By: Dr. Kumar Raka, Program Officer, CCDRR, NIDM & Editor-ICN
VIJAYWADA: India is one place in which the digital divide highlights society’s deep chasms. Internet penetration is associated with greater social progress of a nation. Thus digital divide in a way hinders the social progress of a country. The digital divide adversely impacting the capacity of children to learn and develop. Education is just one area that has highlighted the digital divide between India’s rural and urban areas during the lockdown. According to the NSSO (National Sample Survey Office) study, conducted between July 2017 and June 2018, just 4.4 rural households have a computer, against 14.4 per cent in an urban area. It had just 14.9 per cent rural households having access to the internet against 42 per cent households in urban areas. Similarly, only 13 per cent people of over five years of age in rural areas have the ability to use the internet and amongst them just 8.5 percent of females.
Further, India has among the world’s highest gender gap in access to technology. This disparity in internet use between boys and girls in the same family is representative of a larger trend in the country. According to GSMA’s 2020 mobile gender gap report, only 29 percent of internet users are female and 21 percent of women are mobile internet users, wherein 42 per cent of men have access. The report says that while 79 per cent of men own a mobile phone in the country, the number for women is 63 per cent. While there do economic barriers to girls’ own a mobile phone or laptop, cultural and social norms also play a major part. The male-female gap in mobile use often exacerbates other inequalities for women, including access to education, information, economic opportunities, and networking. The earning member of the family has to carry the phone while going out to work. If one family has just one phone, there is a good chance that the wife or the daughter will be the last one to use it.
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in an unprecedented crisis worldwide. India the second largest schooling system in the world has been forced to shut down schools to maintain social distancing, the most logical solution, to avoid the community transmission in general and also to ensure safety and security of children in particular. A total of 320 million students in India have been adversely affected and as an option to the prolonged school closure and to ensure continuity of education, the network of 1.5 million schools in the country has shifted to the e-learning module.
E-learning depends on availability and accessibility of technology. And with huge regional and household disparities in access to the internet and technology, this transition has not been possible for all students and educators equally. Besides non-availability of internet and gadgets (computers, laptops, mobiles etc.) electricity is yet another significant challenge in implementing E-learning module. In a recent 2017-18 survey, the Ministry of Rural Development found that only 47% of Indian households receive more than 12 hours of electricity and more than 36% of schools in India operate without electricity.
The data presented above suggests that while students from families with better means of living can easily bridge the transition to e-learning, students from underprivileged backgrounds are likely to succumb to inefficiency and a lack of adaptation, either because of the inaccessibility of the technology or the low education of their parents to guide them through tech-savvy applications. It has been observed and reported that not students are struggling in this transition but also teachers and institutions are not always trained and equipped to transition to online teaching. Many teachers are unqualified when it comes to using new technologies and interfaces.
While the recently drafted new education policy supports and endorses India as the flag-bearer of the digital revolution and acknowledges that it is a diverse and multilingual country, this already existing digital divide and sudden emphasis on technology-driven education is preventing many children in the country from continuing school education. The rapid and sudden shift to e-learning prompted by the pandemic has resurfaced long-standing issues of inequality and a digital divide that must be addressed by future economic, education and digitalization policies. If e-learning is the “new normal”, the policy must go further to address the feasibility of digitalization to ensure equity and quality in education.