The Covid-19 epidemic has further expanded and worsened the digital gap in India’s education sector between the haves and have-nots, as well as between the government and private school institutions, according to new statistics provided by the ministry of education. The 2019-20 report from the Unified District Information System for Education, which was issued on Thursday, is unsettling to read. The report shows that 78 percent – or nearly 4 out of 5 of the more than 15 lakh schools in the country covered by the report – did not have access to the Internet in a year when the entire school system, ranging from playschool to Class 12, was forced to go online due to the pandemic-forced closure of schools across the country.
With the exception of isolated attempts made by dedicated instructors here and there, this implies that students in these institutions simply lost out on finishing their education. The situation is even worse at government schools, with only 12%, or around one out of every ten, having access to the Internet. In actuality, only approximately 30% of government schools, or less than one-third, possessed working computers.
Online learning is clearly a bridge too far for the professors and students of these schools. While this indicates a significant digital divide, the situation differs dramatically from state to state. When it comes to computers and the internet, the wealthier and more developed states, as well as all of the southern states, outperform the national average. However, historically less developed states like Assam had just 13% of schools equipped with computers. Madhya Pradesh (13%) lags behind Bihar (14%), West Bengal (14%), Tripura (15%), and Uttar Pradesh (18%). In government schools, the situation is even worse, with 95 percent of government schools in UP without functional computers.
The gap in connectivity is widening. The majority of schools in just three states — Delhi, Gujarat, and Kerala — have Internet access. Even when schools possessed the resources, lack of access remained a concern since the students did not have access to digital devices to take online lessons. Only Kerala and Rajasthan stated that their youngsters had access to a digital device such as a smartphone, an internet-enabled tablet, or a computer. Over one crore children in Bihar and more than 30 lakh youngsters in Karnataka and Jharkhand lacked access to a proper digital gadget.
While India has achieved significant progress in school education at all levels, the Gross Enrolment Ratio — the percentage of eligible children who are actually enrolled in a school – has increased at all levels, according to the study. In 2019-20, the GER climbed to 89.7% (up from 87.7%) at the upper primary level, 97.8% (up from 96.1%) at the elementary level, 77.9% (76.9%) at the secondary level, and 51.4 percent (up from 50.1%) at the higher secondary level (from 2018-19). While this is positive, particularly the increase in female enrollment and the growing gender parity index in secondary and higher education, the unusual circumstances created by the epidemic necessitates a fundamental shift in how school instruction is approached.
In a year when the majority of the country’s 26 million-plus schoolchildren have been unable to attend a physical class for more than a year, the lack of basic digital facilities in schools, as well as access to digital learning due to a lack of a suitable device or the financial ability to afford a broadband plan, makes a mockery of the fundamental right to education for all, guaranteed under the Right To Educare.
The crisis afflicting the private education system, notably ‘private’ schools in Tier 2, 3 and 4 cities and rural areas, aggravates the issue. During the pandemic-hit year of 2020, an estimated 15 lakh schools across India shuttered because they were unable to function effectively and pandemic-affected parents were unable or unable to pay the tuition. When schools reopen, this will result in significant dropout rates. When schools reopen after the second wave, there’s a good chance that dropout rates will rise. According to UNESCO, as many as 11 million girls may not be able to return to school as a result of the epidemic. According to a UNICEF research, 463 million children were forced to drop out of school owing to a lack of resources at home. The call to action is unmistakable. The government must significantly increase expenditure on education, particularly in terms of providing digital infrastructure and access, particularly for the poor. A plan of help and subsidised funding for disadvantaged students has been suggested by the Parliamentary Committee on Education. This has to be taken to the next level. A simple tablet or gadget with an appropriate broadband plan pre-loaded must become part of the basic aid offered to kids on the wrong side of the digital divide, just as uniforms, books, and mid-day lunches are provided.