Online classes throw bigger challenges as students confronted with glaring digital divide: Experts

Suicide by a Kerala schoolgirl allegedly over not having access to a smartphone to attend online classes, stories of students in remote areas having to sit on rooftops to catch Internet and siblings competing to get their parents’ gadgets. 

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Suicide by a Kerala schoolgirl allegedly over not having access to a smartphone to attend online classes, stories of students in remote areas having to sit on rooftops to catch Internet and siblings competing to get their parents’ gadgets.  These could be isolated cases of struggle by students to attend online classes but they reflect the larger challenge of “digital divide” across the country which could have a devastating impact on students as well as the enrolment numbers as those without digital access are at the risk of dropping out altogether, experts have warned.

The lockdown induced by the COVID-19 pandemic in March prompted schools and colleges to move to the virtual world for teaching and learning activities. However, the digital divide in the country may turn online classes into an “operational nightmare”, the experts believe. According to the Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey, less than 15 per cent of rural Indian households have access to Internet as opposed to 42 per cent in urban households and the poorest households cannot afford a smartphone or a computer.

“The implications of school closures in the country due to COVID-19 pandemic are not just about education. They are manifold. The Kerala schoolgirl’s death, pictures of a girl trying to study from a tilted rooftop to get signals, three kids in a house trying to have their share of their parents’ phone to attend the lessons, these are worrisome case studies.  “An unprecedented social disaster can be avoided if more entities pitch into short-term and long-term future of the children in this digital divide,” said Rajni Palriwala, HOD, Department of Sociology, Delhi University.

Universities and schools across the country have been closed since March 16, when the Centre announced a countrywide classroom shutdown as part of a slew of measures to contain the COVID-19 outbreak.  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. While the government has announced easing of certain restrictions, schools and colleges continue to remain closed.

“It is good that we have moved online for teaching and learning to ensure that schooling is not completely suspended. But there is a flip-side to it too. When the world has moved indoors and technology has taken over major roles, the digital have-nots are pushed to the edge. Sooner or later they will be left out of the race.  “The students in rural India or the poor populace in urban centres are having extreme difficulties in using such services and we don’t have any policy in place to address that. In a way, we are only heading towards an operational nightmare,” a Delhi University professor said.

The professor is among a group of four faculty members who have written a letter to President Ram Nath Kovind against Delhi University’s decision to conduct online exams through open-book mode, saying it will push students belonging to economically weaker section and those with disabilities on the wrong side of the digital divide. “Education is the greatest equalizer but the coronavirus crisis has come as a setback to this journey in important ways. When schools and colleges move online, students with lesser digital access get further disadvantaged, and those without any digital access are at risk of dropping out altogether.

“Especially, at the school level, the digital divide poses a risk of nullifying some of India’s hard-won enrolment gains,” said Sangeeta D Gadre, a professor at Kirori Mal College. The principal of a school in Haryana’s Mewat, who refused to be identified, said, “Like every other country, India is also witnessing an e-learning boom. Classes on Zoom, WhatsApp and Skype are becoming the norm. But the digital disparity is growing starker as more schools begin to adopt virtual tools.”

“We are reading a lot about how learning is happening online, but are not able to implement it here (Mewat) for the simple reason that not everyone has access to a smartphone or Internet. There can be no shortcuts to either learning or inclusivity. Our policy-makers need to address the fact that online courses will exclude numerous students,” she said. Infosys Chairman Nandan Nilekani has also flagged the issue, saying the shift to online learning is only a “short-term response”.

“Reimagining education and staying ahead of the curve should be the number 1 priority for the government right now. For households that don’t have access to smartphone or feature phone, we will have to use our physical infrastructure.  “People may not have a device but they could be close to a digital service centre which will have the devices. Worksheets can be delivered to students and once student finishes the worksheets it can be delivered back to the centres. The centres can then upload the worksheet. Himachal is doing this. We will have to innovate,” he said at a virtual conference on “Reimagining Education”.

Urvashi Sahni, a fellow at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution, said, “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”.  “Access to technology and Internet is an urgent requirement in the information age. It should no longer be a luxury,” she said.

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