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How India can bridge the digital learning gap with lessons from around the world

Sampreet Kaur and Ayushi Jain
Sampreet Kaur and Ayushi JainJun 19, 2020 | 14:28

How India can bridge the digital learning gap with lessons from around the world

India needs stronger infrastructure to provide uninterrupted internet connection and electronic devices to students and narrow the digital divide.

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, students all over the world have been forced to shift to a virtual model of schooling. While the transition has been quite smooth for privileged students, the unprivileged ones are in a pitfall. This is primarily because of a lack of access to internet services and electronic devices to view online content, thereby hampering their online education. This gives rise to the digital divide among the students in accessing online education. However, many countries across the world are taking groundbreaking measures to straddle the digital divide. India too is experiencing the same digital divide. Therefore, it becomes important to address the issues associated with online education. This article talks about the novel solutions undertaken by numerous countries to overcome the situation and how these valuable measures can help our nation overcome the digital divide.

Extent of digital divide

An NSS report (2017-18) said that only 23.8 per cent of Indian households had access to the internet. The number drops to 12.5 per cent when we consider Indian households with students who have access to the internet. Quacquarelli Symonds (2020) reported that more than 50 per cent of the people with fixed broadband had a poor internet connection at home. Furthermore, about three per cent of people face cable cuts, 32 per cent have a signal problem, and 11.47 per cent have power issues.

While among those who use mobile internet, about 40.2 per cent face poor connection, 3.2 per cent power issues, and 56.6 per cent face signal issues.

Another survey by the University of Hyderabad revealed that only 50 per cent of students have laptops and only a quarter of students have adequate internet connectivity. This has kept the attendance rates sub-par. Even students from premier institutions like IIT are also facing the issue of inadequate internet connection and electronic devices back in their hometowns. This has kept the attendance rates staggering, close to 30 per cent. The same problem persists with students of government schools in Delhi, where attendance ranges between only 25-30 per cent.

International experience

Surprisingly, the problem of the digital divide is not unique to India. In fact, many countries struggle in providing the adequate infrastructure required to stream internet seamlessly. But the Great Lockdown has given birth to many innovative ideas among countries to improve access to the internet and cater to the increasing demand of e-schooling.

A World Bank brief gives us insights into how other economies are undertaking initiatives to make virtual schooling feasible. Jamaica, Argentina, and South Africa introduced zero-rated educational websites. Zero-rating is a practice that allows consumers to use a website without any financial cost. Jamaica and Argentina also distributed learning kits to students who don’t have access to internet connections and partnered up with Internet Service Providers for subsidising internet plans to make learning on digital platforms affordable.

main_india-school_re_061920012347.jpgIndia currently lacks the required infrastructure to teach all its students digitally. (Representative photo: Reuters)

Rwanda and Kenya have waived off internet charges for students. Bhutan and the Kyrgyz Republic are providing students with additional data for easily accessing online education. Kenya is also trying to improve its network coverage by introducing Google’s Loon Balloons. These loon balloons float in the airspace, carrying 4G base stations. Users can access these balloon networks by simply expanding a special internet antenna attached to their building. Each balloon can provide connectivity in about an 80-km diameter.

Most of the developing countries have resorted heavily on televising educational programmes because people find television services to be more accessible than online educational services. Croatia and Egypt have approached its telecom companies to provide free internet access to students belonging to lower socioeconomic status. The Dominican Republic government has been creating free Wi-Fi hotspots for the students. Ecuador and El Salvador, apart from conducting regular online classes and broadcasting educational content on televisions, have also started sharing resource material on the audio format to widen their reach. They have dedicated email addresses and phone numbers for student queries.

Public schools in Chicago have provided homeless students with gadgets and internet devices to access education digitally. In Coachella Valley, California, students were not only given personal devices, but also provided with seamless internet hotspots in their neighbourhoods. The district school handed out iPads to students and installed routers in school buses and parked them near residential complexes. This created a portable Wi-Fi hotspot wherever those buses were parked. The city of Detroit, Michigan (US) issued laptop-cum-tablets to its marginalised students so that they could also resume their studies like other wealthier students. 

The way forward

India, currently, lacks the required infrastructure to teach its students digitally. We need a stronger infrastructure to provide uninterrupted internet connection and electronic devices to students and hence narrow the digital divide. 

Hence, it becomes imperative to learn from the initiatives of other countries and undertake appropriate measures. The provision of tablets and internet access in Coachella, California was implemented in 2016 and has greatly helped the marginalised students in the area. It also increased the graduation rate by 10 per cent. The intervention received an overwhelmingly positive response from the students, which has encouraged many other cities in America to implement such a measure.

India also needs to implement such an initiative by providing digital devices and internet services in the hands of the marginalised students. The country has the advantage of the low cost of labour and production, which might help in the mass production of these technological devices. Internet services in India too, are among the cheapest in the world, and hence, the provision of the internet will be cheaper.

Given the low cost of internet, labour, and production, the provision of such goods and services for the marginalised students will increase the attendance rates and make sure quality education reaches every student. This will act as a stimulus to the education sector and will also narrow the digital divide.

Last updated: June 19, 2020 | 14:28
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