If there was any good that came of the global pandemic, the digital turn towards online education would certainly be a contender. And even as the pandemic recedes, the virtue that the necessity bred now seems all set to stay. Even as students across the country return to brick and mortar schools, the classroom’s virtual avatar is not likely to vanish into the ether. Hence the serious consideration of the hybrid model, which offers the best of both the worlds—the socio-emotional bonding of a physical classroom, and broader access to education through the online medium.

If there was any good that came of the global pandemic, the digital turn towards online education would certainly be a contender. And even as the pandemic recedes, the virtue that the necessity bred now seems all set to stay. Even as students across the country return to brick and mortar schools, the classroom’s virtual avatar is not likely to vanish into the ether. Hence the serious consideration of the hybrid model, which offers the best of both the worlds—the socio-emotional bonding of a physical classroom, and broader access to education through the online medium.

Cognisant of the need for access, equity and quality, the government launched its PM e-Vidya programme in 2020 to take the classroom to the student if they couldn’t come to the classroom. With schools reopening now, rather than suspending the initiative, the Union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her budget speech on February 1, announced that the government will expand its ‘One Class, One TV programme’ from 12 to 200 channels to “impart supplementary teaching and build a resilient mechanism for education delivery”. It was the first official acknowledgement of the fact that the country’s children had lost almost two years of formal education, particularly in government schools and rural areas, and needed to be compensated for that loss.

“High quality e-content in all spoken languages will be developed for delivery via internet, mobile phones, TV and through radio and digital teachers,” the finance minister announced. “A competitive mechanism for development of quality e-content by the teachers will be set up to empower and equip them with digital tools of teaching and facilitate better learning outcomes.” Simultaneously, Sitharaman announced the setting up of virtual labs and skilling e-labs to encourage critical thinking and stimulate the learning environment. To address the issue of seat shortages, a digital university with world-class universal education has been mooted.

Launched as part of the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat programme in May 2020, PM e-Vidya sought to unify all efforts in digital/ online/ on-air education to allow what is called “coherent multi-mode access” to education. Comprising several components (see Decoding PM e-Vidya) such as Diksha, Nishtha, Swayam, Swayam Prabha TV, Mukta Vidya Vani, Shiksha Vani, IITPAL and E-Abhyas, the programme intends to cover the entire gamut of school education, disseminated through diverse media.

Apart from the online portals, an important component of the PM e-Vidya programme is the 12 DTH channels under Swayam Prabha TV, which are meant to support and reach students who don’t have access to the internet. Classified as a “one class-one TV channel” initiative, it provides curriculum-based course content for students studying under the CBSE curriculum and the National Institute of Open Schooling. It is telecast in partnership with DD Free Dish, TATA Play, DISH TV, Airtel and Jio TV mobile App on a 24 x 7 basis. Till mid-February, 1,502 live interactive sessions of 30 minutes each have been telecast for Classes 1 to 10, covering about 751 hours. For Classes 11 and 12, 149 live interactive sessions of 60 minutes each have been telecast in the same period, covering 149 hours overall.

Several educationists have hailed the government’s announcement to increase the channels from 12 to 200. Sonali Jain, co-chair of the Education Committee in PHDCCI, believes that these provisions of supplementary education, emphasis on critical thinking and methodical approach will prepare students for a seamless transition from learning to practical experience. Others say the new channels will bridge India’s digital divide and improve overall learning outcomes for students. “A stable internet is a persistent impediment that students from rural areas face,” says Silpi Sahoo, chairperson, SAI International Education Group, Odisha. “This is where the expansion of channels will come to the rescue as most rural sections will now have access to basic study material class-wise through a DTH service on their TVs and that too in their regional languages for better understanding.” A 2021 national sample survey published last year by ICRIER and LIRNEAsia, a think-tank focused on digital policy, alerted us to the fact that only 20 per cent of school-age children in India had access to remote education opportunities during the pandemic, of whom only half participated in live online classes. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation in 2020 reached a similar conclusion when it discovered that almost 60 per cent of the school children in India could not access online learning opportunities. Another study by Oxfam found that even among students in urban private schools, half the parents reported issues with internet signal and speed. A third struggled with the cost of mobile data.

