Covid-19: The perils of the digital divide

  • Digital education poses many challenges, which are psychological, socio-economic, and gendered. To ensure inclusive and wholesome education, schools must reopen
The complexity of access to education must be understood in the context of its impact on the marginalised. (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
The complexity of access to education must be understood in the context of its impact on the marginalised. (Shutterstock)
Published on Jan 16, 2022 08:45 PM IST
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In recent years, several cross-currents impacted by the communications revolution, the mushrooming of social media platforms and the spread of the pandemic in its various manifestations, have affected lifestyles at all levels. During the ongoing pandemic, online activity allows for an alternative way of living, working and providing goods and services. While we extol the virtues of digital platforms, we lose sight of the India that is deprived and is feeling isolated. Connectivity is largely for those already connected and far removed from those who feel disconnected.

The digital divide has affected our children the most. Education in the digital mode poses several challenges. In this context, it is important to understand what a classroom space means for a child. It is not meant only to test the child’s memory or performance in examinations, but has a far more pivotal role to play in the child’s upbringing.

That space allows for opportunities and dialogue to appreciate the wealth of diversity the classroom represents. The values of life, important to the child’s onward journey, are to be learned through discourses in that social space where the teacher guides. An absence of such interactions creates loneliness and even depression. Learning away from the classroom deprives the child of the space needed for his essential development needs. A class is not just a space for transmission of knowledge, but is transformational in ways other than the accumulation of knowledge. It allows for bonding and learning from others. These bonds, if nurtured, have societal implications. It is a space where the student questions and articulates freely. It allows the students to share knowledge fundamental to the learning process. All these are absent in the virtual space.

Literacy and education are two different concepts. Literacy involves the basic skills to learn. Education requires the wherewithal to become responsible members of society. Digital education may make us literate but may not ensure that our children grow up educated.

Most of our children have lost years of schooling, deprived of interactions in the classroom, and missed out on the guidance of their teachers. A large majority had little access to the internet, and without smartphones, could neither access data nor connect with their schools. Schools and colleges across the country have been shut since the end of March 2020 with the imposition of the nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Many schools and colleges are yet to reopen fully. Meanwhile, online classes and examinations have become increasingly common.

The push towards online classes and the use of digital technology in primary, secondary and higher education predates the pandemic. But it has garnered greater attention due to pandemic-induced curbs on physical meetings and classes. While the National Education Policy (July, 2020) projected digital learning as the game changer and encouraged its adoption, the policy unwittingly fuels the digital divide because of a lack of digital infrastructure and access to technology devices (the internet): 27% of children do not have access to smartphones and laptops to attend classes in virtual mode (NCERT 2020); 84% of teachers reported facing challenges in delivering education digitally with close to half of them facing issues related to the internet (Oxfam, 2020). This digital divide leaves around 80% of our children outside the digital learning process.

This digital divide has also impacted our girl students adversely, although this gender discrimination has not been fully assessed. This can lead to higher risk of girls permanently dropping out of school. Considering our traditional biases, families possessing a single smartphone are likely to prefer their sons to access digital classes.

The complexity of access to education must also be understood in the context of its impact on the marginalised. For example, only 12% of Scheduled Tribes, 16% of Scheduled Castes, 22% of Other Backward Classes have access to the internet. The figure for general category students is 39% (NSSO Education Survey 2017-18). This reflects the inequality in distribution of digital technology across social groups. According to the U-DISE (Unified District Information System for Education), only 35.1% government schools have access to functional computers (2016-17). Overall, the percentage of schools with functional computers is, in fact, down from 42.1% (2012-13) to 36.8% (2016-17). Obviously, the government has failed to digitally equip the new schools established. So much for its digital revolution.

Overreliance on technology and online programmes is both impractical and unproductive. That 80% of children from marginalised backgrounds would even be excluded from the limited benefits of learning through digital mode is evident from the Covid-19 pandemic.

Knowledge, not skills, can be acquired digitally. Experiments in the lab are needed for physics and chemistry. We can’t produce engineers with knowledge about machines, without the skill to design and operate them. Knowledge can be delivered and learned. Skill needs experimentation and experience, which cannot be delivered online. Online education producing graduates without skills impacts employability, which is why only one-fourth of engineers in India are truly employable.

We need to restore the classrooms as soon as possible. Online learning can never be a substitute. It can enable students to access information. While online learning should not be discarded altogether, its benefits should be availed within the environment of the classroom. That is where children blossom and discover themselves.

Kapil Sibal is a former Union Cabinet minister 

The views expressed are personal

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Wednesday, July 06, 2022