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India – In the weeks since March 25, when the coronavirus lockdown in India came into effect, strains of “Bharat Padhe Online” (India studies online) have been intensifying, with a push for a shift to virtual learning to address the disruption in schooling due to the epidemic.

However, Safeena Bano*, a domestic worker who lives in a rented room in Gurugram, said she is not aware of such a campaign. Her daughters, Firoza*, 13, and Noor*, 11, live with her in-laws in Balihara, a village in West Bengal state’s Dakshin Dinajpur district.

Safeena could not make it home before the lockdown. She rings her mother-in-law’s basic phone to chat with her daughters every evening. The girls have been bored.

“A day before the school shut down and exams got cancelled, their teachers handed over some question papers and told them to work on it at home. There has been no other communication from school,” said Safeena over the phone.

Other than promoting online content on applications such as Diksha and e-Pathshala, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development has said it is working on dissemination of lessons through radio and television. State education departments are creating their own models based on local needs.

In Delhi state, for example, there is a staggered approach. Interventions until grade 8 are not internet-based.

Since 68 percent of students in higher grades have smartphones, some online classes have begun, said Binay Bhushan of the directorate of education in the Delhi government.

But many Indian educationists are worried over a digital movement in education threatens to cut off a sizeable number of children.

Only about a third of the students will have access to any online content. It could be difficult for parents, especially in rural and marginalised communities, to understand that content, said Maharshi Vaishnav, chief of staff at Educate Girls NGO.

Although about 78 percent of India’s 1.3 billion population has mobile phones, teledensity in rural areas is around 57 percent, according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India.

“These numbers are not conducive to virtual classrooms for the majority,” said Nishant Baghel, director of technology innovations at Pratham, a learning organisation that has developed digital, radio and SMS-based programmes to be delivered via village administration in 10 Indian states.

Even in homes with a smartphone, usually owned by the father, it may not be available to the children for learning, he adds.


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