“…. Education must move towards less content, and more towards learning about how to think critically and solve problems, how to be creative and multidisciplinary, and how to innovate, adapt, and absorb new material in novel and changing fields. Pedagogy must evolve to make education more experiential, holistic, integrated, inquiry-driven, discovery-oriented, learner-centred, discussion-based, flexible, and, of course, enjoyable….”
The National Education Policy 2020 rolled out by the government is touted as a game-changer, with the Prime Minister haling it as a ‘foundation of new India of 21st century’. The policy proposes an overhaul of the education system and paves the path for “transformational reform”. It is the third education policy after the 1968 and 1986 policies – both of which received major criticism for their lack of implementation.
In this piece, the authors analyse two major aspects of the 2020 policy, a) Foundational Learning and b) Online Learning. The authors argue that while the NEP has good intentions in laying emphasis on foundational and online learning, lack of adequate planning and infrastructure, and ground realities of inequality pose a challenge to the success of the policy.
On Foundational Learning:
The new policy focuses on “foundational learning” as one of the five major aspects that have the potential to transform the Indian education system.1Point 1, National Education Policy, 2020. This is because the lack of understanding at the early foundational years leads to deferred or minimal learning in higher classes which eventually results in a high dropout rate; in basic terms, a failure of the National education policy. Thus, a lot of what a child learns in their entire school life majorly depends on the knowledge and ability gained in these crucial initial years. This importance of foundational learning was emphasized in the two earlier policies, but they fell flat on implementation.
The new policy makes three years of preschool compulsory for children and aims to achieve universal foundational literacy and numeracy in the country by 2025.2Point 4.2, National Education Policy, 2020. These preschools comprise of the either nurseries, pre-primary schools, Anganwadis or Balvatikas3Point 1.4, National Education Policy, 2020. in which children from the age group of three to eight will acquire the basic foundational learning skills. However, the new policy might fall right into the foot of its predecessors.
- Lack of Standards & ‘Foundation’:
Even though the step towards foundational learning is in the right direction, the policy seems to be far away from the aegis of an implementable plan. For starters, there are no standards or clear indicators laying down the standard of skills that are sought to be achieved through the policy. Without clear standards that are set to be achieved at every stage of pre-schooling, there is no bar against which the progress of children can be measured. The policy states under ‘Early Childhood Care and Education’ (ECCE) segment that the purpose of early education is to “ensure that all students entering grade 1 are school ready”. Defining the objectives of a policy, which is being acclaimed as furthering the holistic development of a child, with the aim of making a child “school-worthy” portrays that the intention of the policy makers is mis-placed. The supposed objective set out is void of any trace of the “care” aspect of the ECCE.
Foundational teaching in most Indian classrooms is reserved to training the children to memorize the script and read simple words. The NEP reinforces these far from ideal goals of restrictive learning in its foundational literacy programme. It ignores the literature and studies on “emergent literacy” which proves that it is actually beneficial for the children to have a “balanced” teaching between the acquiring of script and indulging in comprehension activities which give meaning to those words. The focus of the policy on learning alphabets and writing numbers4Point 2.4 of the National Education Policy, 2020. is a purely pedagogical approach which puts the already set standards of foundational learning in the limelight. However, in the 21st century where sufficient studies have proven that the child should be encouraged to learn new things, the policy misses out on including methods like story-telling and role playing in the curriculum. The ignorance of this important research literature on emergent literacy throws further doubt on the efficacy of the foundational learning programme of the NEP.
- Lack of Infrastructure and Training:
Further, the task of equipping a child with foundational skills has been given to the Anganwadis and Balvatikas without enquiring or ensuring if these supposed small schools in villages are equipped to do so. The infrastructure of these pre-schools is poor, the Anganwadi workers and teachers are not employed on regular basis. Because of their non-permanent nature, they are paid honorarium which is generally less that the minimum wage. If the qualification requirements5Point 1.7, National Education Policy, 2020. of an Anganwadi teacher are to be applied and only teachers with 10+2 qualifications are to be admitted, there is a need to regularise their employment along with an increased pay in order to make it an attractive job for +2 graduates. If not, the absence of adept teachers in the government Anganwadis with the necessary skill to provide the children with the crucial foundational skills will add to the problem even further. Moreover, modulated by the government, these teachers are additionally employed in state government work (like manning voting booths during elections, etc.) which takes away there much valued time at school.
On Online Learning
The NEP 2020 is also unique due to its special emphasis on ‘Online Learning’. After the last two policies focused on issues of access and equity, the NEP 2020 proposes special focus on marginalized and disadvantaged groups, aiming to provide targeted opportunities for entry in the educational system through the medium of ‘Online learning.’ Interestingly, the NEP was released as Indian schools and universities struggled to make the transition from physical modes of learning to an ‘online’ model. The past couple of months brought to fore the inequalities that exist in the landscape of digital learning in Education. While the NEP’s vision for ‘Online Learning’ takes timely cognisance of the same6Point 24.2, National Education Policy, 2020., the ‘Online learning’ agenda of the policy does not offer anything substantial to remedy such inequalities.
