Online education

Digital divide deprives have-nots of proper online education

Print edition : January 15, 2021

At an improvised classroom for poor students set up by unemployed graduates at a construction site in New Delhi, on December 9. Photo: Anindito Mukherjee/Getty Images

Students access e-learning content on mobile phones during the Online Education Mobile Library initiative in Mumbai on October 17. Photo: INDRANIL MUKHERJEE/AFP

The experience of Vidya Bhawan Society (VBS) in Udaipur shows that an enormous gulf exists between the digital haves and have-nots in the realm of online school education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has uncovered the most ugly and frightening aspects of the digital divide in the domain of education. It reproduces the urban, semi-urban and rural divide ruthlessly; it also shows what might potentially be the narrative across different kinds of schools such as government schools (municipal, Central, Navodaya, and so on) and public schools (private elite schools in urban metros, urban street, rural English-medium, and so on).

Even if we try to paint the intra-area and intra-school type heterogeneity with a broad brush, every member of the urban elite family is likely to have a dedicated high-end digital device (Android or Apple smartphone, tablet or laptop) with high-speed uninterrupted broadband connectivity; the semi-urban may have dedicated or shared devices among the school/college-going members with a middle-level device and frequently interrupted broadband connectivity; the rural areas, populated largely by the most marginalised sections of society, are likely to have at best a low-end Android or Reliance Jio phone with extremely low connectivity.
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The minimal requirements for a meaningful online interaction would be the availability of a laptop or tablet (phone screens are not just large enough for interactive work and large files), uninterrupted broadband connectivity and a quiet corner at home to study.

We will look at the issue of online teaching through the lens of the experience of Vidya Bhawan Society (VBS), Udaipur (Rajasthan).

Vidya Bhawan Survey

VBS has seven teaching institutions: three schools, two teacher training colleges, a rural institute offering graduate and postgraduate courses and a polytechnic. It undertook an online survey during June and July this year to find out how best to reach out to its students online to minimise the academic loss being caused by the pandemic lockdown.

In terms of its philosophical underpinnings, VBS is committed to reaching out especially to girls and students from minorities and marginalised backgrounds.

It conducted an online survey (through the school register and calling families on phone) to collect data of 37 variables regarding the students and their families, including gender, class, category, family’s socio-economic status in terms of parents’ education, occupation and income, number of members in the family and the size of the house, nature of connectivity and the number and kind of digital devices available.

It reached out to 3,159 students and their families through phone. It was a matter of great surprise and pleasure for VBS that over 72 per cent students had some smart device and the online project could be started in all earnestness. But it soon became obvious that what the students had essentially belonged to the whole family (head of the family, to be more precise) and was largely used as a phone. Most students did not have their own device, nor did they have the kind of connectivity needed for online classes. They also did not know how to operate these phones for educational purposes.
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Of the 3,159 students surveyed, 261 (about 8 per cent) had no device; depending on the institution, this proportion could be as high as 20 per cent. As far as connectivity was concerned, 631 (about 20 per cent) had only 2G or 3G connectivity. Ideally, students should have a broadband connection to be able to do anything substantial online but only 4 per cent of the total number of families surveyed had broadband connectivity. Even in the cases where 4G or broadband was available, there was a major issue of a specific point in or around the house where uninterrupted connectivity was available.

Less than 8 per cent of the students had laptops, desktops or tablets where large screens could be in sync with the demands of online teaching. Even in these cases, there were issues of dedicated device, connectivity and quiet space at home. Given this situation, synchronous online teaching seemed impossible; even asynchronous online-offline combination appeared to produce limited results.

Socio-economic background

In spite of VBS’ proactive philosophy of promoting education of the girl child, girls remain highly under-represented in almost all its institutions except in the case of teacher training colleges, where the social pressures themselves are in favour of girls. Out of the total of 3,159 VBS students, only 1,082, or 34 per cent, were girls.

In the case of education of parents, 12 per cent of the men had none, 8 per cent only primary education, 20 per cent middle-school level and 25 per cent high-school level of education. Some 18 per cent had attended senior secondary school; only 11 per cent were graduates and 6 per cent postgraduates.

