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Thumb rules for private players to reduce digital disparity in the higher education segment

The promise of online learning will be a distant dream if the challenges of accessibility, proper gadgets and proficiency are not met, says Rustom Kerawalla, Chairman of Ampersand Group

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By Rustom Kerawalla

Rustom Kerawalla, Chairman, Ampersand Group

At a time when education is going online and becoming technology aided, one of its prerequisites is that all users have internet access. They not only need to be online but also need high-speed connectivity. But in reality, internet access is not only uneven but unreliable in most parts of the country. This has serious implications for higher education as inequitable internet connectivity can seriously affect access to learning.

The promise of online learning will be a distant dream if the challenges of accessibility, proper gadgets and proficiency are not met. Without these, interactive classrooms will continue with the current disparities and the digital divide will continue to exist.

The current digital divides have many implications for higher education. To begin with, learners lacking sufficient network access will have a harder time completing their internet-dependent studies, whether taking LMS-based discussions or participating in video conference with classmates and outside experts and teachers.

A majority of educational institutions in India have adopted online teaching as a solution to offset the disruption in physical classes due to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, students who do not have digital capabilities or own computing devices, are unable to access online education. Scholars feel that the disparity in access to education is at the root of the digital divide across socio-economic groups.

Despite the move towards digital and online education, there is a large amount of disparity in higher education as far as digital education is concerned. According to some studies, only about 11 per cent of rural and 40 per cent of urban population above 14 years can operate a computer or use the internet. The study also said that digital capabilities is limited even among upper socio-economic strata. This is creating a digital disparity in the higher education segment.

This is where private players can come in and fill the gaps. Private players can work with the government in the Private-Public-Partnership (PPP) mode to reduce the digital disparity in higher education particularly in the government institutions. In the run towards upgrading the digital infrastructure, private institutions have taken the lead and developed adequate digital infrastructure in private schools and higher education institutions. However, barring few premier institutions, most government institutions, including government schools and higher education institutions, have lagged behind and do not have adequate digital or technology infrastructure.

One of the reasons for this is lack of funds with the government institutions. This is a chronic problem which has plagued government institutions since long. The new National Education Policy (NEP) too has not resolved this issue. The NEP has increased the allocation towards education to 6 per cent of the GDP from around 4.3-4.5 per cent of the GDP at present with a focus towards digitisation and higher education. While this is an improvement, it is hugely inadequate to address the core problem of improving digital infrastructure in government institutions. Most developed countries, who have state-of-the-art digital and technology infrastructure in their educational institutions, spend close to 20 per cent of their GDP on education.

There is an urgent need for private players to collaborate with public institutions to help augment their digital infrastructure. This could be through funding and grants or partnerships, primarily in the PPP mode. The private player can even run these government institutions on a contract basis. There are several examples of private players successfully running government institutions at the primary and secondary level. There is no reason why this cannot be replicated at a higher education level.

With the proliferation of computing devices and cheap internet in India almost everybody has access to some kind of computing device and the internet. In India typically, most of the internet is accessed on the mobile phone. Yet, this is hugely different from what we need for higher education. Not many people with access to devices and internet are capable of putting it to proper use, even in higher education. That is one awareness the private sector seek to address. It has to try and conduct campaigns to educate people and bring technology and internet-based learning closer to people.

However, the major challenges to remote learning are the existing disparities in infrastructure. Uninterrupted electricity supply and good internet connectivity, which are the prerequisites for online teaching/learning are not uniformly available across the country. Also, in many cases, the required devices are not available with the students and teachers often struggle to adapt to teaching and learning techniques which are different from the conventional classroom. Thus, the digital divide in India in the context of teaching/learning is due to access, devices and proficiency.

It is essential that these disparities are removed in order to achieve a digital balance and succeed in achieving proper technology-led education in the country. Private players can come into this area and help provide proper access to technology for students in higher studies.

Online teaching/learning activities are likely to become integral components of higher education in India. The private sector must seek to ensure ease of access and proficiency for all. At every step, our policymakers, administrators, teachers and even learners should be aware of making the transition inclusive.

(The author of the article, Rustom Kerawalla, is the Chairman of Ampersand Group)


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