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A New Learning Curve – Nation News

Year 2020 will stand out for education across the globe and particularly for India. The Covid pandemic not only severely disrupted the education system but also forced a hurried shift to virtual learning. In India, it was also the year when the New Education Policy (NEP) was unveiled, after a gap of 34 years. The next five years will determine if the government can strategically implement NEP, in an environment where digital learning will play an increasingly important role.

The first signal to that effect will be the funds support NEP receives in the Union budget on February 1. The policy envisions radical changes in the philosophy and mode of education, the focus being on hands-on learning. The transition will require massive investment in infrastructure as well as recruitment and training of teachers.

Some reports suggest India will need an additional 200,000 schools, 35,000 colleges and 700 universities to bridge the demand-supply gap. This even as existing institutions are functioning below potential, crippled among other reasons by a manpower crisis. As on September 1, 2020, 42 central universities had 6,210 posts of teachers vacant. In Kendriya Vidyalayas, 5,949 of the 48,236 teaching posts were vacant, as reported in November 2019.

Graphic by Asit Roy; Illustration by Siddhant Jumde

The pandemic has dealt a body blow to the education sector. Some 1.5 million schools shut down, affecting 286 million children from pre-primary to secondary levels. Another 6 million students had already dropped out before Covid struck. A World Bank report says India may lose $440 billion (Rs 32.1 lakh crore) due to the disruption to education.

To successfully roll out NEP and revive the education sector, the Centre and states must raise spending on education to at least 6 per cent of GDP, from around 3 per cent currently. At Rs 7.3 lakh crore, India is one of the biggest education markets, with 500 million in the 5-24 age group. A KPMG and Google pre-Covid study estimated that the online education market in India was set to grow to $1.96 billion (approx. Rs 14,309 crore) and have 9.6 million users by 2021. In 2016, it was $247 million (Rs 1,803 crore), with 1.6 million users. Another report says the online education market will grow from Rs 3,900 crore currently to Rs 36,030 crore by 2024.

The Covid lockdown has propelled edtech. India is now the second biggest market for Massive Open Online Courses, after the US. Its edtech market is expected to grow to Rs 25,570 crore by 2022. Between January and August 2020, venture capitalists invested Rs 8,694 crore across 36 deals in edtech, as against Rs 2,988 crore across 43 deals in the corresponding period in 2019.

On the flip side, the digital divide hampers virtual education and increases the challenge of taking education to every economic strata. A recent report by global education network Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) says India’s internet infrastructure is far from ready to support a shift to online learning. Only 24 per cent of urban households have internet access, says a 2019 government survey. In rural India, it’s only 4 per cent.

A 2018 NITI Aayog report revealed that 55,000 villages did not have mobile network while a survey by the Union rural development ministry in 2017-18 found 36 per cent of schools operating without electricity. Tech-driven education is preventing many underprivileged children from continuing with school education. The Union government is banking heavily on the BharatNet project to bring broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats. This, it is hoped, will aid online education in the rural areas. Indeed, the coming five years could lay the foundation of India’s knowledge economy for the next several decades. It’s a make or break moment.

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