The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of social life. The education sector is no exception to such disruption. Schools and colleges have had to be shut down as part of the lockdown measures, before completing annual or end-semester exams. Prolonged closure would throw the academic calendar into disarray and make the completion of syllabi and holding of exams quite daunting, if not chaotic. “Online education” has been proposed as a partial solution.
Many digital evangelists prophesise that online education is a futuristic, transformative tool capable of making learning a visually and intellectually-engaging experience, and it is better to exploit the situation created by the pandemic. Many others decry that online education may lead to mechanical understanding, bereft of the purpose, interaction and the emotional connect that are integral to the process of learning. Nevertheless, many states are preparing to resume the academic year through online classes. Kerala has already embarked on it.
This begs an immediate question: Do the households or students have adequate access to the digital infrastructure essential to effectively partake in online education? Specifically, do all the students in general and students from disadvantaged socio-economic groups, in particular, have access to a computer with robust internet connection at home? Interestingly, the National Statistical Office (NSO), in its 75th round held in 2017-18, collected some data that are relevant here.
The NSO data informs that only 9 per cent households in India had both a computer at home and access to the internet in 2017-18. While the proportion is 20 per cent in urban India, it is a paltry 4 per cent in rural India. The situation does not improve even if we limit our remit to households having school or college-going students (5 to 35 years) who are currently enrolled in any course. Here too, only 9 per cent of students who are currently enrolled in some course have a computer at home and have access to the internet. Thus, over 90 per cent of the currently enrolled students do not have access to the necessary resources and are constrained from effectively participating in online education.
This low access is further exacerbated by stark socio-economic disparities. Only 4 per cent of the currently enrolled Adivasi or Dalit students have a computer and access to internet. The situation improves only marginally among Other Backward Classes (7 per cent) and Muslims (8 per cent). Far worse is the access among students from the bottom quintile (the poorest 20 per cent of students) — just 2 per cent have a computer or access to the internet. Only among the top quintile (richest 20 per cent of students), the access is fairly good (28 per cent). Equally large are inter-state variations. More than 20 per cent of the students from states such as Kerala, Sikkim, Goa, Mizoram and Nagaland have computers at home and access to the internet. The proportion goes down to 5 per cent in states such as Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha, Tripura and Andhra Pradesh.
The situation is even bleaker in rural areas of several states. The proportion of currently enrolled students having a computer and access to the internet is just 1 per cent in rural Karnataka, Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, 2 per cent in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, 3 per cent in Maharashtra and West Bengal and 4 per cent in Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh. By contrast, Kerala and Goa with 19 per cent and 28 per cent respectively, remain at the other end of the spectrum.
Understandably, the proportion of students having a computer and access to the internet is relatively higher in urban areas. However, that does not imply that large proportions of urban students from all the states have access to these amenities. The proportion is 9 per cent in urban Andhra Pradesh, 14 per cent in Jharkhand, followed by Madhya Pradesh (15 per cent), Odisha and Telangana (16 per cent). At the other end are states such as Assam, Goa and Punjab with 31 per cent. Nagaland is the top performing state with 44 per cent.
What about access to smartphones, the next best, affordable alternative to computers? NSO data reveals that about 6 per cent of rural and 29 per cent of urban households had either a smartphone or computer in 2014. The recent NSO survey suggests that 17 per cent of currently enrolled students had access to the internet at home either through a smartphone or computer in 2017. Also, a Pew Research Centre report informs that 24 per cent of adults in India reported owning smartphones in India in 2018. Smartphone ownership in India is arguably one of the lowest in emerging economies. The ownership levels might be even lesser among the poor and marginalised. Additionally, a sizable proportion of smartphones might belong to the low-end budget segment, which may not be suitable for regularly accessing online education. These imply that massive online classes via smartphones are likely to be met with insurmountable access and operational issues.
It is clear that students from a vast majority of households in many states are likely to be left behind when it comes to access to resources that are crucial prerequisites to participate in and benefit from online education. The lack of access is quite high among students from poor households and marginalised social groups. With such limited access and stark disparities, can online education facilitate inclusive and empowering learning for all? We have reason to suspect that this is not going to happen. Abrupt launching of massive online education projects without improving the access to resources and addressing the access gap, may deepen the already existing socio-economic disparities in education.
(Sunny Jose is RBI Chair Professor, Council for Social Development, Southern Regional Centre, Hyderabad and Bheemeshwar Reddy A is Assistant Professor, Department of Economics and Finance, BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus)