Last week, an important piece of news did not dominate headlines. Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year-old girl in Kerala, committed suicide because she could not attend online classes. Her school was closed because of the pandemic, and she did not have access to a smartphone, computer or television (the Kerala government is broadcasting classes). Like Devika, millions of students across India are struggling because they cannot access educational sessions during the pandemic.
The loss of a school year will impact learning outcomes, the creation of human capital, and lifetime earnings. Even more worrying is that inequality, which education traditionally reduces, may increase due to the pandemic. Students from richer, more privileged homes, with access to the internet, books and the best devices and supervision, will move ahead, while students like Devika will be left behind. What can be done?
There is a low-cost policy solution the government can implement easily—lower the barriers to entry in radio and television educational broadcasting.
India has excellent television penetration, with hundreds of channels in every language. According to What India Watched 2019, a report by the Broadcast Audience Research Council, 836 million (61% of Indians) had access to TV in India. But in terms of content, there is little diversity. Most TV channels fall in one of these categories—soaps, movies, news, music, devotional/religious, and children’s entertainment, across various languages. But very little educational content is offered through television, even on kids’ channels.
The main reason is a high entry barrier to set up a new television channel. The ministry of information and broadcasting has imposed net worth requirements of ₹5 crore for companies applying for a TV channel, and ₹20 crore for a news channel. TV channels cannot telecast any content incapable of earning and sustaining high advertising revenues. The ostensible reason for this policy is to reduce the proliferation of TV channels.
But that is exactly what we need in the education space—a proliferation of channels. India needs a lot of content to cater to 400 million school-going age Indians affected by school closures. Channels for different subjects, in different languages, using different teaching methods, for all ages. Superstar teachers, who currently teach at expensive tuition centres, should be able to teach and broadcast at a low cost.
This is happening online. Entry barriers to internet broadcast are very low. Teachers only need reasonably good devices and upload speeds to create and distribute educational content. So, the barriers to entry for producers of educational content are low when it comes to the internet. But the barriers to entry for the consumer can be high.
Even with India’s digital revolution, not every Indian household can afford a computer, tablet or smartphone. It will take several years to reach universal digital penetration (currently at 45%). Until then, the poor are excluded. The number of devices per household acts as yet another constraint. Apart from children in rich families, most do not have exclusive use to smart devices. Unlike smart phones, TV sets stay in the household for the use of kids when their parents go to work.
Indian education policy needs to create avenues across various media, keeping the barriers of entry low for the producer as well as the consumer. The cost of production of a video, whether distributed online or on TV, is about the same, and in most cases, can be quite low. It is the cost of distribution that prevents good teachers from teaching and broadcasting it over television, an outcome more inclusive of poor families. An online educator like Khan Academy, giving away content for free, could be watched by most Indian students on TV. If the government reduced entry requirements, we could have several Khan Academy TV channels airing overnight, because the content already exists.
The same is true for radio, where barriers to entry are not as high as television, but high for the medium. India has almost no niche radio content. Those who can afford the high cost of radio entry need to play film music to the largest audience possible to generate revenue. There seems to be no room for other business models, like talk radio, in a country with one of the strongest and oldest oral traditions in the world.
The exact impact of covid-19 will reveal itself over the years to come, but there will be some impact of school closures on an entire generation of students, and as always, the poorest and least privileged will lose the most. A small change in India’s broadcasting rules could minimize this damage and make education more accessible.
Education through television and the internet is not a perfect substitute for good schooling. But it can serve as a second-best solution in a pandemic or natural disaster, and in the longer term, as a complement to weaker schools. The gains from this policy will disproportionately benefit the poorest and least privileged. Students in worse schools will get access to better teachers at a very low cost. Those who had to drop out or work and left their education can attend an equivalent of night classes at home on TV. Education policy is not just about opening and running schools, it should aim to make education more accessible. Reducing entry barriers to educational broadcasting is one way of achieving this swiftly and at very low cost to the government.