Tanya Roy: During the nationwide lockdown and stay home orders, nobody in the country seem to be spared of the consequences. Starting from small business to educational learning in institutions, everything has been shuttered. But we must admit that these days ‘Online education’ is in the air. The un-ending and un-perturbed zoom call meetings, webinars and virtual classrooms which have made us believe that it is possible to teach or learn using online resources and modes. The active digital world that we all live in, where every information is a simple click away. The digital space is full of educational videos, teachers delivering their lectures over video calls, PDFs and PPTs being circulated and it is all functioning in the hour crisis when all educational institutions are closed.

But is really the alternative? Do all people, including the poor and others who are disadvantaged, have access to these new technologies? Widely available smartphones and the cheap internet rates have made us believe that access technology is no more an obstacle and those opposing it are just finding excuses or are a crying foul.

What is the digital divide?

It is a gap that exists between individuals who have access to modern information and communication technology and those who lack access. Even though access to and the internet continues to grow, the digital divide dramatically also continues to persist at an alarming rate and one of the factors is ‘education. Low literacy levels are widening the digital inequality gap. In the nationwide lockdown, the digital divide has become more visible and pronounced than ever. How people are able to cope with the crisis heavily depends heavily on the community they belong to, and where do they stand with regards to access of technology and other factors stated above. The divide is not just being when it comes to educational access. Other issues such as access to medical technologies and others which are very unequal across geographies.

Psychological distress witnessed in students:

The lockdown caused by the covid19 pandemic is exposing the divide between students where some of them are beginning their new academic year through online classes while some of them are deprived of this access.

According to a telephonic survey done by TheWire out of 733 children (253 boys and 190 girls) in standard 7th and 8th, 202 (28%)  had no mobile phones and 154 (21%) could not be reach as there number was not operational. So they were able to reach only half of the intenrded children out of which 277 ( 38%) had smartphones and 114 (16%)  had simple models. A higher percantage of boys (36%) had access to smartphones as compared to girls (28%) . The family with no phones had a greater representation of girls and hence they could reach only 44% of intented female students as against 51% of boys. Additionally, in almost 95% of the 277 cases where families had a smartphone, the device belonged to a male member and the same was not accesible to children.

Students who attend government and low budget private schools struggle with online classes. Some private schools also had to provide teachers special training so that they could understand the mechanism of online teaching and deliver the same to the students. Teachers also complained about the usage of heavy data video apps and how they lack resources from schools.

A kerala based class 10th student committed suicide by reportedly out of a sense of  helplessness as she realised that she would not be able to attend online classes . The news came on Tuesday,  the family was financially strained and could not afford  the repair of their television set or the purchase of a smart phone that would allow her to access online lessons. As per media reports, she had burnt herself using kerosene and her charred body was found in a vacant house just a few yards away from her home. This shows the helplessness of those who are deprived of the basic necessities of today’s world and the psychological damage that is done to them. Children are  more likely to be depressed and suffer because of this.

More than 2.5 lakh students in kerala alone lack  access either to television sets or internet devices. Several students residing in many states across the nation  face  glitches in technology  and it has proved  to be a big barrier even in cities. The schools in kashmir for instance, where because of the 2G connection it becomes almost impossible to stream live classes. The amount of work that a student access from internet is understandable , the internet serves as a library and many of them are robbed off their books if there is no connection.

In a report issued on 21 April by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) underlined another concern about the online shift. Giving a global perspective, UNESCO stated, “Half of the total number of learners-Some 826 million (82.6 crore) students kept out of the classroom by the covid19 pandemic, do not have access to a household computer and 43 % (706 million) have no internet at home, at a time when digital based learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the vast majority of countries.”

Plams Ahead:

A sensitively designed approach that adopts a combination of all the possible usages that could be brought into action. Tools with an emphasis on low technology means and is responsive to the socio-economic structural context of students, for instance, delivering printed notes or pen drive lectures to those who don’t have internet facilities may yield some results. UNESCO, meanwhile, has advised the use of community radio and television broadcasts as alternatives to decrease already existing inequalities. The Indian government, subsequently, has been pushing for initiatives on the same lines by making lessons available through DTH platforms and are also considering the possibility of delivering lessons through All India Radio.