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Deepening of the Digital Divide

29 Jul 2020

By:- Prof. Tanuka Endow

A girl studying in Class 9 in Kerala allegedly committed suicide for not being able to attend online classes as the family did not have any facility for her to attend the classes. Her father is a daily wage worker I . At a less serious level, a boy studying in class 10 in Noida cannot complete his online examination because his mobile data suddenly runs out. His father was a petty contractor and has lost his job following the Covid pandemic. Another class 10 student in a Noida school misses three weeks of class in the crucial Boards year because she and her family members did not have familiarity with going online for zoom classes organized by the school. Her father works as a security guard. All these incidents are taking place during lockdown following the Covid-pandemic.

Just pause and think a moment. Will it be acceptable to wealthier parents that their child misses school, that too, for weeks on end, because she cannot afford to go online, or she does not understand the technology? That he scores zero in an exam because his mobile data ran out? Yet for scores of students from the poorer strata of the society, this is the reality. The divisions that have long existed between the haves and the have-nots, those who speak English and those who do not, now have an added dimension –the digital divide.

Of course the digital divide had been there before Covid as well, and had played an important role in differentiating access to education for students coming from different socio-economic strata. But following the lockdown which forced the brick and mortar schools to shut down for months on end, access to technology has become a game-changer and the digital divide has become stark, and plain for everyone to see.

The school education set-up in India, in its pre-Covid form, has been largely traditional with children going to brick and mortar schools and being taught by school-teachers. There had been little online classroom instruction, although in higher education, there were more use of such avenues in the form of MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses).

Amidst lockdown and social distancing, not only could the teacher not be physically present (as in MOOC), but even students could not attend schools. In such a situation, the most widely prevailing technological solutions used for classroom instructions have been use of apps such as zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. used for online teaching. These can be used on personal computers and on mobiles. But in this technology-driven dispensation of education, there are huge implications for social equity in the area of classroom instructions.

School education in India caters to a widely varying pool of students and this can be ascertained from the heterogeneity of the schools. Three major categories of schools imparting education are government schools, government aided private schools and private schools. In terms of enrolment, the share of private schools has increased rapidly at the expense of government schools. The government school share in elementary (classes 1 to 8) enrolment declined from 80.4% II in 2003 to 58.6% III in 2016-17. Private unaided schools accounted for 30.7% of elementary enrolment in 2016-17.

Both government and private schools have different types of schools within them and particularly, private schools charge a wide range of fees IV . Among these, private schools which charge very low fees have been regarded as filling a gap in demand for schooling in India since these provide education at low cost to the poor. Such schools are called Low Cost Private Schools (LCPS) or Budget Schools.

A study of such LCPS in Delhi National Capital Region finds that students who attend such schools belong to lower socio-economic strata, parents have low education levels and are in low-income occupation such as drivers, constructions workers, electricians, tailors, security guards, domestic workers, etc. V Despite the lower fees in such schools, the costs of educating children are a fairly high proportion of the earnings of the families concerned VI . Thus the segment of population who deserve a quality education at the basic level, as assured by the Right to Education Act, are being deprived, exacerbating the inequity in educational access in our society.

In the post-Covid situation, the social inequity stems from other areas also as the digital divide deepens.

Costs with technology adoption: With more dependence on technology, poor families start at a disadvantage since many cannot afford even a single computer, let alone more than one, as may well be needed in families with working parents and school-going children. They would have to depend on mobiles for attending online instructions. While mobile penetration in India is fairly high, it is not hundred percent. Secondly, the recharge costs for mobile data may prove prohibitive. Other disadvantages are the competing demand for resources between parents and children and between one or more school-going children. Reading on a small screen continuously would be harmful for the eyes, but taking printouts will involve additional costs and may not be feasible at all at the time of lockdown. What compounds the problems is that post-lockdown, the main earners in many of the poorer families do not have the earlier income-flow, as they have lost jobs or have switched to other less remunerative work.

Environment: The poor often live in areas affected dis-proportionately by power-cuts, problems in internet availability, etc. Language is a challenge area, since online transactions (except for direct interactions with teacher) and associated instructions will mostly be in English. The environment in their homes is usually not suitable for studying. Such families often live in small dwellings, sometimes 4 to 5 people in a room, with inadequate light and air. The atmosphere is noisy, with not only noise within the home, but with the street sounds clearly audible inside the homes.

