By Yoshita Sengupta, COO, Selligion Technologies
Can we imagine going to the bank every week to update our passbooks or depositing a cheque to withdraw cash to utilise through the month? Can we imagine letting go of our smartphones and spending half a day standing in long queues and then waiting for six months to get access to a landline phone connection? Can we imagine waiting for the 8 pm bulletin or the 7 am paper to get the daily news? That’s the nature of technology. Once it is invented and finds a way into our lives it keeps advancing and making its presence felt.
We’d be doing a disservice to our students, yet again, should we question the importance of digital education and not capitalise on the momentum digital literacy has gained during the worst crisis of our lifetimes and in the worst possible way.
If you are reading this column, in this publication, there is a high chance that you have a computer in your home or can access it should you need to. It is also likely that you are reading this piece on a computer. If you are then you come from less than 10-15 percent of Indian homes that have a computer with internet access. The counter to this digital divide very often is that a majority of Indian homes have smartphones on which students can access classes. To this point, we may want to ask ourselves if a person on one end of a 6-inch screen teaching and another person on another 6-inch screen watching and listening is the extent of our definition of digital education.
Some of us reading this work in companies or run small businesses or have close connections with people who own businesses. This could be anything from a café or a travel agency to an e-commerce brand or a small manufacturing unit. Imagine a scenario a decade from now when you are out hiring a shift manager for your café or a junior travel desk assistant position where the graduates applying are expert smartphone users but have no hands-on experience using a computer. How do you hire a shift manager who cannot process orders on the computer behind the counter or an assistant who cannot use a computer to create basic documentation?
To give the smartphone its due, it served our students well during the pandemic enabling a lot of them to at least continue to access education through virtual classes and pre-recorded educational content. However, by design, smartphones are best suited for passive consumption and not so much for actively creating, exploring, building, and learning. It most definitely does not leave a student on par with their computer-native peers when they step into the economy attempting to become a contributing members.
Computers made their way to India’s consumer market in the 1990s, and became more accessible in the early 2000s, nearly a decade before the smartphone boom. But, as per data released by the government in 2019, only about 8 percent of Indian homes had computers with Internet access. We know with data and with enough anecdotal evidence what the smartphone penetration did for the entertainment and digital payment sectors in the country. Now imagine what we could have delivered had we built infrastructure as the telecom sector did and aggressively created unique models that could take a computer to every Indian home a decade ago.
The pandemic forced the need for online education into the life of every Indian student. What it also managed to do, however, was to expose and start conversations around the skill gap and the digital divide. With a large majority of our students returning to more intimate, equal and secure spaces of learning after having suffered a learning loss and several even unlearning what was taught pre-pandemic we cannot afford the luxury of a binary debate between offline vs digital education.
The conversation we should perhaps be having right now is how can we build a more thought-through and accessible computing infrastructure that can complement offline learning, reverse the learning loss and enable our students to be future-ready. How can we expand our definition of digital education from passively consuming content or taking classes on a smartphone to actively engaging with technology like us natives? What are the unique models and tools that can not just deliver 100 unicorns but also deliver opportunities for the 250 million of our students studying to enter the workforce in less than a decade? How can we take lessons from the telecom industry and ensure that the tools we build can be easily accessed by a student in every Indian home and seamlessly become a part of every Indian’s life?
To all of us proud of our country’s fabled technological prowess, we achieved it with 8 per cent of Indian homes with an internet-enabled computer imagine what we can achieve with even a quadrupling of that number.