In India, school closures post the spread of the pandemic started as early as March 2020. As months went by, concerns increased: Would learning levels drop, existing inequalities deepen? The Annual Status of Education Report (ASER 2020 Wave 1) conducted in September 2020, focused on a nationally representative sample of rural children and their access to learning opportunities during the period when schools were still closed. State governments as well as private schools tried to provide learning materials in a variety of ways. However, not much was known about whether children were receiving this material and how they engaged with it. Moving forward, it is critical to understand what worked, and for whom. And to understand if this shift to remote learning will widen the digital divide and accentuate equity issues in learning.
It is well established that children from economically weaker backgrounds have lower learning outcomes. For instance, children from poorer households tend to have less educated parents who are unable to provide learning support like in richer households. Parents support their children’s learning in many ways — helping with homework, sending children to tutors or private schools, and spending more time with children. All these inputs contribute to the overall development of the child. Remote learning opens up another channel that widens the learning disadvantage of relatively poorer children. These children may not have access to devices like computers, tablets, smartphones etc. that are needed for remote learning and, therefore, may not be able to access the opportunities provided during the pandemic.
ASER 2020 has found that children with low parental education are less likely to have a smartphone — 45 per cent as compared to 79 per cent of children with high parental education. Such families are also more likely to send their children to government schools — 84 per cent compared to 54 per cent for children with more educated parents. Further, only 55 per cent of children with low parental education received any learning support at home compared to almost 90 per cent of children with high parental education.
What about other learning resources, like availability of textbooks and access to private tuition? Here the gap is much smaller: 28 per cent children with low parental education took private tuition compared to 33 per cent with high parental education. Similarly, there was not much difference in access to textbooks — 79 per cent versus 83 per cent. This is understandable as most state governments made a big push to get textbooks to children during the lockdown.
Other than textbooks, school systems shared a variety of learning materials during the pandemic. Overall, only about 35 per cent children reported receiving any learning material (other than textbooks) from their school in the week prior to the survey. However, only 23 per cent children with low parental education received any material as compared to 49 per cent of children with high parental education. There could be a variety of reasons for this large gap in access. First, as noted earlier, a majority of children at the lower end of the income distribution are enrolled in government schools and these schools were slightly less successful at distributing learning materials (other than textbooks) as compared to private schools — 33 per cent children in government schools reported receiving learning materials as compared to 40 per cent in private schools.
Second, while schools used a variety of ways to share material and activities such as phone messages, messenger apps, in-person visits and phone calls, 87 per cent of children received learning material via one medium, predominantly WhatsApp (72 per cent). Again, with a majority (55 per cent) of children in relatively poorer households not having a smartphone, their access to whatever learning material being distributed in this mode was limited.
Although there has been a lot of public discussion on digital modes of education for school children, online and video classes catered largely to urban or educated elite populations whose children went to private schools. Among the learning materials and resources shared by schools, the closest thing to “instruction” were online videos/classes. With limited access to digital devices, it is not surprising that less than 5 per cent of rural children with low parental education attended online classes as compared to 20 per cent of rural children with high parental education. In other words, apart from having a textbook, children whose parents had little or no education, who most likely had learning deficits to start with, were pretty much left to their own devices. In fact, 40 per cent of these children did not engage in any kind of learning activity in the reference week, as compared to 20 per cent of the children with more educated parents.
It is clear that all children will need some remediation as and when schools open. However, children from disadvantaged backgrounds, typically studying in government schools, will need more help. According to ASER 2018, the proportion of children in Class 5, with low parental education, who could read a Class 2 level text was 35 per cent as compared to 70 per cent of children with high parental education. So, not only did these children have limited access to learning materials during the school closures, they also started with a much larger learning deficit. By implication, children who had lower learning levels to start with will experience greater learning losses due to limited access to learning resources during this period. This, in turn, will lead to a widening gap between children from poorer backgrounds as compared to more well-off children.
States may use this opportunity to put in focused remedial instruction in school. ASER 2020 shows how families and communities stepped in during the pandemic. Today, parents are more educated than ever before — more than 75 per cent children have at least one parent with more than primary school education. ASER 2020 shows 75 per cent children receive some kind of help from a family member in studying at home. Also, the community can play a larger role. During the school closures, almost 70 per cent of school respondents reported getting help from a variety of community members to reach out and support children. This narrowing of distance between school, home and community is a welcome step and needs to continue even after schools reopen.
This article first appeared in the print edition on January 27, 2021 under the title ‘A widening learning gap’. The writer is head, ASER Centre