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  • Saloni Mohan


In 2019, the world was hit by an unprecedented pandemic and an immediate response of the Indian government was to shut down educational institutions to prevent the spread of the virus. With the resultant discontinuity in learning and the uncertainty of when schools would reopen, academic institutes embraced digital education as the alternative to traditional modes of teaching. While this paradigm shift in the Indian education ecosystem appears to be a plausible solution to the disruption caused by the pandemic, it exposes the structurally-rooted disparity between genders, socio-economics groups, rural and urban that exists even in the digital world. Due to the digital divide that exists in the country, adopting online education has not only exacerbated the existing educational inequality, but also raised serious questions about the accessibility and feasibility of online education.

A critical factor that affects how beneficial technology-driven education can be is the students’ access to appropriate digital infrastructure and network. The article “Of Access and Inclusivity” by Reddy et al. (2020), that analyses the National Sample Survey Office’s data, reveals that only 9% of Indian students who are enrolled in some kind of course have access to the digital infrastructure that is essential for online education. Furthermore, the study suggests that only 15% of households in rural India have access to the internet, while the corresponding proportion is 42% in the urban Indian households, implying that the internet access in urban India is almost three times of that in rural India. These statistics clearly unfold the serious threat that online education poses: leaving behind a vast number of students belonging to rural India who don’t have access to appropriate networks, let alone devices needed for online education.

The article also presents data on different income groups to show that the higher the socio-economic disadvantage, the greater the inaccessibility of technology. Only 3% of students in the poorest income bracket have means of using a computer. Therefore, the observation made by the writers of the article clearly indicate that majority of the Indian population, irrespective of which state or income bracket they belong to, do not have the sufficient means of accessing online education. Manish Sisodia (2020), the education minister of Delhi, in an interview with the Press Trust of India confessed that “there are maximum 15% students who are not traceable and are not in contact with their schools and hence not attending the classes,” in the capital city, Delhi. This validates that the lack of accessibility has negatively impacted students’ attendance and has even led to a large number of students, across the country, discontinuing their education.

Another stakeholder that was majorly affected by the transition to online education were the teachers. The pandemic has forced teachers to reinvent their roles and shift from content delivery to enabling learning even from remote locations. Like students, teachers also lack access to digital infrastructure while also lacking adequate digital literacy and training to deliver education online. The largest education providers in India are the state governments that are already plagued with challenges like lack of infrastructure and quality training for teaching staff. Consequently, a large number of teachers that are digitally inept, are struggling to command an online course which requires designing lesson plans and teaching material for a virtual classroom.

The transition to e-learning has exposed the need to change the way we teach, while also exposing the need to reform what we teach by allowing students to develop flexible thinking through the curriculum, rather than focusing primarily on information and facts. The readily available tools and platforms for online education are primarily suited for English medium institutes. Given that vernacular languages dominate schooling in India, there is not enough content to cater to them.

In India, structural barriers like gender have conventionally kept the girl child away from schooling and shifting to virtual classrooms have further constrained this access to education. A telephonic survey done by Jha and Ghatak (2020) for an article in The Wire found that in the 277 cases where families owned a smartphone, it belonged to the male member. Additionally, the survey delineates that out of the sample of 733 children that were surveyed, (36%) boys had greater access to a smartphone than (28%) of girls and a greater representation of female members was found in the families that had no smartphones. These trends are observed because the burden of increased domestic duties due to the lockdown falls more on the girl child and often when there is a lack of devices, the boy in the family and his education is prioritised. Such voids in the Indian education system will result in the widening of the gender inequality that exists in employment.

These loopholes in the Indian education system have disproportionately impacted and alienated marginalised students across the country. In order to mitigate the problem, immediate policy reform is required to make education more inclusive, and increase public expenditure on curbing the digital divide that exists within the country.

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About the author: Saloni Mohan is a first-year economics student studying at O.P Jindal Global University. She is an avid reader and has a strong interest in global geopolitics and financial economics.

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