The real digital divide in Indian education

The Indian government has to shoulder its responsibility for education

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school textbook publishing
Schools that were supposed to open on 1 July 2020 remain closed and students are studying from home

There is an excellent article by Protiva Kundu on www.scroll.in explaining that under pandemic and unlockdown conditions, it would be foolish to assume that online education can work for the vast majority of Indian children of school-going age. The government cannot rely on online to meet its constitutional obligation of education for all. Nor can it or the state education boards rely on making textbooks available online as a substitute for actually providing printed books. There have also been calls to use public television broadcasting, given its high geographic reach for delivering some parts of the overall education package.

However, the Delhi government has been able to conduct a hybrid of live online classes with assignments given on WhatsApp and visits to schools by parents. One must keep in mind that Delhi and Kerala rank at the top in the country, with 35% of households having a computer. Nevertheless, the Delhi government, for which the improvement of government schools was high on the list even before the Covid-19 pandemic, has been able to scale up its online education in a teaching-learning model that it describes as ‘semi-online.’

Indian education can’t go online

But as Kundu points out in her excellent article filled with data, Indian education can’t go online – only 8% of homes with young members have a computer with a net link. She writes, “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.”

She adds, “Access to electricity is crucial for digital education, both for powering devices as well as for connecting to the internet. … 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.

The article published by Quint says, “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% of 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% of households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. In the case of the top 20% of 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% of households have access to the 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% of men had access to the 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.

“A report by Quacquarelli Symonds on the usage of the 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 the case of mobile data, 40.2% face poor connectivity and 56.6% face signal issues.”

Digital infrastructure

Kundu goes on to point out the other considerations and lack of balance in the digital infrastructure for education across the country. Teachers are not trained for this process and there are costs to be borne by the students and their families for broadband and computers, tablets, and smartphones. 

She writes, “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.”

Protiva Kundu is with the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability and can be reached at protiva@cbgaindia.org.

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Naresh Khanna
Editor of Indian Printer and Publisher since 1979 and Packaging South Asia since 2007. Trained as an offset printer and IBM 360 computer programmer. Active in the movement to implement Indian scripts for computer-aided typesetting. Worked as a consultant and trainer to the Indian print and newspaper industry. Visiting faculty of IDC at IIT Powai in the 1990s. Also founder of IPP Services, Training and Research and has worked as its principal industry researcher since 1999. Author of book: Miracle of Indian Democracy.

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