic in their attempts to meet the requirements of the students in their classroom of 30 or more. However, it is challenging for even the most passionate teacher to look after the needs of every student in the classroom. The result? Students are forced to learn at the pace decided by the teacher in view of the classroom average, which leads them to accumulate gaps in their learning journeys. This is where AI and machine learning-driven algorithms that power online learning platforms can step in to enable teachers to provide more personalised and effective learning in their classrooms. More focused interventions from teachers can help students to master the subjects they are studying by enabling them to understand concepts better and engage with ideas more effectively. This will unlock a paradigm shift away from the fixed lockstep model of learning towards mastery-based instruction and practice.
Dr Martin Luther King, Jr, once said: To go forward, we must look back. And it is of prime importance to look back at the problems that have hindered the adoption of online learning in rural India. After all, until we do so, we cannot break online learning out of its current limitations to which it is currently confined and fulfil the constitutional promise of the right to education by making it more accessible, available and affordable.
Sandeep Bapna, Managing Director, Khan Academy India