COVID-19 has explicitly demonstrated the imbalance between the rural and urban, rich and poor, male and female, even in the digital infrastructure. Lockdown imposed due to COVID compelled education institutions to adapt to the virtual mode. The situation is still not stable and we cannot predict when the institutions will reopen. UNESCO observed that more than 60% of the world’s student population is affected by nationwide lockdowns. Some of the students managed to receive online education without any hurdles but many of the students were deprived of it due to various reasons.
There was a pre-existing digital divide in India and COVID-19 worsened the situation. Half of India’s population, i.e. 66%, is living in rural parts of the country, with a scarcity of internet infrastructure. Only 14.9% of the rural population has internet access compared to 42% of the urban household.
India has 315 million students, the second-largest student body in the world. It inflicts a great sense of responsibility in the state to maintain education for all during the lockdown when the schools are shut. COVID-19 has exposed the digital divide between the government and private varsities. Virtual learning wasn’t much of a challenge for the students of private schools. Unlike the students of the government schools, who didn’t have access to the digital equipment. Moreover, the students attending the government institutes are more likely to face internet connectivity issues or electricity issues. These problems have created a difference in the education received by the students of the country. This will have an impact when things will go back to normal and most of the students wouldn’t have covered anything at all. India needs to bridge the digital divide more than ever to ensure students’ education since the classes are held virtually.
99% of the rural internet users access the internet on their mobile phones, which means students in rural areas don’t have digital infrastructure and tools to access online classes. This Digital divide has led to incidences of student suicides.
Even in urban households, only 23.4% own a computer and 42% of them have an internet connection. There even exists a digital divide in the urban domain.
“We didn’t have a smartphone before the lockdown because it wasn’t necessary and we could not even afford it. But since our kids are having online classes I had to buy a smartphone on EMI. Bache k bhavishya ka sawal hai kya kare (Our kids’ future is depended on it, what else we can do),” said the garbage collector of our locality.
According to a National Family Health Survey, 60% of the women in 12 states and union territories have never used the internet. This imposed a problem when the education was shifted on virtual platforms and 60% of the women didn’t even know how to use the internet.
Manisha, who belongs to the semi-literate bracket voiced, “I have a smartphone, but I didn’t know how to access classes on it for my daughter. I had to take help of some of my neighbours”.
National Digital Literacy Mission aims to ‘empower at least one person from every household with crucial digital literacy skills by 2020’. Their focus is to bring a change by emphasising the technology and extending the vision of digital India.
It was difficult for the institutions to adopt the virtual mode instantly. Teachers prepared the PowerPoint presentations for the students and many times teachers didn’t even share their ppts with the students. Assembling notes online wasn’t an easy task. To quote Shaurya Mehta, class 10th student of St. Josephs Academy, “It isn’t easy to get notes online and then our exams were not even open book. We had to give offline exams and we didn’t have proper notes, which was a major obstacle.”
Manvender, a student of EJ at IIMC lamented, “In my opinion, this online education really is a hard nut to crack. We have to sit for hours in front of the computer screen and I personally faced a lot of difficulties paying attention due to bad network coverage. After all these classes we hardly get time to do self-study as it’s really tiring and unhealthy. We have to collect and arrange all the notes from various sources for the preparation of online tests which is another headache. I tried seeking notes from some of the online sources but they charge for the subscription which is not feasible for everyone.”
Devansh, an engineering student at UPES said, “Although we had access to all the software and we could perform the experiments, one to one knowledge could not be attained via virtual platforms.”
Practical knowledge took a toll during the pandemic because it is hard for the students to perform practical virtually.
We as students of journalism needs to be familiar with many software, and most of them are paid. Many of the students at IIMC don’t have laptops that could support the cracked version of that software. Therefore most of the students lag in the knowledge of this software.
Mansi Sharma, a student of medicine at International Higher School of Medicine commented, “Well, in case of lack of cooperation there’s the matter that we have different lecture and practice teachers and so, sometimes we don’t get the customized presentations.
Before the pandemic hit, we weren’t too heavily dependent on technology being medical students. The focus had always been on practical knowledge and skills. After the pandemic hit, we are in this grey area where we are being actively tested for our knowledge without any proper structure of assessment. Most importantly, not all teachers are tech-savvy enough to be able to manage classes or material distribution.
The most common line I’ve been familiarised with within my practice classes is: ‘If you all were here, I would be able to show you the patients’, ‘If we were all meeting in person, I would be able to demonstrate these reflexes better’.
It’s not for a lack of trying, so to say, as much as it is because of the situation we are in, where we end up spending the same amount of time looking for resources and video references, as we do in our classes every single day,” they added further.
Shreya Mehta, a student of Computer Applications at Delhi University stated, “Being from a technical field, it was challenging to perform the entire lab-work from home with merely virtual guidance from teachers. Although we got e-books and reading material the practical knowledge took a toll”.
COVID-19 has affected the economy more than the Great Depression of 1930, social and economic life are at a standstill. A report of March 2020 in Economic Times predicts the cost of the COVID-19 lockdown at US$120 billion or 4 per cent of the GDP.
Markets are down and the institutions that claim 100% placements could not get even a single company for their placement fortnight.
Pramod Kumar, Placement Head of IIMC said in a meeting that they reached out to more than 100 companies and not even a single company responded. He even urged the students to look for job opportunities.
The students are bewildered by his remarks and could not see a ray of hope amidst the COVID crisis.
India was adopting digital means of education but at a gradual pace. COVID-19 accelerated the process altogether, which we were not ready for. COVID-19 also raised salient questions about the necessity, importance and usefulness of virtual learning platforms. Even the most advanced technology cannot eliminate this divide between the teachers and students. The majority of the students have affected adversely and therefore the state should come up with such education policies that would benefit all the students.