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Only a third of India’s schoolchildren are pursuing online education, and an even smaller cohort are taking live online classes, the Annual Status of Education Report (Aser) said on Wednesday, underlining the coronavirus pandemic’s impact in deepening educational inequalities.

While just 11% of all the students enrolled in both private and government schools were pursuing online classes, 21.5% were using videos or recorded classes. In the case of students enrolled in government schools, only 8.1% were using online classes across the country.

This is despite smartphone ownership among student households jumping significantly in 2020 from two years ago, the Aser report by education non-profit Pratham showed. The report is based on a survey conducted in 26 states and 4 Union territories in September among a total of 52,227 households and 59,251 children in the age group of 5-16 years.

“Among enrolled children, more than 60% live in families with at least one smartphone. This proportion has increased enormously in the past two years, from 36.5% to 61.8% among enrolled children. The percentage point increase is similar in households of children enrolled in government and private schools," the report said.

In households where children are enrolled in government schools, the percentage of smartphone ownership has jumped from 29.6% in 2018 to 56.2% in 2020. In households where children are in private schools, smartphone ownership has gone up to 74.2% in 2020, a 24 percentage point increase from 2018.

Maharashtra, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Tripura have reported more than 30 percentage point increases in the proportion of children whose families own a smartphone.

“We need to invest more in bettering the digital infrastructure for improving the life and learning of students," said Vineet Nayar, chairman of Sampark Foundation and a former chief executive of HCL Technologies Ltd. Sampark works in the school education sector.

The report further said although a lot of digital content has been generated and transmitted to help children continue to learn, there is limited evidence on the extent to which this content is reaching children; whether they are engaging with it; and the impact it is having on their participation and learning.

But there is some good news.

At the all-India level, there has been a small shift towards government schools between 2018 and 2020 September across all grades and among both girls and boys. The proportion of boys enrolled in government schools rose from 62.8% in 2018 to 66.4% in 2020. Similarly, the proportion of girls enrolled in government schools rose from 70% to 73% during the same period. To be sure, this could be partly because of economic hardships and private schools in rural India closing down post the pandemic, the report said.

Similarly, more than 80% of children have textbooks for their current grade. This proportion is higher among students enrolled in government schools (84.1%) than in private schools (72.2%). Across states, the proportion of children with textbooks at home falls below 70% in only three states: Rajasthan (60.4%), Telangana (68.1%), and Andhra Pradesh (34.6%).

“Overall, about one-third of the enrolled children had received some form of learning materials or activities from their teachers during the week preceding the survey. However, there are significant variations by state in children’s receipt of learning materials or activities during the survey period," the Aser report said.

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