By Harsha Srivastava
It has been a pretty long time since India has had its (ongoing) tryst with COVID-19, popularly known as the novel Coronavirus. The virus-turned-pandemic not only forced people inside their homes, but also changed their lifestyle and the work culture at various levels, bringing in #TheNewNormal.
The present pandemic detestably affected economies all over the world, disconcerting political structures and governments. While some countries faced a recession in their economic growth, encountered serious health security issues, almost all came across challenges to their education system.
The COVID-19 pandemic has magnified the importance of technology in our lives, ranging from e-health facilities, banking, e-commerce, to e-governance. It certainly did divulge the great “Digital Divide” present in the Indian education system, especially when it comes to online learning.
A digital divide, defined sociologically, is “ uneven access to technology due to inequalities between different social, cultural, and economic groups; often caused by location.”
In the Indian context, digital divides can be very well experienced in the teaching-learning process through online mediums during this ongoing pandemic. If one observes closely, structural imbalances in various spheres can be found.
Starting at the basic level, the teacher-student interaction, where both parties are facing the problem equally. The students back in their homes are enduring spasmodic internet connectivity, frequent power cuts, financial restraints in procuring high-speed internet connections, and limited access to digital resources, and is especially inadequate for the rural population.
Even states like Kerala, with India’s second highest internet penetration rate, which is planning to conduct all its classes online this academic year, has thousands of underprivileged children left without any avenues for learning. Due to this, incidences of suicide have also been reported in the state. Moreover, students from poverty-stricken families have a much wider gap to bridge before them; between the essential requirements of life, and the luxury of accomplishing academic goals.
Some of the other basic but pertinent problems faced by students include:
physical and mental exhaustion due to sitting in the same posture for around six to seven hours, attending classes on smartphones which leads to backaches and eye-redness, with some students not even having access to stable learning conditions.
On the other hand, the teaching fraternity has also had to overcome stumbling blocks in order to arrange for and provide the required resources of learning: subject notes, recorded lectures, assignments etc. to the students in these difficult times of social-distancing and distant learning. Many teachers are unfamiliar with using the required online teaching software, and also have limited access to academic resources at home. The pandemic has certainly brought in an overwhelming amount of work and made it difficult for the teachers to maintain their work-life balance.
The inability to access the internet is definitely a critical concern, and the resulting digital divide can be observed at various levels. The ‘Household Social Consumption: Education in India” report as part of 75th round of National Sample Survey — from July 2017 to June 2018 (NSO) presents the following statistics:
- Only 23.8% of the households in India possess an internet connection, out of which 23% of urban households and 4% of rural households possess computers,
- Among persons aged 15–29 years, nearly 56% in urban areas and 24% in rural areas were able to operate a computer,
- In the same age group, nearly 25% in rural areas and 58% in urban areas reported the use of the internet.
This survey very well projects the gendered aspect of the digital divide, with just 14.9% of women — as compared to 25% of men — being able to operate the internet.
In another survey conducted by the Student Union of Ambedkar University Delhi, 60% of women are forced to perform household chores along with a minimum of six hours of online classes.
Moreover, the pandemic has not just forced the entire educational system to adapt to digital means, but has also led to some “manifestly arbitrary online assessment mechanisms”. The University of Delhi (DU), which is a pre-eminent public institution with students from all over the nation hailing from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds, conducted “Open Book Exams” for its final year students despite huge virtual student protests carried out through social media platforms and repeated questioning by the Supreme Court.
The exam was conducted amidst unavailability of adequate study materials, suspension of actual classes, uncertainty surrounding online exams, and a lack of familiarity with the process, which also had a serious impact on the mental health of students.
While the entire teaching-learning process shifted to online modes, people of the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir were still left out with only 2G network connectivity, or no internet at all. It all started from the month of August 2019 when the Government of India laid down Article 370, scrapping the special status for the region and bifurcating the erstwhile state into two Union Territories: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Both the UTs had been kept under complete lockdown until March 2020, when finally the lockdown was lifted for hardly 3 weeks, but reimposed due to virus-spread. All this, while the entire region was kept under strict communication blockades and all the educational institutions remained closed.
