With eminent educationists like Anurag Behar repeatedly warning us of the damage that the pandemic-enforced lockdown of schools has caused to the educational growth of children, it is critical to look at the role of digital learning, often touted as the future of education. If, as we have been led to believe, the traditional classroom model of teaching is passé and is ripe for disruption by technological interventions, the pandemic breakdown was the best opportunity to test the hypothesis.

The key challenge that the pandemic presented was, could education continue uninterrupted without the age old model of in-person classes. On the evidence of the last 18 months, the answer is a resounding no with soaring dropout rates and the complete failure of online learning merely adding to the digital divide.

The School Children’s Online and Offline Learning (SCHOOL) survey of nearly 1,400 schoolchildren in underprivileged households revealed the terrible consequences of prolonged school closure in the last year and a half with only 8 per cent of the sampled children in rural areas studying online regularly, 37 per cent not studying at all, and about half unable to read more than a few words. An earlier survey in September 2020 by Oxfam had revealed that more than 80 per cent of parents whose children studied in government schools reported that education was “not delivered” during the lockdown mostly because families did not have digital devices and access to digital mediums of education. For those in private schools, the numbers were better at 59 per cent but the impact was still alarming.

India isn’t alone in facing this looming catastrophe. A UNESCO report released at the beginning of this year stated that “one year into the COVID-19 pandemic, close to half the world’s students are still affected by partial or full school closures, and over 100 million additional children will fall below the minimum proficiency level in reading as a result of the health crisis.”

It is a damaging indictment of an education system that failed to rise to the challenge by creating new modes of teaching, more sensitive to the vast majority of households that either don’t have access to the internet or are not equipped to use it. The hype around online learning merely seems to have been an abdication of responsibility by the country’s educational establishment, leaving the field open to private companies which made a killing during this period selling expensive but mostly worthless learning modules to gullible but well-heeled parents.

Sadly, the exaggerated valuations of many such edtech firms driven by private equity and a market boom, has clouded our view of their contribution to education besides confusing their commitment to it. Most of them are anyway into supplemental education or are the equivalent of the tutorial bureaus of an earlier period. There are also companies like Coursera and Khan Academy which have been playing a more meaningful role in making high-quality education accessible to everyone. But the fact is none of it made any difference to what Behar in a recent Mint piece dubbed “a crisis which even the deaf can hear, blind can see, and the heat of which would awaken the dead.”

The exacerbation of the digital divide is one of the major downsides of online learning in a country like India as well as other underdeveloped and developing countries. Even before the pandemic struck, a report from the Center for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University in the US found that online education had failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students.