The educational background of the mothers of students was expectedly still lower. Some 29 per cent had no education, 16 per cent only primary, 20 per cent middle-school level and 17 per cent high-school level of education. Only 12 per cent of the mothers were either graduates or postgraduates. It would be reasonable to conclude that students in general received very little academic support at home.

As far as parents’ occupations were concerned, over 71 per cent of the men worked as farmers, construction workers, vegetable vendors, tea stall owners, guards, gardeners, small contractors, electricians, plumbers, carpenters, drivers, embroidery workers, and so on. About 94 per cent of the women were either homemakers managing the enormous responsibilities of running the household or did small jobs like selling vegetables or worked as labour on a daily basis.
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Over 55 per cent of the students came from households where the family’s monthly income was less than Rs.10,000. About 25 per cent of them were from families with a monthly income of about Rs.15,000. Only 19 per cent came from families with monthly incomes above Rs.20,000. There were just 11 families, or 1 per cent of the total VBS population, where the monthly family income was above Rs.50,000.

In spite of VBS’ proactive philosophy of encouraging students from the minorities, only 1.6 per cent of the total number of students hail from minority backgrounds, when over 16 per cent of Udaipur’s population consists of minorities.

Udaipur district is representative of urban, semi-urban and rural areas including minority and tribal groups; if you map these numbers nationally, the picture in terms of students who are without any device or any worthwhile connectivity indeed looks very grim. It is even more depressing when we consider the fact that the data pertain to the family as a whole—that is, the whole family owns one device in the case of the 72 per cent who have a device. Needless to say, it is primarily meant for the use of the head of the family who, in most cases, would be out of the house for long periods and the device may be available to the learners for a very limited period.

There were indeed some houses with two or three devices, but in such houses as many people were employed. One can only imagine the not-so-uncommon situation of a family with two or three school- or college-going children. If we add the features of Internet and data storage to these requirements, the online project at the moment appears to be fraught with dangers in the sense that it is out of reach for most of the students for any significant use.
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One should, therefore, not be surprised at the results of the 2018 National Sample Survey, which found that only 14.4 per cent of urban and 4.4 per cent of rural households had a computer and only 42 per cent of urban and 15 per cent of rural households had any Internet facility. Devices, connectivity and data all cost money, and most of the VBS families are poor.

We are told that the quality and number of digital devices is going to multiply manifold soon and that it will be within the reach of a common person to have a dedicated device. We are also told that the quality and speed of connectivity, data and Internet access will soon improve dramatically and cover the entire country. It is indeed possible that the unequal distribution of the digital devices, connectivity and virtual classrooms may be levelled out, although the damage done during the current pandemic is past that stage.

Virtual classrooms

The moot question is whether the virtual classroom, even at its best, can ever become a substitute for a real-life classroom. Even in cases where all was in order in terms of dedicated devices, connectivity, data and a quiet corner at home, there were complaints from both teachers and students. Those who had just low-end smartphones complained of their inability to download images, tables and graphs as well as PDF files since they had no access to Adobe. Most missed the two-way dialogue possible only in a classroom, where every gesture is an integral part of the pedagogical transaction. A glow in the eyes of students or a smile or an indication of feeling lost may speak volumes that any virtual classroom may fail to capture.

In the VBS online classes, students hardly ever asked questions. Those who were not serious simply left their image on the screen; videos of instances of students watching TV, films or WhatsApp messages during online classes have gone viral. Teachers found it difficult to handle a situation where they were regarded as being on duty all the time. Since everything was being done from home, timetables could be organised any which way and meetings could be organised at any odd hour. Also, for the first time the teachers had to get prepared for every lecture being recorded, completely losing the spontaneity of classroom interaction. Even in countries where the best of the digital world is available, students, teachers and parents insist on real-world classroom learning. There is no substitute for a classroom where peer-group interaction is the essence of learning.
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A carefully crafted combination of common schools and online programmes may add considerable value to education.

Unfortunately, the National Education Policy 2020 moves away from the idea of a common school system, encouraging privatisation of education and pushing the marginalised sections of society further to the margins. For them, the future looks dismal both in terms of schooling and digital empowerment.

(Thanks are due to Pushpraj, Arun and Aditya for their inputs.)

Rama Kant Agnihotri retired from Delhi University and is currently Professor Emeritus with Vidya Bhawan Society, Udaipur.

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