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Challenges of online education for underprivileged students.

It is getting dark. Malti didi, a homemaker, anxiously waits for her husband to return home. As soon as her husband arrives, she almost snatches his mobile phone and sits down with her nine-year-old daughter Piya to check any messages from her school. She opens a mobile app given to her by the school and struggles to make sense of the "Today's Homework" section. Amidst internet issues and continuous cries from her infant son, Malti asks Piya to draw the diagram (it's a human digestive system) she can see on the phone. Piya has a knack for drawing, so she diligently copies what she can see without understanding anything. Malti didi gets busy preparing dinner for the family while Piya struggles to submit her work. Piya hangs around with her dad and browses some videos from Chu-Chu TV (a highly subscribed youtube channel) to appease her younger brother. As our team tries to interact with Piya about what she learned today, it's time for her dad to leave with the phone. He must hit the road before peak hours for food delivery. While Malti dodged a bullet for today, she knows that the quality of her studies is not excellent. We gathered that she is unsure but knows something has to be improved. However, she decides to fight that battle another day.

This is the story of thousands, if not lakhs, of families nationwide from urban, low-income communities. Primary schools have been shut for more than 600+ days and continue to be so. Children are paying the highest price for this. Multiple studies have shown that children lose numerous years of learning due to school closures and inadequate online learning mechanisms. A survey by the prestigious Azim Premji University demonstrated that in a year, 9 out of 10 children lost at least one specific Language ability, and 8 out of 10 children lost at least one specific Mathematics ability across grades 2 to 6. Online Education seems to be working only for a privileged few, as children from low-income families struggle to benefit from it. The two biggest challenges children face - low accessibility and poor engagement.

Malti Didi's case shows that most families can access smartphones, but these devices are shared. The father takes the mobile phone with him, and it is available to children only for a limited period during the mornings and evenings. If the mother owns an extra device at home, internet accessibility remains an issue. Online video classes use 800 MB - 2GB of data per hour. The internet plans that families in low-income communities subscribe to allow a maximum of 1GB of data per day! Expecting children to attend 3-4 hour-long classes is almost impossible. Another area for improvement with the devices is that they are entry-level smartphones. The schools, which shifted to online media, hastily put together inefficient mobile apps that take up massive memory in these phones. Phones often crash down, frustrating children when they struggle to attend classes and complete homework. An issue coupled with accessibility is the lack of support for mothers who suddenly had to switch to online education. Mothers often face technical or personal problems at home and need help to keep up with the school's online instructions. In these circumstances, they have no one to turn to. No support system can encourage mothers to continue playing their crucial role in a child's education.

However, something more than a good phone, a stable internet connection, and an involved mother is needed to solve the issue of abysmal online education. Most online programs need to improve their engagement numbers. It is hard for children to continue to be motivated in an online setting. Most online solutions have turned children into passive information consumers rather than engaged users. Students are watching videos or listening to their teachers while being on mute. Leave aside the socio-emotional learning that children derive from a classroom setting; there is no time for the child to interact with peers, solve doubts together or practice meaningfully on concepts learned during the class.

Moreover, mothers, especially from low-income families, struggle with understanding their children's progress. Most of these women are semi-literate, and their success metric is the number of hours the child spends in school/tuition or online class. Mothers think that the child is learning if the child sits in front of the mobile. There is no way for a mother to gauge whether a child is progressing apart from the end-of-year report card (in the case of government schools, even the end-of-year report card only reveals a little as all children pass on to the next class).

The challenges mentioned above are just surface-level. Once we can create solutions that can work around accessibility issues and garner better engagement from children, we should focus on the learning impact of these solutions. COVID-19 waves will continue to oscillate between peaks and troughs. We cannot put the future of children on hold. Solving for accessibility and engagement should be our topmost priority for working with children from underprivileged communities, followed by ensuring meaningful learning impact for our children.

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