Navigating Education in 2021: From Remote Learning to Blended Learning
By Mayank Bhushan and Sudhanshu Sharma January 2021
The rise of remote learning
The school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic pushed an estimated 1.2 billion children out of brick-and-mortar classrooms across the globe. Governments, and non-government and private organizations switched to EdTech solutions to ensure that children continued to learn at home. EdTech solutions upheld teaching and learning processes for children at home making it well suited given that the circumstances necessitate social distancing. Thus, it is not surprising that EdTech companies in India witnessed a surge in users and revenues during the pandemic, and the Indian EdTech startups attracted an investment of $2.2 billion in 2020 compared to $533 million in 2019. Prolonged school closures around the world made remote learning the de-facto mode of learning for millions of students, including in India.
Access to digital infrastructure - a surmountable challenge?
The pandemic-induced move to remote learning is not without its challenges; the foremost being the issue of access to devices and internet connectivity. Access to both is unequally distributed across India with varying degrees of gaps between regions, and urban and rural areas. A study by KPMG-ICEA, finds that smartphone penetration in rural India has risen from 9 per cent in 2015 to 25 per cent in 2018. And a report from UNICEF indicates that approximately, only less than a quarter of households (24%) in India have access to the internet.
However, there are encouraging signs. ASER 2020 Wave 1 report suggests that the ownership of smartphones in rural households across the country has increased from 36.5 per cent in 2018 to 61.8 per cent in 2020. Interestingly, this increase in smartphone ownership is seen for children enrolled in government and private schools alike. Declining costs of smartphones and phone internet in India will propel this trend forward, and contribute towards closing the digital divide. Given the economic considerations, it is likely that access to remote learning solutions, especially in rural areas, will be largely through smartphones. To facilitate remote learning for students during school closures, some state governments in India have taken cognisance of the digital divide and rolled out device distributions programmes for students enrolled in government schools.
Another dimension of the access issue is the gender gap in access to digital infrastructure in India. According to GSMA’s 2020 mobile gender gap report, only 21% women in India use mobile internet. In contrast, 42% of men have access to the internet. This gendered divide is a manifestation of not only the economic barriers that girls and women face, but also social and cultural norms prevalent in the society. In recent decades, India has made great strides in closing the gender gap in school enrollments which suggests that deliberate policy interventions can go a long way in addressing gender inequities. However, a gender-sensitive policy approach to digital divide is only a part of the solution. Gender sensitization of communities is also important as cultural and social norms perpetuate the gender digital divide. This is corroborated by our analysis of data 1from Bharti Foundation where we find no significant difference between genders in access to a mobile phone for remote learning during the pandemic among the Satya Bharti school students. While this finding contrasts with the broader anecdotal evidence on gender digital divide, it is important to consider it in the context of Satya Bharti schools which run extensive community programmes on gender sensitization in the villages where they are situated.
Experience with remote learning during COVID-19: urban vs rural India
While remote learning has been the main, if not the only, means of learning for students during the pandemic, the experience of remote learning differs significantly between the urban and rural areas of India. This is primarily due to the gap in access to digital infrastructure and differences in purchasing power between urban and rural India. A report based on the NSSO’s 75th round national survey (2017-2018) finds that while fewer than 15% of rural Indian households have internet access, 42% urban Indian households can access the internet. There is also a significant gap between the rural and urban populations with regard to their ability to operate a computer and use the internet. Only 17.1% of men and 8.5% of women in rural India are able to use the internet as compared to their urban counterparts (43.5% men, 30.1% women).
Students in urban areas, especially from the middle and upper-middle class households, have access to digital infrastructure, high levels of parental engagement, and choice of quality EdTech solutions to continue learning at home. Indeed, the EdTech companies that cater to this segment like BYJU’S, Unacademy, Upgrad, Vedantu, and Toppr have seen record increases in users and revenue during the COVID-19 induced school closures.
On the contrary, what constitutes remote learning for the students in rural areas and the urban-poor is contextual and highly variable. It ranges from web-based content and apps, WhatsApp, mobile telephony (SMS, IVRS, and phone calls), television, radio, and printed learning resources (Doraiswamy et al, 2020). To be sure, the ecosystem has risen up to the challenge of providing educational content to children in rural areas to enable them to learn remotely. According to ASER Wave 2020 I report, WhatsApp was the predominant means of sharing educational content and learning activities with children in rural India. However, the extent to which students in rural areas are engaging with the content shared with them and the impact on their learning levels remain open questions (ASER, 2020).
Blended Learning is the Way Forward
The pandemic pushed the education system to overcome the barriers to adoption of EdTech solutions at scale. Remote learning demonstrated its potential in facilitating the teaching-learning process and is likely to play an important role in the post-pandemic era. As schools reopen and students return to schools, remote learning will give way to blended learning, wherein education technology will compliment the traditional classroom instruction to make the teaching-learning process more effective.
The investments made by the central and state governments in digital infrastructure, development of educational content, and upskilling teachers with EdTech training in recent past are likely to facilitate the move to blended learning in the future. Developing the capacity of stakeholders in the system, especially of teachers and parents, will also be crucial for effective adoption of EdTech in the long run. The momentum for adoption of EdTech achieved during the pandemic must be sustained. This would require realigning incentives at a systemic level, building capacity, and inducing behavior change in key stakeholders, especially teachers and parents.
 Satya Bharti Schools are run by the Bharti Foundation. In June 2020, a phone-based survey was conducted with parents of more than 38,000 students from 183 Satya Bharti schools across six states in India. The aim of the survey was to understand accessibility to technology in rural households in light of the home-based education programme that has been implemented in response to school closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic