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For learning offline, one needs three things: document, literacy, and light. However, for digital learning, one needs hardware, software, electricity, and a stable internet connection in addition to these three basic elements. According to personal affordability and availability, one could choose a suitable medium for oneself. But what if there is no such choice?

The answer to this question is all around us. For nearly all of 2020 (and even now), schools and universities have closed campuses and halted offline learning, and the teaching and learning process is happening completely online. Consequently, with online classes, online assignments and online exams, digital learning has become the norm.

In April, the Ministry of Human Resource Development presented the Alternative Academic Calendar for Students ,or the AAC guidelines on continuing formal school education in online mode for the academic year 2020-21. The AAC presumes a certain level of preparedness from the different stakeholders of education for digital learning, including equipment-readiness and the necessary skills.

How prepared were we?

As of November 2019:

  • 54% of the urban population of 12+ years and 32% of the same in the rural areas had internet access.

Hence, internet access was considerably inadequate.

  • 77% of urban and 61% of rural internet users aged 12 and above used it every day, while 7% of urban and 13% of rural users used it less than once a week.

This shows that internet access was not only inadequate but also irregular and disruptive.

  • 99% of both urban and rural internet users aged 12 years and above used mobile phones to access the internet.

The aforementioned statistics point out that the assumptions of the AAC guidelines were not realistic.

Assuming that teachers and students have the necessary devices (either a desktop, laptop, tablet or smartphone) to teach and learn from their homes is problematic. There are also other issues, such as unreliable electricity and internet connectivity, that hamper the use of such gadgets. More importantly, for any ‘study from home’ initiative to be effective, students must have the skills and motivation for self-learning. Research suggests that these need to be developed gradually and cannot be expected to have emerged in the middle of a pandemic.

Furthermore, the AAC document did not explain the assessment metric for online learning. The assessment of students’ learning is a technical process, which might require primary school children to take help from elders; expecting parents or older siblings to get involved in it is a short-sighted measure. These expectations also raise the questions of how much academic support can really be provided at home.

Using social media to connect with students can only be relied upon if students have a smart device and a dependable, high-speed internet connection. This would be unfair to students who are unable to access certain types of technological tools. Given such a dearth of appropriate infrastructure in the country, what has the government done to upscale digitalisation?

In 2015, the Government of India launched the ‘Digital India Initiative’ to provide such infrastructure to the entire country and improve overall digital literacy. The major initiatives under this were Bharatnet Project and Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan.

The Bharatnet Project, launched in 2015, was the successor of the 2011 National Optical Fibre Network mission to connect all the 2,50,000 Gram panchayats in the country and provide 100 Mbps connectivity to all gram panchayats. This project is the need of the hour in order to facilitate the penetration of digital schemes in rural areas without internet access. As per the phase-wise implementation plan, it is set to be completed in 2023.

Another scheme on digital literacy, Pradhan Mantri Gramin Digital Saksharta Abhiyan was implemented as PMG Disha with an allocation of Rs 2,351.38 crore to make 6 crore rural households digitally literate by March 2019. The main objective was to reach around 40% of rural households by covering one member from every eligible household. The deadline for this scheme has been extended several times. Currently, it is March 2021.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has acknowledged the digital divide by promising in his Independence Day speech that all villages would be connected with optical fibre cable in 1,000 days.

One of the specific steps taken during the lockdown was the PM’s e-Vidya Package. The government has launched Swayam Prabha DTH channels to support and reach those who do not have access to the internet. Swayam Prabha is the HRD ministry’s free-to-air education programme, which consists of a series of 32 DTH channels that broadcast educational content prepared by the National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT). Another component of the PM e-VIDYA package is the DIKSHA portal with the motto of ‘One Nation, One Digital Platform’ to provide quality educational content to researchers, students and school children from all grades through QR coded textbooks.. It also includes SWAYAM, the platform which provides Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

It is notable that the videos provided through such channels are recorded videos and not live classes, thus negating any possibility of real-time learning for most students. Furthermore, both these modes of learning have not yielded any benefit for students who do not enjoy the reach of stable electricity connection at their homes.

There is no lack of schemes to enhance the digitalisation of education in India. However, the benefits of such schemes have certainly not been equitable. A considerable number of students have been left with no choice but to drop out of schools. UNESCO recently released a projection covering 180 countries, estimating that 24 million children may not return to education due to the pandemic.

So, while a basic digital backbone is getting ready at the household level, the country has not yet developed an ecosystem to push digital education in a crisis.

In such a scenario, what ought to be the way ahead?

For short term measures, should the immediate reopening of schools and colleges be considered? This would require the understanding of the term ‘technological determinism’ which essentially talks about the stubborn and narrow-minded thinking that technology is the solution to everything. Once we realise that it’s not true because of the stark digital divide that still prevails in the country, the phase-wise reopening of educational institutions would be a step worth pondering upon seriously.

The pandemic has done a devastatingly good job of revealing the bottlenecks of digitalisation of the education sector in India. Now, it’s time that the government does its job of creating an equitable digital ecosystem by targeting digital inclusion and last mile broadband connectivity, especially since it would seem that digital learning shall continue to be the standard mode of learning for a few months from now.

By Priyal Batheja


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