The Delhi High Court on Friday directed private unaided schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas in the city to provide poor students with gadgets and Internet connections for online classes during Covid-19.

Justice Manmohan said that to address the intra-class discrimination between 25% of students from the economically weaker section/disadvantaged groups (EWS/DG) and 75% of students who pay fees, schools are directed to supply gadgets as well as Internet packs so that they have access to online classes.

The two-judge bench gave its verdict Friday after hearing a plea by an NGO Justice for All through advocates Khagesh B Jha and Shikha Sharma Bagga, who had sought that EWS/DG students be provided with laptops and smartphones with high-speed Internet connections.

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In its 94-page judgment, the court said that the cost of such gadgets/digital equipment as well as Internet package is not a part of the tuition fee and they have to be provided free of cost to EWS/DG students by private unaided schools and Kendriya Vidyalayas, subject to the right of private unaided schools to claim reimbursement from the state government in accordance with the RTE Act.

“This Court directs that the private unaided schools shall be entitled to claim reimbursement of reasonable cost for procurement of the said gadgets/digital equipments as well as internet package from the State under RTE Act, 2009, even though the State is not providing the same to its students,” the court said.

The court also directed the constitution of a three-member committee which would ensure uniformity and expedite the supply of gadgets/equipment to EWS/DG students. The committee would comprise the Secretary, Education, Ministry of Education, Central Government or his/her nominee, the Secretary, Education, Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD) or his/her nominee, and another member.

The court said that the committee would frame a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the identification of standard gadgets and Internet package for the students.

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“The Committee shall identify gadget(s)/equipment(s) taking into account all relevant factors including their utility, ease of operation, cost, maintenance charges, life of the gadget(s), reputation of the manufacturer, child lock etc. within two weeks from its constitution. The Committee shall also decide as to whether any gadget(s)/equipment(s) needs to be purchased by cluster bidding or by individual schools or hired by way of lease or licence agreement.”

“The private unaided schools shall either purchase or hire or lease the gadget(s)/equipment(s) as directed by the said Committee and supply the same along with internet package to the EWS/DG students within further two weeks. The private unaided schools shall file their claims for reimbursement to the Delhi government within eight weeks from the date of supply of such gadget(s)/equipment(s),” the court said in the judgment.

Even though Justice Sanjeev Narula, the second judge on the division bench, agreed with the conclusion drawn by the senior judge, through a concurrent note, he observed that while the term “education” can be expanded to include digital or online education, such a format can only function as a supplemental mechanism to aid traditional classroom education, and not as a permanent stand-in setup.

“In the present pandemic situation, the shift towards online education has taken place literally overnight, and without much deliberation. One could argue that the unprecedented situation warranted such a drastic switch over. Therefore, I do not find any fault with the approach of the schools that have adopted digital technology for imparting education. However, it is necessary to issue a note of caution here so that the modes and methods adapted during this extraordinary time are not seen as the quintessential purpose of the Act,” Justice Sanjeev Narula said.

He said that the use of digital media for the teaching-learning process is at a nascent stage. The dissemination of education through video conferencing is not a mere extension of the physical classroom into a virtually created space.

“Online learning requires active engagement strategies and is not just limited to uploading and delivering content over digital devices. It is a fundamentally different concept, and is still at an experimental stage. The traditional black-board approach is not adequate in a virtual classroom, as this format demands curating and designing of a different form of content that can be conveyed and assimilated on a digital platform.

“Without face-to-face interaction, gathering and retaining the attention of students for a prolonged time, and ensuring that the imparted education is understood effectively by each of the attendee in a virtual classroom becomes a demanding task. Blending and integration of ICT in elementary education requires strategic planning and building broad-based support amongst the stakeholders. This radically different form of education is bound to pose numerous and complex problems.

“Thus, in my view, the digitalisation of elementary education, which targets children of ages between 6 and 14 years, by restricting the child to be a passive receiver without an interactive environment, needs deeper probe. However, this paradigm shift, in the current situation, has happened rapidly. This mode seems to have taken the front seat in the unprecedented emergency scenario we are placed in today. In fact, globally, scepticism is the underlying sentiment when it comes to digital education. Nations are grappling to find the correct answers to deal with the present situation. I would therefore say that we should approach the subject on a cautionary note,” Narula added in his note.

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