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Digital Divide: Negotiating the Roadblocks

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By Dr. Rajbans Singh Gill, Professor & Director, Centre for Public Policy & Governance, Punjabi University, Patiala, Punjab

On 11th February, 2020 World Health Organization announced a name for the new coronavirus disease as COVID-19. As lockdowns continue throughout the world, many individuals are heading online for help. UNESCO report on education has revealed that over 91 per cent of the world’s student population has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Educational institutions have been closed down in majority of countries affected by Covid-19 to control the upsurge in the infected patients. This has impacted more than 157 crore students across 191 countries.

As education institutions, have been closed due to COVID-19, the majority of students are learning remotely. Motivating students during remote learning is central to their success. Motivation means ensuring they are interested, involved and confident in their learning. Parents and teachers have an important role to play by providing students with encouragement and feedback. The Coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has forced educational institutions across India to temporarily shut and this virus had created a big gap in the education system despite the central and state government doing their best to provide support for e-learning and online education. Around 13 Crore of Students are in the bracket of 9th -12th class in India who are at their crucial stages of educational career. Majority of them belong to the rural areas.

The lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 is having and will have a huge impact on other education sector provisions and outcomes. More than fifty percent of Indian Districts are reeling under this disease. The educational fraternity, have a great responsibility of not only making the people aware of preventive and precautionary to safeguard themselves and check the further spread of this virus but have to reconnect with students who comprises a special place in strata of society. In the times of curfew, the students belonging to educational institutes have the opportunity to continue with their studies through different platforms available online.

As the Internet remains to make inroads throughout the world, it is also generating a split-up amongst those who have access to this global network and those who do not. This separation is called the “digital divide” and is of grave distress. In a fair and ethical civilization, all folks would have an equal chance to contribute in, or benefit from, the use of computer assets irrespective of race, sex, religion, age, disability, national origin, or other recognizable considerations.

While the present conversion to online courses is prompt and provisional, it may have long-term consequences on how education and learning are delivered. Urban and semi urban students who have all the basic amenities as well as resources to study in the City government as well as private schools. These students are getting best of the treatment by giving them online lessons and classes. The deprived section in the cities who have sent their children to private schools in economically weaker section category are also at losing end.

Delivering the educational content with special reference to their syllabus would be a major challenge. Mostly students in the rural areas suffer from network problems and devoid of luxury of having iPad or smart phones. India is a nation of diverse languages, cultures, customs and ideas. Designing a platform catering to myriad regional languages is a challenging assignment. Nevertheless, numerous e-learning platforms now support extensively spoken languages to grant benefit to the majority of the populace. Many government websites offer content in both English and Hindi while supporting local languages too.

There are noises about understanding the discriminated socio-economic backdrops of students and how educational institutions should be receptive, adequately, to all students if they are to deliver education in a way that is reasonable and unbiased. The discussion at all institutions has taken an elitist bias with problematic assumptions. It seems all students can suddenly have laptops or cell phones that are smart enough for capabilities of e-learning programing. This is not true. Even if this were to happen, some students return to homes where electricity (important to charge devices) is used for lighting or where there is no electricity. We do know the challenges we have with connectivity.

There are key migration corridors in India alongside which large scale movement of workforces takes place. Some regions like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar have been acknowledged for rural resettlement for decades – still newer corridors like Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and recently even North East have become major leading regions of manual labour. Among the biggest employers of migrant labours is the construction sector (50 million), domestic work (25 million), textile (12 million), brick kiln work (14 million), transportation, mines & quarries and agriculture.

Majority of them have moved their children along with the family at work place for better living conditions. Most of them lives in slums and children either work as labour and goes to school to get food as mid-day meal. Now after lock down, they have been displaced are either mid-way or have reached their respective villages. The question now is how are they coping about their shattered economy and whether the family is getting two square meals. Now here comes the biggest digital divide. Another major challenge is the students have gone back home and rural area residing students comprises the major chunk.

According to a report by the United Nations, the coronavirus pandemic could push an estimated 42-66 million children into life-threatening poverty and the economic downturn subsequently from the spate of Pandemic could result in hundreds of thousands of additional children deaths in 2020. The migratory labour is in big dilemma. They are not sure of their future prospects and educating their children is not on their agenda. Another major setback is for the children living in refugee camps or who are internally displaced, shutting down of schools will be the most devastating as they are already at a disadvantage and education responses must prioritise the needs of these children.

Currently, major task is to lessen as much as possible the negative impact this pandemic will have on learning and education and construct on this data to get back on a track of speedier development in learning. The government would have to re-think about the future of educational policies by roping in experts to bring back on track education on track and bureaucracy should play the second fiddle to this big perplexing situation. As education systems cope with this disaster, they must also be thinking of how they can recover stronger for removing the roadblocks, with a transformed sense of responsibility of all actors. Brace for its impact!


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