Close the digital gaps: Govt must provide devices & internet to poor students

By: |
October 31, 2020 6:15 AM

The ASER report shows access to smartphones has almost doubled since its 2018 survey—against 36.5% households having a smartphone then, now 62% household have access; what is encouraging is that 11% purchased a new phone to support children’s education.

That said, while only a quarter of students in private schools didn’t have access to a smartphone, this was the case with nearly 44% of government schools students.That said, while only a quarter of students in private schools didn’t have access to a smartphone, this was the case with nearly 44% of government schools students.

The unprecedented digital adoption in education catalysed by the pandemic—all gains considered—will likely exacerbate the sharp differences in learning outcomes between public (catering for the poor) and private (catering for the better off) schools. That is, unless the government steps in to bridge the digital divide that the pandemic has brought into sharp relief. The latest ASER report, which quantifies the divide, should serve as a statement of the problem for the government—both Centre and the states—on which to draw up an action plan. Else, with ‘classes as usual’ seeming a feeble, distant possibility given the pandemic is not expected to relent any time soon, the digital divide and shut schools will be a double whammy for the economically vulnerable in the country.

The ASER report shows access to smartphones has almost doubled since its 2018 survey—against 36.5% households having a smartphone then, now 62% household have access; what is encouraging is that 11% purchased a new phone to support children’s education. That said, while only a quarter of students in private schools didn’t have access to a smartphone, this was the case with nearly 44% of government schools students. Assuming lack of access to any other device, digital roll-out effectively means that nearly half the government school students already lag their peers in terms of just access to online education. Given, nearly half the academic year has already passed, and early adoption by private schools, the disparity in learning outcomes between government schools students and private school students is likely to be already quite pronounced. What makes the matter worse is that government school enrolments have seen a rather large jump this year, accounting for 66.4% of the boys and 73% of girls compared with 62.8% and 70% in 2018. The digital divide also means that students in government schools have to rely on visits for accessing learning material. In terms of online learning, 28.7% private school students were able to access video/recorded classes, and 17.7% could access live classes, whereas, in the government schools, only 18.3% and 8.1% could do so, respectively. Reading these findings with previous years’ trends—in 2018, 65.1% of Class V students in private schools could read Class II text, while only 44.2% in government schools could so—indicates a possible deterioration in learning levels among government school students. If the chasm widens, the future of an entire generation of economically vulnerable students will get jeopardised.

The government must reorient its strategy to bridge the digital divide and stem its impact on education. Even without the pandemic, the differences in learning levels were worrying. The New Education Policy has set a target of 6% of GDP for public spending on education by 2030; perhaps, to get started on this, the government should consider providing all students with a digital device (a budget tablet or a smartphone) and sustained internet connection—a bulk purchase by the government would allow it obtain a competitive reduction in prices. CSR, too, can be roped in for this. The government needs to act on this fast.

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