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BY: Muneeb Afzal

Joshua Lederberg, a Nobel laureate once said that the single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on earth is virus. This is remarkable given the severity of the challenge of coronavirus and the impact it had on our lives.  The outbreak of the virus and the subsequent lockdown brought our lives to a standstill. It is hard to think of any aspect of our life that remains unaffected. Everything has come to a halt ranging from economy to sports activities and from festivals to tourism. Education sector has also suffered a lot due to the ongoing health crisis. Proper functioning of education is preconditioned by the proper harmony of factors outside it and any disturbance in the outside environment affects the education sector drastically. How covid 19 impacted the education? How we responded to minimize the educational loss? How effective has been the response? Let us try to search for their answers.

The government of Jammu and Kashmir announced the closure of educational institutions in mid March. Given the circumstances at that time, it became almost necessary to shut down everything including educational activities as well. Ever since the educational institutions were closed, the switch over to the online mode of education has been highly emphasized. The use of apps like Google classroom, Google Meet, Zoom and many others has been encouraged to minimize the educational loss of students. To be sure, these apps have been found quite useful during the lockdown. The online teaching classes, assigning homework to students and live interactions have surely helped to maintain some sort of continuity so that students do not make a complete break from their studies. But there are some questions which must be asked, has the online mode of education helped every student? Is it accessible to everybody?

The accessibility to online mode of education is determined by which stratum of the economically stratified society you belong to. This mode of education is not all-encompassing in its reach and it leaves out the students belonging to most vulnerable and impoverished section of the society. I have reasons to show that we are witnessing a digital divide in education in times of covid 19. To defend my view, I shall give two reasons here:

1) The digital mode of education requires the availability of economic resources to possess a smartphone. It is highly unrealistic to assume that every family in our society can afford a smart phone for their children. Two factors have further shattered the dreams of poor students, first is the disproportionate impact of the lockdown on the poor deteriorating their condition further and the second is the rising prices of smartphones during the lockdown. In such a situation, is it appropriate to assume that everyone in our society can afford the electronic gadgets required for access to education?

2) There is no denying the fact that lockdown has hit the poor hard. The resulting economic strain has forced the young students of many families to set aside the other considerations and search for livelihood means in order to avoid hunger and starvation. I have seen students as street peddlers going from village to village to sell their commodities. The poverty snatched their precious time that could have been devoted to their education.

This view is also supported by the findings of a study conducted by child rights NGO ‘Smile foundation’. The aim of the study titled ‘scenario amidst covid 19-onground situations and possible solutions’ was to analyze the access to technology. The findings of this study clearly showed that digital divide is a real challenge and multiple initiatives need to be taken to ensure that online education is accessible to everyone.

The inaccessibility of poor students to virtual education is not only disappointing but it also raises a serious question mark to our cherished principle of fair equality of opportunity in education. The principle rests on the idea that everybody is entitled to education and that the state must remove all the obstructions that may come in the way of enjoying such entitlement. The main thrust of the principle is empowering the most vulnerable and impoverished sections of our society. Because of the structural problem of poverty, the students belonging to the poor families are lagging behind in the current online mode of education. They are in urgent need of help from the state government. Distributing smartphones to poor students and providing financial help to poor families will help a great deal in bringing poor students back to the track of education. The state government along with different universities and boards are obliged to ensure that the education remains accessible to everybody whatever the conditions may be.

Towards the conclusion, I must say that education is the best way of empowering the poor students. Whether education diffuses down to the poor and marginalized section of the society or not is one of the best parameter of judging the efficacy of the government and educational institutions. Covid 19 is still with us and the prospects of reopening the classroom teaching in the next few months seems bleak, so it is the high time to reach out to the needy students to ensure that education does not remain a privilege of the rich and affluent.


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