As an immediate measure to stem the spread of Covid-19, most educational institutions have been shut since the end of March. It is still difficult to predict when schools, colleges and universities will reopen. There are few options other than to shift to digital platforms from the traditional face-to-face mode of classroom learning.
Teachers and school administrators have been advised to continue communication with students through virtual lectures or portals like Massive Open Online Courses. However, in the absence of physical classrooms and proper digital infrastructure, both teachers and students are facing unprecedented challenges.
The digital divide
The major challenge of remote learning is disparity in access – from electricity and internet connections to devices like computer or smartphones.
Access to electricity is crucial for digital education, both for powering devices as well as for connecting to the internet. While the government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to households shows that almost 99.9% of homes India have a power connection, the picture is less luminous if we look at the quality of electricity and the number of hours for which it is available every day.
Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-’18, showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours, and only 47% received more than 12 hours a day.
While a computer would be preferable for online classes, a smartphone could also serve the purpose. However, the phone might be convenient for apps, but not for carrying out lengthy assignments or research. While 24% Indians own a smartphone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtops or tablets.
Even the penetration of digital technologies in India has been haphazard and exclusionary. According to the 2017-’18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility. While 66% of India’s population lives in villages, only a little over 15% of rural households have access to internet services. For urban households, the proportion is 42%.
In fact, only 8% of all households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. It is also useful to note that as per the National Sample Survey definition, a household with a device or internet facility does not necessarily imply that the connection and devices are owned by the household.
The digital divide is evident across class, gender, region or place of residence. Among the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. In case of the top 20% households, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5%.
The difference is apparent across states too. For example, the proportion of households with access to a computer varies from 4.6% in Bihar to 23.5% in Kerala and 35% in Delhi.
The difference is starker in case of internet access. In states like Delhi, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Uttarakhand, more than 40% households have access to internet. The proportion is less than 20% for Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and West Bengal.
The gender divide in internet usage is also stark. As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, in 2019, while 67% men had access to internet, this figure was only at 33% for women. The disparity is more prominent in rural India, where the figures are 72% and 28% for men and women, respectively.
If the governments continue online education without necessary supportive measures, the prevailing disparity in the virtual world could translate into widening educational inequalities among learners.
Apart from access, digital education also requires regular and predictable internet connectivity. To support online work from home during this lockdown period, telecom operators and broadband service providers like Vodafone, Jio and BSNL are offering facilities like additional data and free internet to their subscribers.
Would these offers really ensure a sound transaction of online classes to students across the country?
A report by Quacquarelli Symonds on usage of internet in India reveals that both the state and the private players have not yet accomplished assured connectivity to all subscribers. The survey shows that among respondents who use home broadband, over 3% face cable cuts, 53% face poor connectivity and 32% face signal issues. In case of mobile data, 40.2% face poor connectivity and 56.6% face signal issues.
Sometimes, the lack of connectivity is not a technical glitch. In Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, students could not access online classes because a government order restricted network connectivity to 2G instead of 4G.
Even if the basic infrastructure was in place, a whole set of additional gaps are evident .
Learning over coverage
Merely moving classrooms online would not mean effective remote learning. One-to-one interactions among peers and teachers are very important for learning. On a digital platform, how students learn and communicate with others is largely dependent on the readiness of both teachers and students to accept digital learning. In the case of distance education, the onus of learning is more on students, which requires discipline.
There are challenges for teachers too. Not only are many of them digitally inept, a large number of teachers have never used an online environment to teach. Teaching a course online course ideally requires preparation, such as designing a lesson plan and preparing teaching materials such as audio and video contents. This has posed new challenges for many teachers.
Learning demands a conducive environment for study. However, not all students have a quiet space for learning at home. While 37% of households in India have one dwelling room, it would be a luxury for many to attend lectures in an undisturbed environment.
Having online classes on a regular basis has a cost implication too, as students have to bear the cost of internet services. There is no communication yet from governments on whether it is going to reimburse students or will provide free or subsidised data packs.In the current situation, many students, especially those whose families have lost income as a result of a lockdown-related job loss, will not be able to afford this.
Despite initiatives from the Central and state governments, there has not been enough expenditure on improving the digital infrastructure for remote learning. In fact, in 2020-’21, the Ministry of Human Resource Development budget for digital e-learning was reduced to Rs 469 crore
from Rs 604 crore in 2019-’20 .
The Covid-19 pandemic has exposed how rooted structural imbalances are between rural and urban, male and female, rich and poor, even in the digital world. With the existing digital divide, expanding online education will push the digital have-nots to the periphery of the education system, thereby increasing inequity in educational outcomes.