Government data too corroborated the poor state of virtual education in government schools. Under the Information and Communications Technology (ICT) component of the centrally-sponsored Samagra Shiksha scheme, states are given funds for ICT Labs and digital classrooms. As per UDISE (Unified District Information System for Education) data for 2019-20, only 119,581 sch­ools in India had internet facility and there were 65,356 ICT Labs and 29,178 digital classrooms across all government schools. The central government approved the construction of 14,868 ICT labs and 58,534 classrooms the next year. Yet, the total number of labs and digital classrooms is not even 10 per cent of the number of government schools in India—1,116,932.

Not all experts, though, are convin­ced about these channels compensating for the “learning loss” on account of closure of physical classrooms. ‘With the huge digital divide and resource- and gadget-deficient families in India, we need more schools and higher education institutes on the ground than in the cyber-space,’ read a statement by the Academics for Action and Development (AAD), a group of Delhi University teachers. Epidemiologist and public policy specialist Chandrakant Lahariya believes “setting up TV channels cannot undo the adverse impact of the past two years”. Others claim that the government may have ensured delivery of content through these TV channels but it cannot stand in for a teacher to “actually teach” and respond to real-time queries even if education ministry officials maintain that experts conduct live interactive sessions on Skype on these channels.

The government’s budgetary priorities do not inspire much hope either. Not only has budgetary allocation for PM e-Vidya been meagre since its inception, it has also seen a massive drop this year—from Rs 50 crore in 2021-22 to just Rs 0.1 crore this year. In fact, the budgetary allocation for the entire digital e-learning programme has gone down Rs 645.61 crore in the yesteryear to Rs 421 crore this year. There is no specific allocation for the digital university in the budget. Professor Tarun Jain of Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad has termed the investment “minuscule” against the tremendous learning loss. Sumeet Mehta, co-founder and CEO of LEAD School, also feels budgetary allocation should not promote virtual learning over physical schooling.

Not just online learning, budgetary support has lagged behind the reformist intent of the New Education Policy in 2020. On paper, there has been a 31 per cent hike in allocation to education in the past five years. But the actual expenditure has not increased much (see Where is the Money for Education?). In fact, budgetary allocation saw a drop in the very next year of the NEP’s launch—from Rs 99,311.52 crore to Rs 93,224.31 crore. This year, the government has allocated Rs 1.04 lakh crore to education.

Top education ministry officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, admit that the government was aware of the need to hike the budgetary allocation, but blame the current low allocation to poor utilisation of funds by states. Education is a state subject and state governments implement the cen­trally-funded schemes. “Funds are allocated in the budget by considering past utilisation of funds,” says an education ministry official. “Several states failed to utilise the funds sanctioned to them.”

Amid a growing clamour for raising the allocation for education to 6 per cent of GDP from the current 2 per cent, the actual expenditure has been lower than the budgetary allocation since 2018-19. Several states have not even utilised the sanctioned funds. Depending on a state’s requirement, the education ministry provides Rs 6.4 lakh for setting up an ICT lab and Rs 2.4 lakh for digital classroom. In 2021-22, of the Rs 956.8 crore sanctioned for digital classrooms, the states spent only Rs 9.8 crore. Barring Nagaland, Rajasthan and Sikkim, no state spent a single penny on digital classrooms. In their defence, the state governments claim that with schools shut during the pandemic, expenditure on digital or physical infrastructure came to a halt.

The blame game apart, both the central and state governments need to concentrate their energies on building a holistic model to help students learn and experience what they have missed in the two years sacrificed to the pandemic. As author and educationist Meeta Sengupta says, PM e-Vidya could be an education safety net offering a multilingual and multilocation supplementary learning system, but its success will depend on its inclusion and expanse. For that to happen, the Centre and the states must collaborate with not just enough funds but a plan for execution too.

—with Shelly Anand decoding PM e-Vidya



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