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Can Education In India Go Online If Most Girls Are Left Behind?

This post is a part of Back To School, a global movement to ensure that access to education for girls in India does not suffer post COVID-19. Click here to find out more.

Didi, my studies have stopped because of school closure. I want to study more, especially the difficult subjects like Math and Science. Please help me with that. I want to be prepared for the next class when school reopens. (Girl 1)

Didi, this is my papa’s number, please don’t call on this number again, my father does not allow us to use the phone. He will get very angry. (Girl 2)

Unreached – no phone number (Girl 3).

The near-universal response to the Covid-crisis in education has been shutting down of schools and moving towards online education. In India, since the Central Government placed the entire nation on a strict lockdown since 23rd March 2020, all schools and colleges have been closed. Even while some restrictions have been lifted, most schools and colleges have remained shut, and the schools are increasingly depending on online education to engage their students.

The central and state governments have promoted various online platforms (such as Diksha or e-Pathshala) to teach children, and in states like Bihar, teachers have been asked to continue their teaching through WhatsApp. It has been largely assumed that for the foreseeable future, this mode of teaching is an effective substitute for in-person teaching and learning.

A Smooth Transition?

classroom teaching in school and online teaching at home
Image for representational purposes only.

This stance can be contested on many grounds. To assume that the materials taught interactively and through teacher engagement can be transitioned smoothly to an online platform is an erroneous assumption. Often, the role of the absent teacher has been thrust (willingly or unwillingly) onto other caregivers, primarily mothers.

The State, by advocating for online education, has shifted their burden of educating children onto already overworked members of the household. Apart from these deeply troubling problems associated with online education, the basic question that one has to ask is this: is online education equitable?

What We Found

Our understanding, based on a rapid telephonic survey of 733 households in rural, peri-urban and urban Bihar, tells us that it is most definitely not. The Centre for Budget and Policy Studies has been working with ten government schools in Patna and Muzaffarpur (Bihar), and we wanted to devise opportunities to interact with the children (from class 7 and class 8) with whom we are working.

While conducting the survey, we realised three primary things:

  1. The spread of technology to the rural masses has been overstated.
  2. Gender continues to have a strong impact on access to technology (and thereby, online education).
  3. Technology cannot address fundamental inequities in gender roles within the household.

From our survey, we were easily able to establish that: (1) about half of the population that we tried to reach did not have phones, and (2) about 70% of those who did, did not have smartphones. Even for those who did have smartphones, many were not able to afford the internet recharge packs, as other priorities like food security became more critical.

In the urban areas of Patna and rural regions in Muzaffarpur, 75% of the households that we spoke with were living in impoverished conditions with limited assets and space. Even if by some happy chance, the child within the household was able to access online education, they would not have anyone guiding them through the process. About 26% of fathers and 40% of mothers in our sample had never accessed any form of education themselves.

The rest of the parents had barely gone past elementary education. Moreover, because of the limited resources of the family, at least 30% of the households had one migrating household member. This indicates both the precarious economic nature of the household, as well as the absence of supportive members in the household—both of which are not always factored into the design for modules for online education.

A Gendered Outlook

online education
Image for representational purposes only.

Even if one can cross this primary hurdle of having resources to afford a phone or a smartphone, we then have to address the primary role that gender plays in accessing the medium of online education. In our government schools and in our survey, we primarily interacted with 65% of girls and 35% boys.

The skewed nature of the representation is because when families can afford private schools, they often send their boys, but not their girls. In this very gendered context, we also wanted to know about accessibility and not just availability. What we found was a confirmation of what the literature tells us: girls have limited or no access to technology.

Let’s take a closer look at the previously mentioned numbers. Out of the 733 households surveyed, we could only reach about 50% of the students through phones. Twenty-eight percent did not have a phone, and 21% were not reachable or responsive.

Two percent of the parents did not allow us to talk to the students. It should come as no surprise to anyone that the majority of this 2% who did not want us to talk to their children were parents of girls. Of the girls whom we were able to reach (44% of the number of girls in our sample), only 29% had smartphones, and all of these phones belonged to a male member of the household. But this is only half the picture. ‘Access’ is not necessarily access to a device; it is also the freedom to talk and to engage over the phone.

Many of the girls we spoke to—who are usually quite forceful in class—were timid and shy over the phone, lowering their voices to almost hushed tones. Their conversations were also heavily monitored, and often, conversations would be interrupted or cut short by a member of the household who needed the phone.

But it is not only phones that girls do not have access to. From our study, we can assert that girls appear to have restricted access to any kind of shared technological device, even if it is a TV. A young girl in the household has very limited decision-making power in terms of viewing a programme.

So, even if the Bihar government telecasts a show based on the Bihar Board curriculum from 9 am to 10 am on DD1 (a free channel), it doesn’t mean girls can watch it if other family members have more say in who changes the channel.

Labour In Homes

Image for representational purposes only.

Another reason girls might not be able to watch these TV shows or access online material is because of the work that they have to do within the household. This is often defined as their work. Most of the girls reported that they spent most of their time helping out with household chores such as cooking, cleaning, and washing, while the boys told us that they spent most of their time playing with their friends in the neighbourhood.

So, when programmes air at 9:00 am, girls may be quite busy with care work. When girls had leisure time, they were allowed to talk to their friends, but not on the phone. Some of the girls also hinted that they were not allowed to step outside their homes. In some cases, girls also hinted that conversations regarding their marriage had started, and that they are likely to be married soon.

Going back to education (online or otherwise) was not a reasonable expectation for some of the girls in our study. Drop-outs of both girls and boys and early marriage for girls is the most likely outcome for the most marginalised populations in our country, and that is not a problem easily fixed by any form of technology.

In fact, it is not possible to engage with online education unless one takes into consideration the structural barriers of poverty and gender. Online education, of course, can bridge the gap for certain kinds of families and certain modes of education.

However, it cannot be seen as a universal panacea for all that ails our current education systems. Instead, we must focus on experimenting with other forms of distance education, such as postcards, traveling libraries, and other forms of social support that can bridge this gaping educational divide.

It is undisputed that learning must continue under all circumstances, and that every child must have the opportunity and the space to learn during this difficult time, but the emphasis should be every child. It is clear to us that for Girl 1, Girl 2, and Girl 3 (quoted above), the medicine of online education will not come close to cure what ails them.

Featured image for representation only via Flickr/Chandni Dua.
You must be to comment.
  1. tanwi

    I feel tears in my eyes to read this .. government have to do for them … This is a big issue … They are our feature ….

  2. Anmona Handique

    Access of education to girls have always been a disputed issue in rural India. But now with alarming covid cases, this just seems to be a hard nut to crack for both boys and girls of the rural India. It is really heartwrenching to know the truth reading this good piece.
    But the question is what is the solution in lieu of imparting online education in whole of India uniformly? It is not possible for the parents to afford smart phones or having internet connections, or making fat recharges all of a sudden and make it a part of their life. It is not possible for the teachers and it is wrong for the teachers who are imparting education to children only who are having access to internet and abled to afford for online education. Can they compensate the losses who are not able to study online so far or after? So, what is the solution? When these reads will be reached in the eyes of the Government? Can there be a forever solution?


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