How much can a four-year-old really learn from a smartphone?

Sukanta Chaudhuri writes: For children in primary school, ‘digital education’ does not work. Their learning deficit must be urgently addressed to ensure literacy goals are not set back by a generation

A primary school teacher in rural Bengal phones “her children” regularly during the lockdown. The other day, she was greeted by a wail: “Didimoni, I’ve forgotten what you look like!” (The child does not have a videophone.) Another child stands to attention every morning and sings the national anthem, as they did at the start of school.

Like amputees nursing phantom limbs, these children cling to make-believe relics of the school life they have lost. For many, the loss is irreversible. A forecast last year predicted that 20 per cent of girl students would permanently abandon school. The second Covid wave will have increased the rate. Boys may fare a little better: Today, they are often their family’s sole or chief breadwinner.

We know the digital divide has had grotesque consequences for education during the pandemic. The dubious cut-off for digital empowerment is a smartphone. Inadequate at all levels, how much can it benefit the very young? The everyday miracle of teaching them the three Rs involves a group experience melding audition, expression and physical activity. Can they read, write and count, or sing, draw and play, sitting alone or with a tense parent before a four-inch screen?

Affluent educated parents might ensure an oppressive but reasonably effective digital regime for their offspring. For those without such means, every teacher I know holds that online teaching achieves little or nothing at the primary level.

The NCERT’s guidelines for the lockdown take heed of children with no digital devices. This concession is marred by the unreal nature of the advice, prescribing additional training for teachers; individual attention to each student and parent without regard to time, student numbers or restrictions on movement during lockdown; and an airy assumption of the resources in every home, like “newspapers, food packets [and] TV programmes”, whereby a Class I student “can be easily taught… All that will be needed is guidance to the parents”. Teachers in slums and remote villages, with poorly-educated parents pauperised by the lockdown, may react with scepticism.

Among migrant workers’ children, 46.2 per cent were out of school by July 2020. The Education Ministry has a three-page guideline for their rehabilitation — sensible in abstract terms but, again, unmindful of ground realities. It enjoins a database of children who have left the state. It skirts the practical problems of their enrolment in other states, involving a change of environment and, perhaps, of language. Such pious injunctions mean nothing without detailed planning, transfer of funds and active coordination with the states — all pending a year down the line.

The states, necessarily operating closer to the ground, have adopted two major strategies for offline instruction. By one, teaching material is distributed and worksheets collected for review. Parents might play a part, but success depends on the teacher’s monitoring. Hence the second recourse: So-called “lockdown schools”, where small groups of children meet their teacher, hopefully observing Covid protocols, usually elsewhere than at school. Karnataka has formalised the arrangement. States like West Bengal have lent their blessings though not their formal imprimatur. Such endeavours work best in villages, which have more open spaces and better community support; but they reach only a minority of children.

Two other agenda seem crucial. First, whenever schools reopen, to bring back the dropouts. The Uttar Pradesh government proposes to track all students disappearing between Classes VIII and IX. However daunting in scale, the exercise needs extending to all classes in all states, especially the very young, who might otherwise be consigned to illiteracy for life.

The second task is to plug the huge learning deficit — an unprecedented pedagogic exercise, light years removed from customary remedial teaching. It calls for detailed yet open-ended planning, adjustable to the unfolding Covid scenario. That planning needs to start right now, not as an afterthought on reopening.

This raft of measures, current and future, demands much more manpower than the regular corps of teachers can provide. Given the scale and urgency of the need, it might be undertaken in mission mode. This is often interpreted as a licence to reduce funds and dilute responsibility. In this case, we do so at the national peril.

The government has fallen curiously silent over the much-vaunted new National Education Policy (NEP). Its most striking innovation was to merge anganwadis and primary schools in an integrated programme of “early childhood care and education”. Yet the school education budget was slashed this year by Rs 5,000 crore, and the Saksham scheme that includes anganwadis by nearly Rs 4,500 crore. Increased spending under the latter head is desperately needed to arrest the decline in nutrition and child growth evident for years and grossly aggravated by the pandemic. The urgency is obvious. The five-year-old deprived of supplementary nourishment is weakened for life. If she does not learn her letters today, she is unlikely to do so at 10.

The lockdown could have had a silver lining if, during the closure, the infrastructure of anganwadis and primary schools had been upgraded as required by the NEP. We are talking about improvements so modest that a few lakhs per centre would work a transformation. The process would have generated employment across the country and encouraged the manufacture of materials.

The Central Vista project is being hustled through on the same grounds of urgency, essential need, employment generation and national pride. Arguably, a minimal education for all India’s children is essential at the more basic level of national self-respect. The expanded Parliament will not sit till 2026. By then, my hypothetical five-year-old will be 10, probably beyond the reach of remedy.

We betrayed our founding fathers by failing to ensure free and compulsory education by 1960. Our literacy rate has crept up to 78 per cent, and we were about to reach full enrolment in Class I, whatever the subsequent drop-out rate. By the hundredth year of Independence, we may have worked our way to almost total literacy.

A spike in drop-outs and illiteracy today would put even this pitiful goal in jeopardy. Let not our children recall the 75th anniversary of Independence as a year of shame.

This column first appeared in the print edition on June 30, 2021 under the title ‘A four-inch screen, work & play’. The writer is Professor Emeritus, Department of English, Jadavpur University

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