ASER 2020: Across states, children got uneven access to remote learning opportunities during pandemic

Editor's note: This is the first part of a three-part series on the ASER 2020 findings examine the challenges to education due to sudden closure of schools during the lockdown and its shift to the remote learning model. This part deals with children’s access to remote learning materials and activities.

Since the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic and unprecedented school closures, children’s homes have been serving as their sole learning spaces. Given that technology, specifically smartphones, computers, internet etc., essential for accessing remote learning is not within the reach of all families in the country, it was apparent early on that many children were at risk of getting left behind.

The task for governments and schools undertaking measures to set up remote teaching-learning mechanisms was to come up with both online and offline alternatives to include all children. The first lockdown was announced in the country in March 2020. By September, 23 states were known to be using three or more means (such as textbooks, worksheets, TV and radio broadcast, videos/recorded classes, live online classes) of sharing content with children. However, there was little to no evidence on the proportion of children receiving this content and how they were actually using it.

Seven months into school closures, Pratham conducted its Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) Wave 1 survey in September this year to understand the nature and extent to which children (age 5-16) and families in rural India were able to access and engage with various remote learning opportunities, the support they received and challenges faced by them.

Conducted via phone, the survey reached 59,251 children across 30 states and Union Territories.

The survey asked families whether schools had sent learning materials or activities for children during the week prior to the survey (reference week). Approximately one-third of all enrolled children received some kind of learning materials or activities nationally. A higher percentage of private school children received these as compared to government school children in the same grades.

Further, this proportion varied considerably across states. More than 80 percent children in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and Punjab received learning materials and activities as opposed to about 20 percent to 25 percent in Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Odisha, Assam, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh, and only 8 percent in Bihar.

This variation could be due to the different types of remote education programmes being conducted in the state and awareness in families about the same.

Children who received learning materials and activities got these through different mediums – WhatsApp, phone calls, and personal visits. Regardless of school type, WhatsApp was found to be the most common medium used for obtaining learning materials and activities, with 74 percent families reported using the same.

More private school children accessed material via WhatsApp as compared to government school children across states. However, in Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, and Punjab more than 90 percent children from both types of schools accessed materials via WhatsApp.

The overall high usage of WhatsApp could be supported by an enormous increase in smartphone ownership in rural households across the country from 36.5 percent (ASER 2018) to 61.8 percent (ASER 2020) over the past two years. Interestingly, this increase in smartphone ownership is seen for children enrolled in government and private schools alike, perhaps indicating that irrespective of backgrounds, more families can now leverage such resources to support children’s learning.

Correspondingly to improve access, we also note that in this pandemic year, one in 10 parents reported having purchased a mobile phone especially for helping children study, a majority of these being smartphones. Even among families who did not own smartphones, one in 10 children found the means to access one elsewhere – friends, neighbours, or community members. There is not much difference in these figures for children enrolled in government or private schools as well.

Second to WhatsApp, nationally, a quarter of children accessed learning material and activities via personal visits (that is children/parents either going to the school or the teacher visiting homes/community). This was more common among children enrolled in government schools. In Gujarat, Jammu & Kashmir, Karnataka and West Bengal more than half of government school children received materials via visits.

While for families with smartphones, WhatsApp was the most common medium used, half of those without a smartphone could also access materials via personal visits. These findings suggest that the possibility of accessing materials offline, that is through these visits, was an opportunity well utilised by many states to attempt to reach most children in these difficult times.

Distribution of printed learning materials and sharing of activities related to these were common during personal visits. Since the lockdown, government schools in many states started distributing textbooks in schools or in communities.

As a result, for Std I-XII, a very high proportion (80.5 percent) of children reported having textbooks for their current grade, and for all grades, more government school children have these as compared to private school children. In both types of schools across states, most children (60 percent) did activities using textbooks in the reference week as opposed to using online resources such as videos/recorded classes (22 percent) and live online classes (11 percent) or broadcast media such as TV (20 percent) and radio (3 percent).

During the survey, where parents reported not having received material or activities in the reference week, they were asked the reason. A total of 68 percent reported that school was not sending any material. In many states, a higher proportion of families of government school children gave this response. This evidence is key for states to review the nature and outreach of their programmes.

Further, a majority (70 percent) of households reported that children did some activity even though only a third received some materials from schools. This implies that ever more children have access to resources and possibly support at home, and these need to be leveraged to increase awareness about remote learning opportunities.

Public or private, with schools physically not reopening any time soon for all children, every effort to keep children engaged and learning would go a long way in ensuring they have some sense of normalcy in these exceptionally trying times.

For a populous country like India, to set up new mechanisms urgently and engage all stakeholders is a herculean task on any given day. Fortunately, there are states leading by example. Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, and Gujarat have shown high access and engagement data on multiple indicators in this survey, which could be a testimonial to the success of their models. Hence, it is for other states to learn from these and adapt strategies and mechanisms according to their context to ensure more children have an opportunity to learn well even outside of school.

The authors are associated with ASER Centre.



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