Did Corona just ‘expose’ our acute digital divide?

While we have been giving ourselves a pat on our backs for smoothly realigning ourselves to a digital life in the wake of the pandemic, a significant portion of India’s young population have been deprived of basic education, because they cannot get education online.

Did Corona just ‘expose’ our acute digital divide?
No online classes for them. Huge digital divide in education/photo: Kavya Kodiya

By now, all of you must have come across the joke that it is Corona, not CEO or CIO, that has been the biggest driver of digital transformation in the enterprise. In essence, it is not untrue. Many business organizations, which because of sheer lack of appreciation of the role digital could play did not go for digitization, have surely woken up and have accelerated digitization efforts. 

Social sector's story is very diferent. Unlike businesses who refuse to go digital, despite  having the opportunity to do so, for a significant part of the Indian (and many other national) population, it is not a choice. They are deprived of it. Period.

They lack access to digital infrastructure—access to the Internet, a smartphone and in some extreme cases even basic phone connectivity and uninterrupted power. The rural India—Bharat, if you like—still struggles for these basic facilities that we have taken for granted.

This means they are in a disadvantageous position when it comes to services and facilities provided using this medium.

Take education. Article 21-A of Indian Constitution mandates free and compulsory education for all children in the age group of six to fourteen years as a Fundamental Right. While we are nowhere near that, in all these seven decades since independence, India had painstakingly built an education system, which despite all its lacunae, had begun to make an impact.

The pandemic has negated that in one go. It has thrown away a significant percentage of children, who have been attending regular schools for years, out of the education system, for no fault of theirs.  

As we keep celebrating digital India—digital payments, collaborative working, online education, online tax filing—these children are today without their basic classes because their schools do not have the wherewithal to conduct online classes or they do not have connectivity and/or a smartphone to access online classes—in many cases, both.

Yet, the active discourse on online education does not even touch this issue. Experts talk about need for physical activities, children’s psychological challenges, teachers’ concerns, parent’s roles and similar issues while discussing online education challenges, with an implicit assumption that such education is by and large available.

Nothing can be farther from truth. A significant number of students are deprived of education because there is NO online education for them. They are sitting at home, playing with friends, and losing valuable time in their prime learning age. They do not even have an iota of an idea on what online education is like.

If this is not digital divide, then what is?

Some time back, I was part of a discussion on online education in Odisha, organized by a Delhi-based group of Odia intellectuals. The information shared by students and teachers who participated in large numbers in that discussion was revealing and painful at the same time. Many students in government schools do not have online classes, some of them despite having data-enabled smartphones. That is because their schools do not offer them.

Odisha is not alone. A teacher from Jharkhand vividly described her experience of trying to convince her school to start online classes in any form. I am sure there would be such cases in many other states.

Can we waste months—may be years—of millions of students because we cannot give them education—despite having declared education as a fundamental right? Shouldn’t it be a top national concern? In the contrary, we hardly even listen about this in national discourse. We have time for everything else. 

It is a tough challenge for sure, but not completely unmanageable. We must start by acknowledging that such a problem still remains—and can mar the progress of us as a nation.

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