Digital divide biggest scourge in online study

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Digital divide biggest scourge in online study

Thursday, 06 August 2020 | SUBHASHREE DAS

Technology has the potential to achieve universal quality education and improve learning outcomes. But in order to unleash its potential, the digital divide and the embedded gender divide must be addressed. At this age of information, access to technology and internet is an urgent requirement and no more it should be considered as a luxury.

When schools and colleges are moving online, students with lesser digital access get further disadvantaged and those without any digital access are at risk of dropping out altogether.

As per official statistics, there are over 35 crore students in the country. However, it is not clear as to how many of them have access to digital devices and internet. According to the Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, from 2017-18 National Sample Survey, less than 15 per cent of rural Indian households have access to internet in contrast to 42 per cent in urban households. A mere 13 per cent of people were surveyed (aged above five) in rural areas — where just 8.5 per cent female — could use the internet. The poorest households cannot afford a smart phone or a computer, according to the survey.

The major challenge of remote learning is disparity in access – from electricity and internet connections to devices like computer or smart phones. Access to electricity is crucial for digital education, both for powering devices as well as for connecting to the internet. While the Government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to all households shows that almost 99.9% of homes in India have a power connection, the picture is less luminous if the quality of electricity and the number of hours for which it is available every day can be observed minutely.

Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages conducted by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, showed that 16 per cent of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity supply daily, 33 per cent received 9-12 hours and only 47 per cent received more than 12 hours a day.

While a computer would be preferable for online classes, a smart phone could also serve the purpose. While 24% Indians own a smart phone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, palmtops or tablets.

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 5 and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. With such a pitiable figure, the digital divide is evident across class, gender, region and place of residence.

Among the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% to internet facilities. In case of the top 20% 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. In States like Delhi, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab and Uttarakhand, more than 40% households have access to 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% men had access to 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.

Merely running classrooms online would not mean effective remote learning. One-to-one interactions among peers and teachers are very important for learning. On a digital platform, how students learn and communicate with others is largely dependent on the readiness of both teachers and students to accept digital learning. In the case of distance education, the onus of learning is more on students, which requires discipline.

Learning demands a conducive environment for study. However, not all students have a quiet space for learning at home. While 37% of households in India have one dwelling room, it would be a luxury for many to attend lectures in an undisturbed environment. Having online classes on a regular basis has a cost implication too, as students have to bear the cost of internet services. There is no communication yet from Governments on whether it is going to reimburse students or will provide free or subsidized data packs. In the current situation, many students, especially those whose families have lost income as a result of a lockdown-related job loss, will not be able to afford this.

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.

(Dr Das writes columns on gender-based and social-based issues. She is a Post-Graduate English Teacher by profession and can be mailed at Subhashree.das1201@gmail.com)

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