- Lack of Digital Infrastructure:
The objective of the NEP is to fill the gaps in the current learning system through major reforms aimed at quality, equity, and integrity – from early childhood care through higher education. The NEP wishes to extensively utilize technology in learning, removing language barriers, increasing access and educational planning and management. By 2040, the aim is to ensure the ‘highest quality’ education for all learners irrespective of their socio-economic background. The policy provides certain measures for implementing the virtual learning model.7Point 24.4, National Education Policy, 2020.
However, the success of such a virtual model is contingent on free and equitable access to internet and technology – both of which is lacking in India’s learning landscape. As per the 75th National Sample Survey, conducted in 2017-2018, only 4.4 per cent rural households have computers, while the number is 23.4 per cent in urban areas. The access to internet is at 14.9 per cent for rural households, and 42 per cent for urban households. Only 9.9 per cent of rural population (aged 5 years and above) can operate a computer and 13 per cent are able to use internet. For urban population, 32.4 per cent can operate a computer, while 37.1 per cent can use internet. This percentage is further inequitably skewed across states like Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh, and so on.875th NSS; further elaborated Kundan Pandey, COVID-19 lockdown highlights India’s great digital divide, Down To Earth,30th July 2020, accessed 5th September 2020, available at: https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/governance/covid-19-lockdown-highlights-india-s-great-digital-divide-72514
While the policy takes cognisance of this ‘digital divide’; it fails to provide a proper roadmap to address the same. Moreover, as highlighted elsewhere, previous attempts at connecting classrooms have failed grossly. Apart from mentioning the Digital India campaign and suggesting availability of ‘affordable’ computing devices to the public, there is no adequate measure recommended to build digital infrastructure or to bridge the digital divide. There is no demarcation of the government’s role in providing technology to the mases, or of their contribution to the public sector. This is especially concerning since India’s expenditure on Education has been consistently minimal. The average budget allocation from FY15 to FY20 dropped from 4.14% to 3.4% and the total expenditure forms a negligible part of the total GDP, for example in FY2018-19 spending on education was only 3% of the total GDP expenditure.
- Foundational ‘Online’ Learning?
The policy envisages a situation where online apps with quizzes, competitions, assessments, enrichment materials, and online communities for shared interests will be developed once internet-connected smart phones or tablets are available in homes and/or schools. These will be used to enhance all the initiatives, as group activities for students with appropriate supervision of parents and teachers. The policy plans development of smart classrooms, albeit in phased manner for further dissemination of digital pedagogy.9Point 4.4, National Education Policy, 2020. The National Educational Technology Forum (NETF) will be developed as a ground for development in the use of technology in school education. The autonomous body will lead stakeholders and provide them knowledge and research for using technology in learning.10Point 23.3, National Education Policy, 2020.
However, there is no clarity on whether Anganwadis will include digital modes of teaching. As previously stated in this article, there is no clear identification of the foundational skills to be taught to students. The transition from one foundational stage to an online stage will be a challenge for a child if certain foundational skills are not taught at an early stage. Inequalities might be magnified if such skills are not taught at the earliest, since while some children might pick up such skills at home – not every child would be able to do the same due to their socio-political environment.
Status and Training for ‘Online’ Anganwadi workers:
Once such skills are outlined, and identified – what does the policy say about the training of teachers? The NEP positions teachers at the “centre of the fundamental reforms” and stresses on the status of employment of these teachers as crucial for implementation. All teachers will undergo rigorous training suitable to Online teaching, but it is unclear if this involves Anganwadi workers. With respect to Anganwadi, the policy aims to train current workers in accordance with an NCERT framework (yet to be developed).11Point 1.7, National Education Policy, 2020. The status of an Anganwadi worker is ‘honorary’ not amounting to ‘employment.’ The policy has failed to address the status of Anganwadi workers as ‘employees’, which is currently up in the air considering that the government doesn’t consider Anganwadi workers as ‘employees.’
The policy takes the pandemic into consideration, as a necessity to provide alternative modes of quality education and calls for appropriately scaled pilot studies for better evaluation of measures to be implemented, including the usage of SWAYAM, DIKSHA, etc.12Point 24.1, National Education Policy, 2020. However, the policy has missed the opportunity to assert the role of the government in ensuring equal access to both internet and education to children. This leaves open a dangerous space for private entities to monopolise and create further inequalities. In a State where the enforcement of the Right to Education in itself has been weak – characterized by poor digital infrastructure, where one part of the Country has been under an Internet shutdown for over a year – is the Internet, Education, and ‘Online Learning’ a great leveller at all?