By Siddhant N Sinha
The education sector has been acutely affected by Covid-19, and the UNESCO reported that the lockdown impacted over 300 million students. Unable to host physical classes, most schools shifted to virtual learning methods. There are numerous benefits of virtual classes, such as continuity of education, flexibility and remote access. However, when you consider the fact that not everyone is equipped with the technology required to capitalise on online education, the inequities of this method become apparent. This new system of education has been difficult for many students, in particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
First, given the lack of access to the internet for most households in India, traditional learning in schools and classrooms has a far broader scope than web-based learning. Though a 2018 Pew Survey stated that around 64% Indian households have mobile phones, online education requires internet-enabled smartphones, which the aforementioned survey suggested less than a quarter of Indians had access to. Access to laptops and tablets is even more uncommon. Even with households that have mobile equipment, it is primarily the elders who use it. Therefore, the younger members (often students) have to rely on sharing these devices, and as those with these devices are out to earn a living, the mobile equipment is unavailable. This severely disrupts remote learning.
In addition to a lack of access to smartphones or e-learning devices for many students, there is another problem that causes inequity—despite various government initiatives, nearly 50% of the country does not have access to the internet. Therefore, disadvantaged communities from rural and urban areas not only have to depend on public Wi-Fi access to a large extent, but also have to deal with the volatility of weak internet connection due to dated broadband services. Uninterrupted, reliable internet access, an integral element of effective online education, is still a luxury.
Another inequity arises when we consider the provision of online education. Communities with lesser disposable income often send their children to government schools, which often do not have the finances or infrastructure to support virtual learning. Even with adequate funds, online education also requires innovative pedagogical methods and a comprehensive understanding of e-learning tools such as Zoom, Notepad, etc, which most teachers are not sufficiently trained for and may not even have access to.
Most potential solutions for reducing these inequities depend largely on significant investments by the government in education technology, especially after this pandemic. Other than improving internet access, there needs to be appropriate training and infrastructure available for teachers so that this new form of e-learning is efficient, engaging and impactful.
With education moving online, it is crucial that universal digital literacy becomes a priority at the grass-roots and the national level. According to a Digital Empowerment Foundation study, digital literacy is almost non-existent for over 90% of the rural Indian population. If digital literacy is acclerated, especially in remote areas and among disadvantaged sections in urban areas, students from these communities can capitalise on online education, and overcome inequities surrounding it.
We live in the digital age, and online education is now more important than ever. The internet, once a luxury, should now be considered a basic right. There is a great opportunity for corporations to step in and play a role in improving digital access. While inequities will continue to persist, both in and outside the classroom, we must strive to bridge these gaps. The youth are the future, and they deserve a wholesome education, unless we wish for them to enter a dark future, riddled with inequalities stemming from the inequities of online education.
Though this is a snapshot of the plight of many disadvantaged students from India, it is not limited to India as many students across the world are facing this problem. It is time to act to protect the dreams of many to get that degree and a bright future they have just begun to dream of.
The author is founder, SUN Foundation