For 10-year-old Yash, the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is exposing the divide between him and his peers. His classmates at Apeejay School, Panchsheel Park, are beginning their new academic year through online classes, logging into a school portal on laptops and tablets.
In the two-room home that Yash shares with his widowed mother and elder brother Karthik in Jagdamba Camp, a basti near Sheikh Sarai, Yash knows there is no money for such devices.
“They are starting online classes through Zoom because we cannot go to school. The school has told us how to log in to the portal, there is a password. But I don’t have any way to take part. My mother doesn’t even have a smartphone,” says the Class 5 student who was admitted to the prestigious private school under the quota for Economically Weaker Sections (EWS).
Since his father died two years ago, the family has been dependent on his mother Santosh’s widow pension of ₹2,500 a month and the goodwill of relatives. “Because of this lockdown, the rest of the family is also facing financial hardship, so I feel guilty for depending on them. When I am worrying about their food, I cannot even afford to charge my phone,” says Santosh.
“Normally, because they are EWS students, their fees and uniform is taken care of, but there is always some extra expense, some project or function, and I manage to pay for it. But now, I can’t even give them an education because it has gone online,” she says.
EWS quota students may be facing the starkest consequences of the digital divide, at a time when many schools are into some form of distance education.
Students in government schools and rural students without access to the slew of new education apps are also at a disadvantage.
The Central and State governments have announced that lessons will be taught on television and radio, but some NGOs and educational technology firms are looking for innovations that will also bring online content into poorer homes.
“We need to rethink how to reach children in ways that are equitable. The whole nature of education is surely going to change due to COVID-19 and we need to find new modes of delivery,” says Sourav Banerjee, country director of Room to Read.
He says the rise in smartphone penetration means that good tech resources could actually help level the playing field if it were not for poor connectivity in many parts of rural India.
“It’s much easier for people to access WhatsApp than a portal or a website, so we need to develop content that can be pushed through that medium,” he suggested. Room to Read, which works with over 9,000 government schools, has created content for parents, who are key to education now that teachers are inaccessible.
The NGO Pratham has created small neighbourhood groups in 5,000 villages and distributed tablets with its Anganshala app to encourage students to self-learn during the lockdown.
“Learning without teachers may also mean recruiting community volunteers to teach children in small groups using online resources,” says Pratham co-founder and president Madhav Chavan.
Central Square Foundation (CSF), which focuses on foundational literacy and numeracy for young children aged 3-8, has also created a Hindi language app aimed at low income parents, and is working with the governments of Madhya Pradesh, Haryana and Chhattisgarh to launch it across those States.
The organisation is also working to improve content on the Centre’s Diksha app, in association with Google.org.
“More than 90% of the edtech products in the market are built with middle and higher income families in mind. So even if those products are being made available for free during the lockdown, they are not contextualised for a poorer or rural audience,” says Gouri Gupta, CSF director. “For example, if you explain fractions using the slices of a pizza, that is simply not accessible for those who have never eaten pizza.”
She feels that while the digital divide may widen for the poorest families, the wider adoption of technology by government education systems during the lockdown could actually lead to greater awareness among low income families who earn about ₹10,000 per month.