In a crisis, it is acceptable to have more questions than answers. There is no room for not being invented here. These are the times when one should be both a learner and an educator. SARS Covid-19 is one such crisis. It is known to be the flu of the century. Just like its predecessors: Spanish Plague, Bubonic plague, Smallpox, Covid-19 will go down deep in history. It is an unwanted enemy which engulfed millions in its inferno. The surviving will live in the guilt of survival, the dead will be remembered for passing away helplessly and the sufferers will remember the difficult time they went through. Negatively impacting not only the economy, but it also affected people of all walks of life. Talking about people, we cannot forget to mention our kids. They are the future, the formative backbone, and carrier of the society as a whole.
Covid-19 has affected the future of millions of kids causing lifelong destruction. A UNICEF report on 2020 has estimated that millions of school goers have been affected by the virus, more so in the second wave. In India only, approximately 300 million school-going kids and around 40 million students taking courses in specialization have been affected. India went under its first complete national lockdown on the 25th of March 2020 which extended for 3 weeks. The economy slowly began to open after 1st May with schemes for the poor and displaced, incentives for industries, de-regularized rates for banks, and opening of e-commerce businesses to get the national economy on track. What left behind were the future assets of our nation. Our kids, school going, college-going, whether in hostels or studying from home. The system had no idea how education will be managed, exams will be conducted, students will be taught and learning would go on. The first wave forced around 1.5 million schools to shut down disturbing the routine of around 300 million school goers. The graduation, post- graduation, and further specialized courses offering 1000 universities, 40000 colleges having more than 40 million scholars were forced to leave their classrooms and seek learning from distance.
The first 14-21 days were rough for these institutions. India, being a developing country, lacks an online education system. Slowly and steadily, education switched over from analog to digital mode. Kids who carried pens, notebooks, and were advised to minimize their screen time are now forced to get hooked to smartphones, computers, and laptops. The rise was more in urban and suburban areas, but rural and urban poor still struggled to come to terms with the new way of education. The time of pandemic lockdown deprived the students of farewells, exams, results, new sessions, friends, and a lot more. But none of the efforts or help can account for the mental and psychological impact on these young minds.
The slowdown of cases after the first wave brought hope for institutions to start again from the beginning. Kids are now used to the online education system, which bloomed and was the only ray of hope for learning. Two months before the second wave took over, being more fatal and affecting the younger generation, forced them to shut down, and all exams were canceled or postponed indefinitely. It was a double blow to the students and their education. Apart from a few glitches, schools, colleges, teachers as well as students were better equipped to handle the situation this time. But no online education, presentations, and submission of word assignments can match the one-to-one learning. The second wave added to the initial woes of India. Just 38% of students had an interrupted internet, power and all facilities available during the first wave. The second wave saw a marginal rise but a great number of dropouts, the maximum being females. The negative impact of the online system was more prevalent in the second wave than the first. Mental health, loss of loved ones, lack of concentration, understanding, and retention decreased further. The uncertain future, lingering questions over exams and mental health deteriorated. Even after experts suggested the opening of schools and colleges in a phased manner with proper protocols and heightened alertness, the government and rural schools are not well- equipped to manage the situation. Schools have kids and their tutors in clusters. Even a single positive case could spread to the whole school. The silver lining here was the future readiness of some schools and universities. The incoming second wave warning was given way back in February and its landfall was in mid-April. There was better preparedness, more answers than the previous year, and students anticipated this. The government and health agencies have warned of the third wave if people didn’t listen and children are more susceptible to getting infected this time. Our learning from the first wave, its implementation in the second, and a forward-looking approach towards the third wave can have a huge impact on online learning and distance education.
Picking up pieces from where offline education paused and, online learning and distance education became the new reality, we need to adopt and adapt. It’s time we initiate, innovate, and invest in the new way of learning. The task maker here becomes the policymakers. New Education Policy 2020 mentions promoting online education and module learning. Our annual budget assigns a mere 3-3.5% of GDP towards the Human Resources development sector. Though a slight increase from 2.8% is there, an ideal of 6% and more should be allocated. From this, the majority can be used to develop the government-run schools into digitally operating organizations ideal for e-learning. Public-Private partnerships in the field of education can help schools as well as universities to adopt the online way of learning and help in deep penetration in rural areas.
The teaching staff needs to be trained and well equipped to be able to adapt to the new environment. Financial assistance and digital network incentives need to be given to people unable to fully access the online education system, especially girls whose dropout rate has increased manifold due to financial limitations. One-to-one counseling sessions on mental health and engaging activities should become an important part of the curriculum. Ward toward awareness campaigns on the digital mode of instruction and consciousness about e-learning programs should be undertaken. The digital divide needs to be reduced. E-learning giants can establish partnerships with the town, city, and state governments to help in percolating digital education methods. Distance learning programs should be made equivalent to full-time degrees instead of diplomas and part-time. Technical and medical distance learning can be made full-time online too, with collaboration with nearest universities, hospitals, and technical work centers for hands-on learning as well. The gist comes out to be the huge positive impact online mode of education and digital learning can have if it is used to its full potential.
SARS Covid-19 is one such virus of SARS strain that has caused trillions of losses in the world, in terms of man as well as money. Students are the front runners of the world. Making them feel that the world hasn’t stopped and learning opportunities are ample should be our main priority. Online education and distance learning used constructively can help them feel inclusive like the pre-Covid times. Thus, the digitalization of education, in every part of our society can be a huge boon when used and utilized properly. As rightfully said by Heidi Hayes Jacobs, “Online learning training developers need to integrate technology seamlessly into the curriculum instead of viewing it as an add-on, an after-thought, or an event.”