Substitutes for online learning must be pursued

| Updated on September 25, 2020 Published on September 25, 2020

A large population of digital have-nots — those without access to computers, laptops, smartphones and a broadband connection — are being deprived of education

Digitalisation has never seemed more socially relevant than in these Covid times, where online learning has emerged as a substitute for actual schooling. However, there can be no escaping the fact that those without access to computers, laptops, smartphones — and a broadband connection with download speeds of over, say, 25 mpbs — are being deprived of education. These happen to be families in rural areas and backward regions, where network cables have hardly been laid and mobile towers are scarce. Even if we assume that smartphones are widely used (which is not strictly true), wireless connectivity will not be effective when towers are not close-by and an internet connection is shared by a group, as among poor households. Moreover, while more than 500 million smartphones are in circulation, their prices remain beyond the reach of the urban and rural poor. This holds even more true for personal computers. India’s self-reliance initiatives must take shape in this sector, to ensure that online learning assumes an inclusive character over time.

Meanwhile, the ‘digital gap’ is borne out by the latest telecom subscription data (as on June 30, released by TRAI on Thursday). Teledensity in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Assam and Odisha is well below the all-India level of 85.85 per cent. These very regions are plagued by poor educational outcomes. Inadequate digital outreach could increase the drop-out rates in these States. For the country as a whole, wireline connections account for barely 3 per cent of India’s 698 million broadband subscribers. This, along with inadequate smartphone access and tower infrastructure, gives rise to endemic network quality issues. However, in the short-term, India needs to accept the digital divide and work around it.

Innovations have sprung up all over the country. In Chhattisgarh’s Korea district, Rudra Rana, a teacher, has taken to mobile schooling by travelling from village to village on his motorcycle, carrying a compact kit that contains his teaching material and accessories, besides an umbrella. Children sit along both sides of a street, adhering to social distancing norms, while he takes his class at the centre of the street. This can be replicated by a group of people, using a larger vehicle. In Banaskantha district, Gujarat, loudspeakers near temples and other important landmarks have been put up to impart lessons, while children remain in secure environs. Kerala, Karnataka and other States have been beaming lessons through cable TV. This can be scaled up. But in the long run, there can be no getting away from improving access to wired broadband, cheap phones and laptops to enhance access to education, medical services and economic activity.

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Published on September 25, 2020
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