Data from the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2023 report, that was released recently, confirms that the story of widening access to smartphones across the country continues. The results show that 92% of the 14-18 year olds who were surveyed reported knowing how to use a smartphone. What does this access mean in terms of education or learning?
First, although over 90% of boys and girls reported knowing how to use a smartphone, almost half of them, or 44% of the boys, owned their own smartphone. Among girls, only 20% owned one. The difference in ownership of devices, gender-based or otherwise, can limit what these devices can be used for and can affect some abilities but not others. For example, the ability to browse for information is equal among either boys or girls, regardless of whether they own the device or simply have access to one at home. Finding a YouTube video, which also falls under the category of browsing, is equally easy among boys who own or do not own their phones. But the skill of finding a video and sharing it depends on ownership of the device.
The examples above describe tasks that the youth who were surveyed did on a smartphone (their own, a household member’s, or a neighbour’s) in the presence of the ASER survey team. Other examples of how phone ownership makes a difference are visible in the youths’ self-reported use of smartphones. For example, over 90% of those surveyed reported having used social media in the week prior to the survey, but the proportion of those who were familiar with safety features (such as changing a password or blocking a profile) was largely dependent on ownership.
In short, these results suggest that while access to a common smartphone can be described as basic or superficial, owning a smart device is necessary for deeper access to information and services. Smartphone skills, like all other skills, need motivation combined with the opportunity to learn. Entertainment is a great motivator. Products such as WhatsApp and YouTube have clearly motivated and helped youngsters to learn to use the new technology without a gender bias. However, in cases of certain online services and commercial activities, girls seem to show less participation than boys. This may have less to do with barriers of technology and more to do with social obstacles. Where there are no social barriers such as using the devices for school-related work, ownership of devices and gender make only a small difference: nearly 70% of youth, boys and girls, both report having used phones for studies at least once in the reference week. ASER 2023 cannot say if this has made an impact on the learning of school subjects.
Once technology, any technology, is in the hands of motivated users without constraints, they learn to use it. Motivation to use and learn new technology came during the COVID-19 pandemic. Without being taught, huge populations adopted the new technology and its applications that were useful and user-friendly. But, even before the big push of the pandemic, we saw an example on a fairly large scale of how children pick up skills without being taught.
An earlier experiment
In 2017, in an early Pratham experiment with integrating digital technology into education, small groups of 11- to 14 year olds were each given a tablet to share. Their mothers were given responsibility for its safe-keeping, with the assurance that there would be no penalty for loss or damage. Nearly 3,000 tablets were distributed in about 400 villages in Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan. Each tablet had a password to ensure that no external content was imported. Within two weeks we discovered that passwords in half the tablets spread over villages in all three States had been changed, and the children were having a laugh at the expense of the Pratham staff. In those days it was unlikely that the children had prior exposure to devices such as tablets and smartphones in the villages. But obviously some people knew how, and the knowhow spread like wildfire, motivated by the opportunity to play mischief. Needless to say, we removed passwords in all the tablets, and the groups of children were made responsible for protection of the content. Not surprisingly, this worked very well although mistakes were made every now and then. In the above experiment, supported by the Sarva Mangal Family Trust and Google.org, ownership of the tablet was with the children by rotation and they were free to play with the device. Almost similar to the ‘Hole in the Wall’ project of Professor Sugata Mitra, children learned on their own and from each other. Pratham staff helped but did not teach. It is not clear if this impacted ‘progress’ in school subjects but boys and girls became much more comfortable with using technology.
There were different phases of this experiment including one where children started filming, editing, sharing and uploading their own videos on given themes or topics. In one phase almost half of the 4,394 group leaders were girls (49%). In other words, girls use the devices equally well as boys when they are given equal and unfettered access to the devices. In contrast, when their access is constrained, their learning also is likely to be affected negatively. The ASER 2023 reports a lower ability of girls to perform tasks such as accessing services, or making payments, or being safe on the Internet. This is strongly related to constraints in using the devices due to absence of ownership.
Free bicycles gave a boost to the enrolment of girls in secondary schools. Perhaps, free smartphones with Internet access are round the corner?
Madhav Chavan is a co-founder of Pratham