Recently, when only 2G network was restored (and 4G in just two districts of Ganderbal and Udhampur of Kashmir and Jammu division, respectively) did the students start their academics through online classes — which again had loads of obstacles. Online class applications either worked too slow or did not work at all on 2G networks, with slow uploads of recorded lectures, hindrances in downloading study material and watching recorded lectures on YouTube, and an inadequate amount of access to smartphones, desktops or iPads. The students of Jammu and Kashmir also faced heavy connectivity issues while appearing for the “Open Book Exams” for which, unfortunately, no authority even cared for.
Students from the North-Eastern part of India are also highly troubled due to poor internet connectivity issues they are facing. This makes them feel “out of the race” with respect to their more-fortunate counterparts living in well-connected cities with better resources.
One of the most prominent reasons for this is the reluctance of telecom service providers to provide connectivity to North-East areas because of the sparse population bases in these regions, which might put them at a financial loss.
Not just the internet, but also a lack of electricity doesn’t allow the residents to charge their mobile phones and other gadgets in order to facilitate online learning. Students and teachers are forced to interact via Whatsapp or text messages as the only medium which works on very slow internet speeds, but is accessible to a small section, completely in contrast to the various Google and Microsoft platforms available to the students in metropolitan cities.
Another very important section of our society are the differently-abled students, who are facing a great deal of drawbacks, more so than physical classes. The category of disabilities is varying: orthopedic impairments, visual impairments, speech and hearing impairments, intellectual challenges, etc., but none of them have been taken into consideration, or been provided with any facility or alternative to online lectures. Disabled students face multifarious problems, ranging from:
- unavailability of sign language interpreters for hearing-impaired students,
- audio/visual transcripts,
- notes in need-based format (which can be audio lectures or written in Braille script for visually impaired students).
The report, titled ‘Digital Education in India: Will Students with Disabilities Miss the Bus?’ was released after a survey conducted by Swabhiman, a community-based organisation, and the disability legislation unit of Eastern India of the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People. The sample consisted of 90% of respondents from Odisha, and the remaining 10% from Jammu and Kashmir, Haryana, Puducherry, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. According to the report, 56.5% of students with disabilities are struggling while attending class, while around 77% of students fear they’re falling behind in learning due to their inability to access online distance learning.
India, a nation with a population of 135.26 crore, has 34.1% youth (15–29 years) as per “Youth In India”, a report released by the Central Statistics Office in 2017.
Such a huge working-age population creates a demographic dividend, which, if provided the required opportunities to gain education and acquire skills, can prove to be very supportive to the socio-economic growth of the country.
The present digital divide needs to be reduced as much as possible. Urgent policy interventions are required to advance diversity and inclusion in higher education institutions at the national level. Promotion of Digital Literacy among the masses, primarily uninterrupted internet connectivity and strong mobile network signals, should be made available to all as the priority of the government. Policies should also focus on including the various disadvantaged sections of the society.
Furthermore, universities must fully fund digital access to user-friendly online teaching platforms in order to benefit a majority of the students in central universities. These elementary steps, if taken, will not only help to bridge the learning gap, but also help us to become a nation with all its people on equal footing — at least in education.
1. Chaudhary, A. (2020, May 31). The Divide in Digital Education. The Hindu. Retrieved from: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-divide-in-digital-education/article31710304.ece
2. Antony, A. (2020, August 27). Bringing the Internet to Everyone. (Retrieved from https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/bringing-the-internet-to-everyone/article32449761.ece)
3. Malik, I. A. (14 August 2020) ‘ ‘Online Classes’ Make Mockery of Kashmir’s Students Who Haven’t Attended Classes in a Year’. The Wire. (Retrieved from: https://thewire.in/education/kashmir-education-4g-internet-speed-online-classes)
4. Yadav, L., Alexander, E., Kumar, R., Bhushan S. (September 5 2020). ‘ Webinar- Structural Imbalances in Accessibility of Online Education | WDC, Miranda House’. Women’s Development Cell MH via YouTube. (Retrieved from: https://youtu.be/-wM11ntHa8w)