Instructional and assessment challenges: The classroom transactions taking place through apps is, as observed from anecdotal experience, often suffers from serious deficit, since it is largely a one-way process with teachers talking and children logging online to listen. The explanation of lessons also suffers because of the limited time available. Assessment is a major issue as answer-sheets cannot be checked individually and MCQs is a preferred option or at best short questions.

Guidance in studies: One of the biggest constraints, which exists even for pre-Covid situation, is that there is hardly anyone at home who can help these children with their studies. With use of online technology, anecdotal evidence indicates that even children in lower classes (such as primary level) from higher economic strata need a lot of hand-holding from their parents for following classroom instructions. For children belonging to poorer strata, it is extremely challenging for young children to attend classes since their parents have low levels of education, and are often technically challenged in terms of requirement for online studying.

Gender issues: India largely has a patriarchal setting, so girls staying at home all day and learning through computers are more in danger of being under pressure to do household chores with neglect of lessons. They may run a greater risk of dropping out compared to when they had been attending school. They are also in danger of suffering from social isolation since attending school often provides a window of freedom to girl students, where they can mingle with their peers without familial supervision. This teaches girls, especially those from poor socio-economic strata who have limited opportunity for social interaction, to interact with outside world, managing their daily activities on their own, which makes them smarter and more empowered. Staying at home for the major part of the time will have the family as the major influencer in their lives and the risk for child marriage and drop out will increase, while their agency as independent individuals may get adversely affected. The pressure on family income is also likely to increase the pressure to get girls married early.

During the lockdown period, with social distancing, it is difficult to obtain systematic observations about the digital divide that is affecting so many children in our country. Some preliminary work by Unesco and Save the Children VII indicates that school closures carry high social and economic costs for people across communities all over the world, and such impact is severe for the most vulnerable and marginalized children. Reportedly up to 9.7 million children are at risk of dropping out of school due to rising levels of child poverty VIII. The Unesco report highlights how the school closures exacerbate already existing disparities within the education system. Other adverse aspects include interrupted learning, nutrition deficit, high economic costs, social isolation, challenges in measuring/validating learning. In India, reportedly many of the low cost private schools or budget schools are shutting down as many families cannot afford to pay school fees in the economic crisis following the lockdown IX . A study attempting to estimate how much the COVID-19 interruption will affect learning, indicates a non-zero loss of less than 10% of a standard deviation X . The assessment also gets adversely affected.

It is true that technology has been of great utility in terms of providing a semblance of continuity in schooling and is very likely the way to go in future. But in a society as deeply unequal as in India, there is an urgent need for ways to redress the problems created by the deepening digital divide and create a level playing field. With an intent to bypass the digital divide to the extent possible, the Delhi government has recently announced a one month plan according to which government schools will follow a path of ‘learning with human feel’ whereby teachers will maintain as much one-to-one contact with students as possible XI . The children from KG to Class 8 will learn via whatsapp groups, as they had been doing so far, and teachers will maintain contact with students over the phone. Care would be taken that the children without the whatsapp facility are not left behind. The concerned teachers will meet the parents periodically so that they are familiar with the instructions, worksheets, etc. and so that the teachers can monitor the children’s progress. Such concern for acknowledging the digital divide and attempts to tackle it is indeed the way the education system must go in the interest of attaining equitable access to education.


I Media report accessed at https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/kerala-girl-commits-suicide-for-missing-online-class-1684595-2020-06-02

II Accessed at http://udise.in/Downloads/Publications/Publications%202004-05/AR0405/Enrolment.pdf on 23rd August 2017

III Accessed at http://udise.in/Downloads/Publications/Documents/Analytical_Table_2015-16.pdf on 23rd August 2017

IV Srivastava and Noronha 2013

V Endow 2018

VI Endow 2019

VII Accessed at https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/consequences> and ‘Save our Education’, 2020, report by Save the Children accessed at https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/17871/pdf/save_our_education_0.pdf

VIII ‘Save our Education’, 2020, report by Save the Children accessed at https://resourcecentre.savethechildren.net/node/17871/pdf/save_our_education_0.pdf

IX ‘How Education Got Upended in the Lockdown’, in Times of India July 19, 2020.

X ‘Schools, skills, and learning: The impact of COVID-19 on education’ by Simon Burgess, Hans Henrik Sievertsen 01 April 2020, accessed at https://voxeu.org/article/impact-covid-19-education

XI Announcement by Deputy CM of Delhi Government accessed at https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/delhi-announces-learning-with-human-feel-to-bridge-digital-divide-during-covid-crisis/story-4IYzaGARzFD7lbl7Pf2eGM.html>

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