India has been under lockdown since March, 2020. Schools and educational institutions are closed and their date of reopening remains uncertain. Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has specified several digital learning initiatives to ensure continued learning of students. However it fails to account for children in the elementary stage without internet access. Some private schools have moved to online teaching but this method excludes many children. Students without internet access are getting pushed towards the periphery increasing the inequality in education. Preliminary data analysis from the National Sample Survey Organisation’s Survey on Education 2017-18 highlights the digital divide in India.
According to the survey only 24% of households have access to the internet, 15% in rural India, and 42% in urban India. Access to internet is even lower for children in elementary schools. Although the Right to Education Act makes education free and compulsory for all children aged 6–14 years in India, online classes cannot be an effective medium due to the existing digital divide.
The Existing Digital Divide
In the rural sector 12% of children aged 6-14 years had internet facility in the household. Out of these children 26% were able to use the internet and 23% had used it in 30 days preceding the survey. In the urban sector, 35% of children had the internet facility in households, of which 42% were able to use the internet and 38% had used it in the 30 days preceding the survey. Children can access the internet from other sources but it is unlikely that they would be able to use it elsewhere during the lockdown period.
The availability of the internet varies considerably by consumption expenditure of families, which is considered as a proxy for family income. In rural India 20% of children in the topmost quintile (richest) had internet facility whereas only 7% of children in the lowest quintile (poorest) had internet facility. The corresponding estimates for the urban sector were 65% and 18% respectively. Thus resource-rich children in the urban area might be the only ones who could partially benefit from online classes.
The school choice of children is highly correlated with family income. 32% of children in private unaided schools had internet available in their household compared to 11% of children in government schools. Thus the digital divide affects children in government schools to a large extent. It also affects children from a disadvantaged background and economically weaker section who study in private schools through Section 12(1)(c) of RTE. Although some private schools have resumed online classes it becomes difficult for these children to attend the same. The state governments need to make private schools responsible to ensure that these children do not fall back compared to their classmates due to the lack of resources.
The states need to plan context-specific interventions since internet access varies considerably in India. Around 4% of children in rural Odisha have access to the internet compared to a national average of 12%. Children in urban areas are relatively better off in terms of internet availability with a national average of 35%. States, where less than 25% of households have internet availability, are Andhra Pradesh (22), Karnataka (21), Odisha (22) and Tamil Nadu (20). The villages and urban blocks can customize plans to address the digital divide with the help of the local government.
The overall trend gives some ideas about the availability and usage of the internet but masks multiple nuances. In a family multiple children can have access to a single computer. In that case, factors like age, gender, and level of education of the child would decide who gets access to the internet. Even among the ones possessing requisite devices, limited bandwidth, cost of recharging, availability of electricity and access to network pose as hurdles.
Students have very low access to the internet but the lockdown period can be used for capacity building of teachers and other government officials. The draft National Education Policy (2019) has already laid stress on using technology to strengthen education. The teachers can be trained to use technology to teach, retain the attention of children, and assess learning. The training needs to include mechanisms to address the socio-emotional needs of the children that have occurred due to the extended lockdown, isolation, and economic crisis in families.
Alternate educational methods should be considered in order to accommodate children with no or limited internet access. According to BARC India 2017-18 survey 836 million individuals have access to television whereas smartphone penetration remains low at 300 million. Similar to SWAYAM PRABHA where 32 DTH TV channels telecast educational programs for older students, free TV channels could be set up for children in elementary grades. States could follow the model of Delhi Government and use IVR and phone calls to hold classes for children in elementary classes. An effective way needs to be designed to gauge the understanding of children through these mediums. Continuous feedback from the users will be vital to understand the effectiveness of this mechanism.
The digital divide persisting in India shows that online classes cannot be the medium to reach majority of school children. The disruption in schooling coupled with economic crisis can lead can lead to high drop-out rate in the future. In the short-run the children need to be engaged in academic activities through TV, radio, IVR calls and online content. The School Management Committee members need to ensure that the children attend school once it opens. In the long run the focus needs to shift to use of technology in daily operations in classroom and non-teaching activities. Schools might need to provide subsidised mobile phones and recharge facilities to students. Since regular travel restrictions will persist and social distancing norms will prevail in the near future, the long awaited Ed-Tech needs to penetrate every sphere in education.