Digital divide



Sunny Jacob SJ

Corona Virus is spreading with vengeance all over the world.  America is suffering its worse. Brazil is following it in terms of death and spread. Spain, Italy, UK, Iran, France, Germany, Russia and India are hit hard too. So called rich countries all started falling under the weight of COVID-19. In order to shift the focus of the human loss and economic disaster, many countries started highlighting unimportant issues or creating rift to change the focus. This we have seen in the US of late.

Corona Virus has brought out one thing clear to all. That richness and wealth will not come as a help in the face of a health crisis, nor the massive weaponries and armaments. Neo-liberal Corporate based development or completely capitalist private economic growth does not help the people in general in the face of a crisis of this magnitude. Corona crisis is teaching us another important aspect too. Apparent sophistication and the outward development is only an appearance. Deep down it does not affect the ordinary people. Governments and their policies must be for the welfare and well- being of the people.   

The worst affected section among the people due to Corona pandemic is our students. For them the Pandemic crisis and the subsequent lockdown has brought an unprecedented difficulty, coupled with anxiety and fear. All of a sudden an entire generation of children has seen their education interrupted. Nationwide school closures have disrupted the education of more than 1.57 billion students – 91 per cent – worldwide.  In our country, this is a crucial time for the education sector: board examinations, nursery school admissions, admission to other classes, entrance tests of various universities and competitive examinations, among others, are all held during this period.  As the days pass more than 285 million young learners in India are out of the school and we also face far-reaching economic and societal consequences.

Parents are concerned about their wards. Safety of the child is paramount overbearing for them.  But they are equally worried about the continuity of their children’s education. Schools are worried about the classes and Teaching-learning process. Teachers are worried about their continuity in their profession. Online classes are a means to engage their students.

As an immediate measure to stem the spread of Covid-19, most educational institutions have been shut since the end of March. It is still difficult to predict when schools, colleges and universities will reopen in India. HRD minister already announced that till August end schools will not be opened. That is understandable due to the risk involved when the spread of the virus is on the rise. There are very few options other than to shift to digital platforms from the traditional Chalk-board-talk mode of classroom learning. Teachers and school administrators have been advised to continue communication with students through online classes through portals like DEEKSHA. However, in the absence of physical classrooms and proper digital infrastructure, both teachers and students are facing unprecedented challenges. Many schools jumped into the fray and announced that they are going to have online classes for their wards. Many started the new academic year through online. Some governments like Kerala started online classes for all through common platform called Victors platform and live telecast through all the TV channels in Kerala, which is praise worthy.

It is interesting to note that the NCERT signed up with ROTARY International for Online classes! To make e-learning more constructive, NCERT and Rotary India digitally signed MoU for e-learning content telecast for class 1-12 overall NCERT TV channels in the presence of Union HRD Minister Shri Ramesh Pokhariyal 'Nishank' in New Delhi this week). Is Rotary International an education expert body?

We can raise lots of pertinent questions on the online classes. Online classes presuppose self-responsibility of the learner. In school level, children need help guidance and care. How well the Online Classes help our kids? Does it reach all our children urban, semi-urban and rural areas? Is there internet available for all? Do all our children have the necessary gadgets to use for online classes? Do all the students have necessary gadgets to have online classes? Do all have a space to study at home? Suppose in a home there is more than one kid studying in different classes and there is only one gadget for online study how are they going to have classes in time? If there is power cut and inclement weather is it easy for children to study online? What about the disabled children who need help?

The State government of Karnataka has decided to ban live virtual classes for pre-primary and lower primary (up to class 5) students. The decision was taken after the authorities received complaints from parents about the duration of online classes that private schools were conducting. After a meeting with experts and department officials, Primary and Secondary Education Minister S. Suresh Kumar, at a press conference on Wednesday (10th June 2020)), said that while live virtual classes were banned, schools could have pre-recorded modules, along the lines of those conducted by the department on DD Chandana. “Online classes cannot supplement classroom teaching. Many private schools are in a hurry to complete the syllabus but there is a need to move away from this approach,” he said. Now there is utter confusion on the issue of extending the ban till class 7 in Karnataka.

