In 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 underprivileged ones are in a pitfall, majorly because of a lack of access to Internet services and electronic devices to view online content, leading to poor and unequal quality of educational services. These unequal levels of access give rise to a digital divide among the students in accessing online education. However, many countries across the world continue to take groundbreaking measures to bridge the digital divide. India, too, is experiencing the same problem, and therefore it becomes important to address the issues associated with online education. Let’s see some of the novel solutions undertaken by various countries to overcome the situation, and how they can help our nation to overcome the digital divide.

Extent of the digital divide

The NSS report on Social Consumption Expenditure (2017-18) stated 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. Symonds (2020) reported that in India, more than 50 per cent of the people with fixed broadband had a poor Internet connection at home. Furthermore, about 3 per cent of people face cable cuts, 32 per cent have a signal problem, and 11.47 per cent have power issues.

With 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, which has affected their attendance rates.

Even students from premier institutions like IIT are facing the issue of inadequate Internet connection and a lack of electronic devices back in their hometowns, which has kept the attendance rates in online classes to as low as 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 the Internet seamlessly. But the ‘Great Lockdown’ has transpired many innovative ideas among the countries to improve access to the Internet and cater to the increasing demand of e-schooling. A World Bank web page provides insights on how other economies are undertaking initiatives to make virtual schooling feasible. Jamaica, Argentina, and South Africa have 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 to subsidise Internet plans and make learning on digital platforms affordable.

Rwanda and Kenya waived Internet charges for students, while Bhutan and the Kyrgyz Republic are providing them with additional data so that they can access online education easily. Kenya is also trying to improve its network coverage by introducing Google’s ‘Loon Balloons’. These ‘Balloons’ float in the airspace carrying 4G base stations. Users can access the networks by simply expanding a special Internet antenna attached to their building, which provides connectivity across an area of 80 kilometers.

Most 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 telecom companies to provide free Internet access to students belonging to lower socio-economic status. The Dominican Republic government has been creating free WiFi hotspots. Ecuador and El Salvador, apart from conducting regular online classes and broadcasting educational content on televisions, have also started sharing resource material in audio format to widen their reach. They have dedicated email addresses and phone numbers for student queries.

In the US too, efforts to reach connectivity to students are on. Chicago’s public have schools provided students with personal gadgets to keep them abreast of their education timelines. In Coachella Valley, California, the students were not only given personal devices but were also provided with seamless Internet hotspots in their neighborhoods. The district school has handed out iPads to the students and implanted routers in the school buses and parked them near the residential complexes. This created a portable Wi-Fi hotspot wherever those buses were parked. The city of Detroit in Michigan issued laptop-cum-tablets to marginalised students.

Connectivity push

India, currently, lacks the required infrastructure to teach its students digitally. We need stronger infrastructure to provide uninterrupted Internet connection and electronic devices to students if we are to narrow the digital divide.

Learnings from other countries can be useful and similar initiatives can be taken up depending on state capacity and collaboration with private service providers. Providing tablets and Internet access had been started in Coachella, California in 2016, and has so far greatly benefited 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 can harness this opportunity by manufacturing digital equipment that can be used for education services as it serves the twin purpose of indigenous manufacturing and bridging the digital divide. Internet services in India, too, are amongst the cheapest in the world; hence, the provision of the Internet will be cheaper. Given the push for digital literacy, both manufacturing and service provision can lead to a meaningful change in this e-education space.

The writers are research fellows at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy