Srija Mondal, who is pursuing a postgraduate diploma in Mass Communications from one of the reputed colleges in Kolkata, recently had to move back to her house in a rural area of the Nadia district in West Bengal. This was after her college declared an indefinite shut-down because of Covid-19 pandemic.
She recounted her plight to complete her dissertation to BE, “I chose a topic related to films. Here the internet network speed is vulnerable and there is no Wi-Fi accessibility. It was really difficult for me to download the films and access the necessary research material. Because of the lockdown, no transport was available to visit the nearby cybercafé. Electricity is also a problem here and there was no electricity for days after the Amphan cyclone.” She recounted how she had to undertake her online classes in the middle of a paddy field near her house in order to get an uninterrupted mobile internet network.
It is evident from Mondal’s experience that digital divide is a major challenge in online education in India. Due to the pandemic situation, schools, colleges and universities have shifted to virtual teaching methods and platforms like Google Classroom, Google Meet and Zoom have become popular. However, this method which is chiefly facilitated by internet connectivity, has proved to be a sham in perspective of the ‘Education for All’ initiative as students from rural and urban areas are being segregated on the basis of availability of educational infrastructure.
A faculty member from a reputed college in Kolkata requesting anonymity, told BE, “Some of my students who are from rural areas travel a certain distance to visit cyber cafes on weekends to complete college assignments.”
The requirement of smartphones or laptops exposes a loophole in this digital educational process. Many students do not possess a smartphone. According to the above-mentioned faculty member, “So, do we assert that such students are not significant to us and we can comfortably overlook their need for education?”
A recent research by price comparison site Cable.co.uk showed that India has the cheapest mobile data in the world with one gigabyte (GB) costing just Rs. 8.5 ($0.26) as compared to the global average of about Rs. 600. The study further stated that 1 GB costs $6.66 in the UK and $12.37 in the US. Though cheap availability of data has increased internet penetration in India, it has not been able to significantly impact a large part of the rural population. According to the report on education (2017-18) by the National Sample Survey, only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility. Although rural areas comprise 66% of India’s population, only a little over 15% of rural households have internet access. In the case of urban households, the figure is a bit better at 42%. Among the poorest 20% households, only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% have access to internet facilities. In the case of the top 20% households, the proportions are 27.6% and 50.5%.
Electricity is central to digital education – for charging the devices as well as for internet connection. Though the government’s Saubhagya scheme to provide electricity to households shows that almost 99.9% of homes in India have a power connection, the reality is somewhat different. In 2017-18, the Ministry of Rural Development conducted Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey of villages. Its data showed that 16% of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily while 33% received 9-12 hours and only 47% received more than 12 hours of electricity per day.
All these factors lead to a communication gap and unavailability of resources among the rural students, especially making the situation of the final year students alarming. The conflict between the UGC and the states have already made the students. A faculty member from a suburban college pointed out to BE, “The phenomenon of online classrooms did not invade most of the colleges before the pandemic and due to unavailability of proper internet connection, most of our students have missed several classes which will naturally affect them in the examination.” He suggested that sending the study materials to the students through posts could have been an option but the lockdown, social distancing norms and diminished finances have imposed challenges on that initiative as well. He stated that evaluating the students on the basis of previous class tests could be an option for their end semester results.
The Ministry of Human Resource has come up with the e-Pathshala initiative that looks to bridge the gap between the urban and the rural students. Vinesh Menon, CEO-Education, Skilling & Consulting Services, Ampersand Group, in an earlier interaction, told BE, “The rate at which internet penetration and device penetration is taking place, a sure steady movement has commenced that will soon see a child in every corner of India getting access to education content.”
However, the government should ensure that the rural students are not left out in education which is a basic necessity and must provide the right infrastructure so that the judicious ‘Education for All’ initiative is not compromised.