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Equitable Use of Technology in India: E-Learning in the Pandemic

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Purusharth Chawla
June 13, 2021

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all sectors and fields across the globe. These effects have been devastating particularly for the poor, marginalized and lower-middle-class, especially in third world nations. One of the significantly hit sectors is education, which has been forced online everywhere, including in developed, developing or under-developed countries. With around 250 million children in school, India encountered one of the world’s largest digital divides.

Current status of digital literacy in India

The Annual Status of Education Report by Pratham Education Foundation (published in October 2020) showed only 32.5% of Indian students could attend online classes, while only 8.1% of government school children were able to do so. The country reported several cases of school dropouts in 2020: “Poor connectivity during distance learning frustrates students. While access to technology is a huge challenge for rural children, parents in urban India are wary of sending children to school due to the virus. The common challenge is the mode of learning in the coming months, which will determine how many will return,” said Srini Raghavan, co-founder and chief executive officer at Educational Initiatives.

There has been a significant urban-rural divide affecting India’s digital gap. As per a survey by National Statistics Office (NSO), Government of India, titled, “Household Social Consumption on Education,” there is a significant difference in the availability of computers with only 4% of the rural population having access, as opposed to 23% of the urban population. Internet access differs heavily as well: only 15% of rural households have access to the internet vs. 42% of urban households. The survey also highlighted gaps in digital literacy: while 32.4% of children in urban households know how to operate a computer, only 10% of children in rural households know how to do so. The report estimated that India needs more than 80 lakh hotspots against the availability of about 31,000 hotspots at present to reach the global level of one Wi-Fi hotspot penetration for every 150 people.

Digital India Initiative and the education sector in India

The Digital India program launched in 2015 under the Narendra Modi-led government. At its core, it promotes consistent effort to advance digital literacy in the country and provide last-mile connectivity via optical fibre in villages and towns.

According to the Government of India, the Digital India program is centered on three key vision areas:

1.     Digital infrastructure as a core utility to every citizen: Ensuring the availability of high-speed internet as a core utility for the delivery of services to citizens, along with safe and secure cyberspace.

2.     Governance and services on demand: Providing e-governance and seamlessly integrated services across departments or jurisdictions in real-time from online and mobile platforms.

  1. Digital empowerment of citizens: Providing universal digital literacy and digital resources/services in Indian languages.

Through the Digital India program, the government has initiated the Bharat Net Project to connect all existing 250,000 gram p-anchayats of the country by providing a fibre-optic network. The ambitious program has achieved 140,000 connections thus far, according to the government. Increasing digital infrastructure will help bridge the urban-rural divide and ensure the availability of online education to the corners of the nation. The government is working to establish Common Service Centres to promote digital inclusion and enable digital services through the internet in rural areas. In this direction, the government aimed at spending Rs. 39.58 billion on the Digital India Program for the year 2020-21, an increase of 23% from prior years’ budgets.

The government, alongside private institutions, also has launched several online courses to ensure education and availability of knowledge to students. Over the years, the government has launched several online courses (Massive Open Online Courses) on its portal, popularly known as SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds), approved by the University Grants Commission of India. Private institutions and firms such as Byju’s, Vedantu et al., have seen tremendous growth throughout the pandemic, with many students opting for online classes on these apps. Similarly, as an alternative to physical libraries that could not be accessed due to the COVID-19 lockdown, the government and various central universities have transferred resources online in the form of the National Digital Library of India, providing access to resources 24/7 in almost 70 Indian languages.

Despite these efforts, there needs to be significant attention on further developing the digital infrastructure in India and ensuring every student in the country is able to access education online, especially during the pandemic. The future calls for a massive transformation in India’s digital literacy figures. Subsequently, while classes might be held on-campus in the post-pandemic period, online resources will make it convenient for more students across the country to access quality education.

Author: Purusharth Chawla currently is enrolled as a postgraduate student of public administration in Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. He is interested in analyzing public policies and international relations, specifically South Asian politics. He can be reached at [email protected].

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