So there are deep concerns about the effectiveness of the online classes on the health of the kids on the one hand and on the other there is a serious concern on the accessibility, reachability and effectiveness in all parts of India. I have been interacting with numerous principals, HMs and Teachers through Webinars and Virtual meetings during the lockdown period. I found that even in the well-off city schools there are certain sizable number of children are deprived of the online class due to various reasons. So, one can imagine about our rural and remote villages. 

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The major challenge of Online classes is disparity in access – from electricity and internet connections to devices like computer or smartphones. Access to electricity is crucial for digital education, both for powering devices as well as for connecting to the internet. According to Protiva Kundu, “While the government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to households shows that almost 99.9% of homes India have a power connection, the picture is less luminous if we look at the quality of electricity and the number of hours for which it is available every day”. 

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. 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% Indians own a smartphone, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, which could include desktop computers, laptops, notebooks, netbooks, palmtops or tablets. So anyone who is aware of these realities will doubt about the ‘lofty idea’ of the online education.

Online education is economically cheap, avail in any place, can access to many courses simultaneously and it allows for self-paced learning. Students can take courses from their own devices anytime and anywhere. There are many advantageous of online classes. However, it must be available to all. Look at the dismal situation in our country; even the diffusion 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. (Ref: Prativa Kundu)

The digital divide is evident across class, gender, region or 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. These are stark realities. It is alarming to see the gender divide in internet users in our country. 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. The difference is starker in case of internet access. 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. In this context is online education, as we hear and read about, going to help our students or the Urban –rural divide is going to be further enhanced.

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. I think it is the duty of any responsible government to mitigate these disparities and division among rural and urban areas of India. Governments must priorities education and health care as basic needs of the people and work on them.

Apart from the digital divide, there are also other serious concerns about the success of online classes. Merely shifting classes to virtual more will not fulfill the requirement of integral education. We must teach the whole person, not intellectual faculty alone by giving some information of a subject. The biggest drawback of the online class is that it fails to give affective experience to children.  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 online education, the onus of learning is more on students, which requires self-discipline and self-responsibility. It is observed that sudden shift to online class was unprecedented and shocking for many of our teachers. Many of the teachers are comfortable with class room teaching only and therefore digitally inept. Many teachers are struggling to make their classes flawless and are afraid of the larger exposure they are forced to through this platform. Many of them have seen the parents sitting with their kids while the teacher is teaching. This gives them nervousness and anxiety. For children, learning demands conducive environment for study. Class room provided that atmosphere. They have their peer group, their mentor and free environment in a class room. Online class at home makes them so lonely and deprived of cooperative learning.

The only big player in handling the situation in this pandemic crisis and after, in my opinion, is the Central Govt. and state governments. All other agents like NGOs and many private players in the field of education can only complement the governments in providing better education to all. Governments must make up their minds about their priorities for people.  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. This shows the misplaced priorities of the govt.

 The Covid-19 pandemic is not going to go away that easily. Until a vaccine is found we must learn to live with it. Covid-19 spread 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. Therefore, a careful studied response to the so called ONLINE CLASSES is the need of the hour. Govt. must consult educational experts and other stakeholders in education instead of consulting the corporate digital companies and business groups. With regards to the opening of schools, it is wise to listen to some sane voices from health care, education, parents, teachers and student community to assess the ground realities.

“We have seen that adults, despite all the information given, are not able to follow the precautions well or completely, which has led to the community spread. Therefore, it is not right to expect children to follow the laid out precautions that we expect adults to follow. That is why schools should not reopen till all the cases of COVID-19 have been cleared for more than two weeks, or a vaccine has shown successful results in the prevention of COVID-19 virus,”   (Dr Praveen Gupta, Director & Head, Neurology, Fortis Memorial Research Institute, Gurugram). If so, the governments must come out with clear instructions and guidelines, after taking into consideration of the realistic picture of the online classes throughout the country as of now. For a long term strategy govts must work for education and health care as the major priorities in the next 5 years.

(*Sunny Jacob SJ is the Secretary of Jesuit Education South Asia, National Adviser to JAAI and Member of International Commission for Jesuit Education ICAJE).