Editorial

Online education: With scanty access to the Internet, the poor are excluded

| Updated on July 24, 2020 Published on July 24, 2020

Digital deprivation remains high in India. The State and Central governments should wake up to the widespread lack of access to resources necessary for online learning

If Covid-19 and social distancing are here to stay for a while, it is also reasonably certain that online education is not a transient phenomenon. With the onset of Covid, India’s schools and colleges have kept the show going through online instruction. However, dropouts could increase for want of a laptop, smartphone or Internet connection, denting more than a decade of gains in enrolment made through schemes such as the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyaan and the mid-day meal programme. To prevent their children from leaving school, poor parents may sell precious assets, pushing them further into poverty. Kuldeep Singh of Gummer village in Kangra district did just that recently; he sold his sole asset, a cow, for ₹6,000 so that he could buy a phone for his children in Class IV and Class II. The State and Central governments should wake up to the widespread lack of access to resources necessary for online learning. It is high time governments realised the benefits of investing in human capital. A Central allocation of barely 5 per cent of the GDP on health (1.6 per cent) and education (3.1 per cent) is inadequate, and compares unfavourably even with Bangladesh. As an immediate measure, States could consider allowing schools — now closed — to channel unutilised funds such as those for sports, building and infrastructure upkeep for online education resources. Cable TV can also be explored as an alternative for imparting instruction, as Kerala has sought to do.

Digital deprivation remains high in India. A November 2019 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Nielsen says rural India has 22.7 crore active Internet users, slightly more than urban India’s 20.5 crore. India’s smartphone penetration now stands at over 50 crore. This still leaves out half a billion people, a large category of have-nots in an increasingly online-determined existence.

The call to boycott Chinese brands could impact smartphone affordability among the rural and urban poor. Online classes, being video content, require 4G reception. While data charges in India are low, most handsets being used by the poor in India are not 4G ready. India’s mobile broadband is notorious for its poor quality, especially in rural areas. In fixed-line broadband penetration, India ranks among the lowest in the world with only 6 per cent (of the total population), against 55 per cent in China, 70 per cent in the Eurozone and 80 per cent in Japan (as per a Crisil report). Bharat Net is no longer a project to be kept on the backburner. Online instruction cannot ever match the classroom experience, but it can democratise access to learning in situations where schools, teachers and libraries are inadequate.

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Published on July 24, 2020
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