India shares a grim pedestal with Nepal and Bolivia as the country with the second-longest school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic at a staggering 82 weeks. The justification for this measure has recently fallen out of favour with public health experts, parents and educators.
Among many is the reason that online learning has exacerbated the existing education crisis of low literacy and a high drop-out rate. This is attributed to unequal access to resources like electricity and digital devices. Though alternative education models like distance learning and open schooling have existed alongside traditional schools for decades, they have not been able to offset the gaps left by online learning during the last two years.
Under the current legal framework, the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) functions as the only National Board of Education for open schooling at the pre-university level. Under NIOS, NGOs and Institutes run affiliated centres which acquire and distribute self-learning material to enrolled students. Exams are conducted at government schools twice a year or on-demand for classes III, V, VIII, X & XII, with a liberal 9 attempts allowed in 5 years.
NIOS was set up by the Ministry of Human Resources and Development in 1989 and currently stands as the largest open schooling system in the world. Though there are multiple other ‘boards’ like the All India Council for Open Schooling which are established as educational institutions that mimic the working of a school board, they have the legal validity of a coaching centre since they are not affiliated with NIOS.
More than 5 lakh non-traditional learners depend upon NIOS for getting their recognised passing certificates that are required to get admission into higher education. This group includes the ones disproportionately affected by the pandemic: children of migrants, those living in rural areas, and women.
Thus, ‘home-schooling’ is an elusive concept in the formalised education culture of India. Parents cannot, by law, register themselves as their children’s educators. To gain any real economic value out of home-based education, children need to be enrolled under NIOS affiliated centres. As philosophies of homeschooling gain popularity amongst India’s urban middle-class, cases like that of Malvika Raj Joshi are bound to crop up. In 2016, the 17-year-old was given admission into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) after being rejected by IITs since she did not have a formal Class X or XII qualification. Malvika’s mother had pulled her out of school when she was 13 and had set up a learning environment at home. MIT based her admission and a scholarship on 3 medals at the prestigious International Informatics Olympiad.
For the urban poor and the rural children in India, access to other types of merit certifications like an International Olympiad are far from the realm of possibility. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2021, the proportion of children not enrolled in schools in rural India grew from 2.5% in 2018 to 4.6% in 2021. A survey by the Brookings Institution among children in Chennai revealed that a fifth of the children surveyed were enrolled in schools that did not offer remote learning facilities. Without access to basic schooling, external examinations remain a far-fetched luxury.
A caveat to this data is that enrollment does not imply education. A study conducted by the Azim Premji Foundation last year found that about 60% of India’s children do not have access to digital learning tools.
A natural answer to this digital divide in education could have been open learning platforms under the NIOS. Although reality treads in the other direction. According to a report by the Times of India, NIOS saw its lowest enrollment in 2021.
A possible reason for this slump maps on to the same digital divide that has plagued traditional schools. NIOS is heavily dependent on technology to deliver its learning materials in using the radio, television or online libraries. Legislation by the government like the National Education Policy, 2020, through which a virtual open learning school was constituted last year, moves towards a digitally dependent growth of NIOS.
At the beginning of the pandemic, the Central government had partnered with UNICEF to deliver remote learning material to students in lockdown via radio, TV, and internet-based learning. After two years of an ever evident lack of digital infrastructure, this line of policies has continued with Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman mentioning PM’s e-Vidya programme in her Union Budget speech to Parliament. The full potential of distance and open learning seems to be limited by the same issues that have restricted traditional schools.
Rutuparna Deshpande is a second-year student of Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Ashoka University.
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