The Coronavirus Pandemic and the Question of Digital Divide in the Indian Educational Landscape

In a country where access to technological solutions to learning and computer literacy are rare, can an overarching emphasis on e-learning deliver justice?

online education in india

The proposition that learning can only take place in the domain of schooling is a myth that all of us have been compelled to live up to until the Covid-19 pandemic infectiously engulfed the entire world. The outbreak of the novel Covid-19 global pandemic has led to the closure of educational institutions and this has significantly affected more than 290 million students across 22 countries and more than 32 crore students in India, according to UNESCO.

The recent order mandating the creation of shelters in different parts  of the country by the government of India due to the pandemic has definitely refined the learning process in the form of e-schooling as education/the pursuit of the academic curriculum cannot wait. 

Conventional classroom teaching is no longer an option and educational institutions are increasingly turning to e-learning. 

Online teaching is something that many institutions are contemplating. The unprecedented rise and success of digital platforms and Apps such as Google Classroom, Zoom, Udemy, EDX, Cisco WebEx meetings, etc are creating alternative learning pathways to avoid a disruption in the educational process. 

According to a survey conducted in India that spans across 14 states and covers more than 38,564 parents, it was reported that the reliance upon E-schooling has grown and 61% families are opting for it. The convivial way of learning will ensure creativity unlike schools, because here the tools of learning will be in the hands of people, and that’s the silver lining in the cloud. The reliance upon E-learning is increasing rapidly, and is going to rule the roost in the times ahead.

Is the school only about compulsory attendance, memorisation and rote learning through the ritualisation of a fixed curriculum, graded learning and examinations? E-schooling has changed the entire conception of institutionalized learning. And has provided for the need of continuing educational activities despite the closure of formal/concrete classrooms.

As we advocate the paradigm shift in learning methods in the changing scenario, the question that arises is whether this overnight change is equally accessible for all sections of the student populace?The majority of marginalised students are unable to explore online resources due to the dearth of e-learning know-how and paucity of required infrastructure that includes laptops, tablets, smartphones and internet facility. So is it fair to reach one set of students smoothly through the internet while reaching the other set becomes a day dream?

 Living in a country where socioeconomic divisions are deeply rooted, access to computers, and internets is scanty, it is time to rethink the sheen that we attach to online teaching-learning .
The growing digital divide with embedded gender and class divides is growing at an alarming rate and has created turmoil for unprivileged students who do not have access to internet or those who are struggling with spotty broadband and poor connectivity, such as students residing in J&K where connectivity is limited to 2G. There has been a huge disparity in terms of access from electricity to internet connectivity.

While digital access has been one of the hindering factors for most of the students in India, there is also a gender dimension to the inequality. According to the latest report of UNESCO, due to the outbreak of Covid-19, girls are going to be hit the most as it will lead to increase in the drop-out rates and further entrench gender gaps in education. 

In India majority of students hail from a conservative families where the boys are much more likely than their female counterparts to use a computer and own smartphones with internet. As per the Internet and Mobile Association of India report, in 2019, while 67% men had access to internet, this figure was only at 33% for women. 

Thus, the online mode of learning is becoming unaffordable for the marginalised sections as it requires top-notch smartphones along with super-fast internet connections and ample of mobile data. This has led to a dangerous kind of pedagogical alienation which is even worse than the Marxist notion of labour alienation.

Amid increasing uncertainties regarding the opening of institutional arenas and the need to safeguard the Right to Education, there is a desperate need to bring a revolutionary change in the pattern of education in the country. These disruptions in the delivery of education should be a major concern for policy-makers to figure out how to drive engagement at scale while ensuring inclusive e-learning solutions and tackling the digital divide. If the educational institutions remain closed for longer periods of time, then it is important for schools and universities to subsidise smartphones, focus more upon content-full delivery rather than assigning assignments which are becoming difficult to access especially for students residing in remote areas.

Orusa Karim is a Research Scholar at the Department of Sociology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

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