Online Education during COVID-19: Dividing the Divided

The possibility of inclusive economic development is completely ruled out if the existing problems related to the online education are overlooked by the administrators.

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online education, the urban-rural divide

Millions of students hailing from the government schools and colleges are completely deprived of academic learning with the spread of COVID-19. UNESCO estimated that over 1.3 billion students’ education has been affected by the pandemic. This makes for 72 per cent of the total student population in the world, and India is home to 320 million students who are waiting for normalcy in education. The system of online education in India has not progressed to the expected levels owing to the great urban – rural divide. The National Sample Survey of 2017 -18 indicated that not even 15 per cent of the rural households have access to the internet in contrast to the 42 per cent of urban households. The most economically impoverished and socially debased families do not even possess the basic technology to access the internet.

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It is important to examine the voids in the present status of the online education system in the country to address some of the pertinent factors affecting digital access to learning. One critical question that comes up is whether before starting online education did schools and universities tried to figure out whether the students have the requisite means to connect to online learning? According to the reports of National Sample Survey of 2014, only 27 per cent of Indian households have members within the family who have access to the internet, but this does not certainly affirm the fact that a household actually has an internet set up at home. This is because still half of the households continue to live in deprivation of a computing device. Taking this definition of internet access in account it is computed that only 12.5 per cent of the Indian households comprising students have internet access at home. Thus, the orbit of access to online learning is so restricted that it would not be able to reach most of the students staying in their homes; 85 per cent of university students residing in urban settings have ingress to the internet, but only 41 per cent of this population is likely to have this access at home. Similarly, in Andhra Pradesh, while 30 per cent of the rural populace has access to the internet, only 2 per cent of it has access to the internet at home.

It can be seen that there is a mammoth difference between proper at-home internet access and what we call as general access to the internet. Thus, the present focus should be shifted from merely providing smart phones to some members of the family to actual setting up of infrastructure required to avail the internet services, because the former might not prove to be very useful to the students. This data also hint towards the fostering of a major digital bias, wherein those who have internet setup at home can take up online courses and special diplomas in various disciplines and the ones who do not have such access will be at disadvantage.

Today it is the availability of internet connection or the access to the digital world that decide who gets to learn and who does not.

Internet access for poor matters

A study conducted in the year 2013 on 60,000 university graduates having studied divergent subjects found that 47 per cent of them were more or less unemployable for any kind of skilled occupation. And after facing this digital divide during the pandemic where millions of students are deprived of learning, the condition of employable graduates is going to become even worse. Attending lengthy online lectures or completing extensive assignments and research work on smartphones can be a draining process with respect to both physical and mental health, therefore, a computer or laptop is a more preferable option. However, only 24 per cent of Indians possess smartphones and the number of computer users is even less, that is, 11 per cent. Moreover, accessing the internet comes with a cost. Hence, along with regular school fees students will also be required to pay for the internet charges to take online classes. This could be a little demanding during the COVID-19 pandemic because many wage-earners have lost their jobs, for them affording a full square meal has become a task, thus making provision for internet facility would sound like a luxurious demand at present. Besides, the government has not yet delivered any information related to free or subsidised data packs or making reimbursements for the same.

According to World Economic Forum, half of the world still remains disconnected from the internet, and Asia is where much of this offline population dwells. While the paramount factor continues to be the socio-economic status of the internet users, gender disparities also play a crucial role in keeping away the wonders of technology from the Asian citizenry. The Economist Intelligence Unit Index divulges that in Africa only 11.6 per cent of women have internet access while in Europe 88 per cent women have access to the internet. Also, it is equally relevant to discuss how meaningful is this internet access to its current users? The inclusivity of the existing data is itself questionable, as only 80 per cent of the information on the internet is available only in 10 languages. It deprives millions of people from ‘real’ and ‘meaningful’ access to the internet. While 98 per cent of the web pages are only published in 12 languages, 72 per cent of them are dominated by the English Language. A recent study by KPMG and Google shows that 70 per cent of the Indians find local language digital content more authentic than the English content.

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The moot questions are whether the digitalised academic materials for students are available in suitable local languages? Or learning English continues to be a prerequisite for them to make use of the internet? For students whose mode of instruction is not English, they are presently facing an impediment in learning besides the general issue of internet access due to the dearth of adequate education material in local languages. While much of the study material is available in the local language in the form of hardcopy, finding and creating the same on online platforms are major challenges.

In the cessation of the year 2016, Prakash Javadekar, the then Human Resource Development Minister, brought to the notice of the Parliament that 49 per cent of students study in Hindi-medium schools and 33 per cent students learn in schools that teach in their mother languages.

Only 17per cent students in India happen to study in English-medium schools, but even in these schools English is not the only mode of instruction, as the teachers use a variety of other languages to teach.

Thus, for the students learning in the local languages this could be a tough time. Hence, education platforms need to personalise digital learning and build infrastructure that encourages learning and teaching even in the most remote parts of the country by making the available data more user friendly.

Indeed, the number of internet users in India is on rise, but it is not quite uniform. The homogeneity of this technology based ascent is mostly confined to the urban sector which reflects saturation at this point. The prejudicial trends of internet penetration have created islands of opportunities in the sea of disadvantaged populations. Thus, the possibility of inclusive economic development is completely ruled out if the existing problems related to the online education are overlooked by the administrators.