In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, students started attending classes online throughout the world. The changed circumstances have disproportionately impacted school education, putting restrictions on traditional classroom-based teaching and learning in schools, compelling educational institutions to shift to remote, digital learning platforms for teaching and student assessments. There is no set date for reopening of schools and colleges, in spite of growing concerns regarding the short-term and long-term effects on students, parents, and the society at large.
A population coverage ratio suggests that only 41% of India’s population has access to and regularly use the internet, when compared to the global figure of 57%. Furthermore, as per the 2011 census, Bihar has the lowest internet penetration rate in the country with 0.9%, the highest being 18.8%. Wi-Fi and 4G broadband connections continue to be limited to Patna and other major cities, and there is nothing close to internet connectivity in rural areas. This means that our tall claims of digital advancement mean nothing- only about 12.5% of Indian households with students have access to the internet.
The starkest digital divide is prominent in the case of education, which is imperative for development or transformation in any society. Online education only seems to be widening the chasm between those who have access and those who don’t, giving the privileged a head start and leaving the marginalized lagging behind.
For the past few years, EdTech has been hailed as a solution and equalizer that would provide access to quality education in remote areas as well. Even as the coronavirus lockdown pushes educational institutions to adopt digital education, equity in education remains a far-fetched notion. The disparity in access to electricity, devices like smartphones and laptops, and the internet has emerged as the major reason behind the inability of students to attend online classes. Inaccessibility to digital infrastructure and unpreparedness among teachers to transition to online teaching shows the gaps that need to be addressed before we move to an enhanced mode of online learning. Parents are wary of giving their mobile phones, tablets or laptops to children to attend their online classes, and children spend more often than ever in front of digital devices.
There is also a behavioural divide – some students shun digital learning as it is too boring and they feel it is not worth it, and some are incapable of learning on their own. Driven by the internet, which relies solely on the availability of electricity, there exists disparities in its quality and uninterrupted availability, despite the fact that almost all of rural India has universal electrification.
We also need to consider the negative effect of prolonged school closure on students and the financial burden on parents, since 4G packs are expensive and they have to provide food in the absence of school meals. Besides the disparity in access to basic internet infrastructure, students also have to battle social-political differences at home. Factors such as a room of one’s own, control over shared phones or computers, and the burden of sharing household work add to existing barriers in the penetration of online education in our country. Instead of bringing people together, students belonging to economically weaker sections and those with disabilities are being pushed to the wrong side of the digital divide. The trust in public education services is undermined and could lead to possible corrosion of human rights in the present and post-pandemic world.
There is no point in touting quick-fix solutions to this problem. A few options include subsidized internet plans, zero-rated educational websites, waive-off of internet charges for students, etc. which have been taken up by countries like Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa, Egypt, Argentina, etc. Closer to home, the state of Kerala has collaborated with telecom operators to increase bandwidth, introduced educational TV programs by setting aside a channel for all classes, and distributed personal devices free of cost or at a subsidized rate.
We can only hope that the added pressure will not lead to students from vulnerable backgrounds to drop out. In the long run, the education system needs to work on the mental wellbeing of students, provide financial assistance to schools and ensure feasible, accessible methods for uninterrupted learning. This is only possible if all stakeholders are inclusive in their approach and operate from a place of empathy, so as to improve standards of education in a sustained manner.
The image is for representational purposes only.