Only 20% of school age children in India had access to remote education during the pandemic, of whom only half participated in live online lessons, according to a new national sample survey by ICRIER and LIRNEAsia, a think tank focussed on digital policy. In fact, 38% of households said at least one child had dropped out of school completely due to COVID-19.
The survey, released on Friday, found that although digital connectivity shot up 40% during the pandemic, low access to devices, poor signal and high costs prevented most children from reaping the benefits. The face to face survey, conducted between March and August this year, covered a nationally representative sample of 7000 households. Only Kerala was excluded, due to high COVID-19 cases.
Among children aged 5-18 years, it found that 80% of those who were enrolled in schools prior to the pandemic did not receive any educational services at all during school closure. The situation was significantly worse among those from lower socio-economic classes, where the head of the household had lower education levels, and among rural households.
Among the 20% who received education, only 55% had access to live online classes, while 68% had access to recorded audio or video lessons. Three fourths of the students had work sent to them over a smartphone, usually via Whatsapp, and 61% via text messages. Almost 70% had contact with their teachers via phone calls, while 58% had work delivered at their homes. About half the students were also instructed to listen to educational TV and radio programmes.
Of households with school aged children, 64% had internet connections, but only 31% of those received remote education, often because of a lack of access to devices or a lack of larger screen devices. However, among those without internet connections the situation was worse, with only 8% receiving remote education. Respondents listed insufficient number of devices, poor 3G/4G signal and high data cost as among the biggest hurdles. Even among those receiving remote education, a third of the households said that schools were not prepared to deliver online education.
Such challenges continued despite increasing digital connectivity. Over 13 crore people came online in 2020-21, pushing up the country’s total internet users to more than 47 crore. Of the 8 crore who came online in 2020, 43% said they were motivated by COVID-19 related reasons. Overall, internet usage has spiked from 19% of the population above 15 years in 2017 to 47% this year.
However, only 5% of households had laptops, while 4% had desktop computers. The vast majority relied on smartphones, which were available in 68% of households.
“[The] benefits of increased digitalization have been unevenly spread across the geography and population. Trickle down to lower income groups and laggard regions is not a given and will require policy support,” said Rajat Kathuria, senior visiting professor at ICRIER and one of the lead authors of the report, recommending a focus on infrastructure availability and relatable vernacular content. “The journey to digital inclusion must look at an expansive understanding of access which goes beyond laying fibre and providing cheap smartphones — the latter is necessary, but certainly not sufficient.”