Eight months have passed since schools across India stopped allowing in-class instruction in an attempt to stem the spread of COVID-19.
While the shift was necessary, it has emphasized the digital divide among students — between the tech-empowered and tech-deprived.
Rani Devi is 12 years old and a student at Government Model High School in Chandigarh, the capital of the northern Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. Her ability to attend class is dependent on a small piece of fortune: Her father’s smartphone, which is shared among her and four siblings.
Devi and her siblings do their daily class lessons on WhatsApp by watching videos posted by their teachers — they don’t have enough devices or data to attend their classes live on Zoom.
Devi said while she misses school desperately, she has accepted that she may never return due to her family’s growing financial challenges but also their preference for putting money into educating boys rather than girls.
“If it was up to my father, he would only ensure my brothers got an education,” she said.
Universal public education in India is available to students until the age of 14. After that, families have to pay for their children’s education.
“That’s why my father tells ‘Rani, you just focus on work now. Studying is not that important,'” Devi said as she chopped onions and studied her Sanskrit lesson. “If it was up to me, I would like to change my father’s thinking but he doesn’t listen to me. Because of this reason, I’m now working at the food stall. I want to earn my own money and further my education and go to school.”
Aalya Singh, 13, attends Sacred Heart, a convent school also in Chandigarh. Unlike Devi, she has a robust Wi-Fi connection at home, plus her own laptop and the latest iPad.
“I love taking online classes,” she said. “Sitting in comfortable clothing, drinking my favourite milkshake, and learning physics while petting my Labrador — this experience has another charm to it.”
Even though she longs to see her classmates, Singh said the shift to online schooling has made her more tech-savvy.
“The best part about remote learning is my mom not monitoring my screen time closely, which has helped me maintain the Snapchat streaks,” she said as she swiped through her school’s email notifications.
Parminder Malhotra, a private-school teacher, sees the digital divide among her students. She said there need to be more options for students — outside of platforms like Zoom — to support all students to succeed.
“While one half of the student population uses technology as their second language, the other half has never even typed a message,” she said.
One of the promising approaches she has seen is the use of community radio stations to deliver lessons to ensure the digital have-nots can have access to education.
A 2017 survey by the Indian Ministry of Statistics found 85 per cent of rural Indian households don’t have access to a digital device.
It’s unlikely that government investments will bridge the digital divide anytime soon.
According to the Indian Ministry of Human Resource Development records, government spending on e-learning dropped from $9.5 billion in 2019-2020 to $7.8 billion in 2020-2021.