Is Sikkim's digital literacy and learning sufficient?
Following the rise of COVID-19 positive cases in India, digital education became the only viable alternative once nationwide and state lockdowns were announced in March 2020, leading to schools and colleges being closed down until the situation became normal.
The need for social distancing and minimal contact between people became the norm. To combat the effects of the pandemic on learning, the central government announced a slew of schemes meant to address it.
Prime Minister's E-Vidya scheme, which provided for digital learning by connecting schools with a DTH connection and Bharat Padhe online, Diksha allowed academicians and other researchers to contribute content on online platforms and radio podcasts
A few schools in Sikkim that did not have proper infrastructure and access to proper computer facilities tested the determination of the institutions to carry forward with digital learning. As a fairly new phenomenon, digitization in the present service delivery discourse was a challenge more in terms of accessibility than implementation.
It was in the initial stage of digital education in Sikkim that there was widespread confusion among students, their peers, guardians as well as teachers and other authorities on how it was to be implemented. Unlike multiple open online courses in the West where the students are well versed with a digital model of education given their early foray into globalization, states in India did not have the same privilege.
Teachers and students alike remain poorly versed with digital education (particularly in government-run schools), as compared to private schools and colleges who were able to gain momentum on e-learning thanks to the Ed-tech reforms initiated by them a few years back.
Students in rural areas were especially affected by the pandemic and school closure. Slow Internet and lack of digital literacy along with economic means to invest in online education by families became a growing concern.
Online education presented the challenges of peer learning, informal learning environment due to lack of interaction and tendency of making the learners passive recipients - if this mode of education is here to stay, governments have to be prepared to fully invest in it.
In this context, the government of Sikkim became the first state to implement the PM's e-Vidya scheme by announcing their commitment to digital education through the introduction and distribution of Smart TVs to students from Class 8-10 across Sikkim, earmarking the allocation of 110 crores for full implementation. Under this, the government aims to bring students at the centre of learning through access to e contents, multi-modal platform and completion of syllabus.
However, the larger question remains as to how it will be implemented and what long-term challenges are. There will be a need for technicians for periodic maintenance and adjusting students to the shift from blackboard-based learning to online mode will take time.
To improving the digitization of education and democratisation of learning, the government now has the opportunity to take the support of independent academicians in the state, create jobs for educated youths from the state with a background of technical expertisen and invest in IT professionals for developing an environment of online education in the state. Only then will multi-modal access to education through digital education would meet the standards of access, equity and affordability as envisaged by the National Education Policy 2020.
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