Digital Divide Looms Large: Ensure Blended Learning With Higher Access

Digital divide is here and is all poised to stay unless there is a radical change in policy and action on ground.

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Acute Digital Divide among Learners Today

Some 283 million students are there in nearly a thousand universities, around forty thousand colleges and above ten lacs thirty thousand schools in India. A recent survey tells 28% of these number, i.e. approx. 82 million of students have come into the ambit of online education of any decent level. Some 21%, i.e. around 57 million of students have some digital access of education through WhatsApp and Facebook, though that is hardly of any major consequence. Remaining 14 crores of students, whopping 51% of the total, are completely outside any form of online educational outreach for the last six months. The last ten months simply do not exist in their lives educationally and this may continue further. 

Digital divide is here and is all poised to stay unless there is a radical change in policy and action on ground. An economically divided society is bound to be digitally divided, more so when the digital divide becomes acute in the rural and tribal hinterland of India irrespective of class positions of sections of the population there.

The problem is so acute that one in every five students may have to go out of education if this situation goes on for another six months. And the axe will fall much more on the girl students in a nation obsessed with the boy-child. In case of meagre competing resources like smartphones or laptops or tabs, the boys are expected to be taken care of first before the girls in most poor rural homes and even many poor urban homes.

In this context, what can be the way to tackle the divide? How can #BridgeDigitalDivide movement start on ground and who can and should take the lead?

Digital Access as a Human Right:

Before making any attempt to fix responsibilities, what needs to be understood is that the definition of literacy itself has to be changed from the ability to sign to ability to read, write and connect digitally. So it is the digital literacy which is the literacy of the new normal. And along with food, shelter, clothes, basic health, basic education, digital access is the new human right for a dignified life. This has to be recognized and accepted in policy, in thought, in public life. From this will flow the responsibilities of all of us in the nation.

Bridging the Digital Divide: Government Role:

First is the onus of the government. It is heartening to see that the New Education Policy promises 6% of GDP for public education, while the current figures for the same is below 3%. It is a different thing that the last New Education Policy during the rule of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister also had promised 6%, but never crossed half of it. We all live on hope, and we will expect the current government led by BJP to fulfil its promise given in the NEP.

The additional 3% allocation should as early as possible be budgeted and allocated for the first one or two years largely not for expanding physical infrastructure, but enlarging rather the digital outreach and connectivity across the length and breadth of the country which has to be a public policy and a government initiative. 

Bridging the Digital Divide: Going beyond the Government:

The Company Act of India has been amended some time earlier to make 2% of profits to be contributed to corporate social responsibility by every company making CSR a must-do activity. While compliances of this is in progress, the impact in real life in many cases is debatable. However, the CSR of the corporate world now for at least two years needs to be focused on extending digital connectivity and providing digital tools to the digital have-nots going ahead. 

Alongside the telecom companies must come with new reduced packages of internet connectivity for bona fide teachers and students at all levels, especially in rural India. This can be on the lines of students’ concessions in buses and trains during travel (Delhi has free travel for students and women in public transport).

Companies, organizations and the civil society leaders across India must also unleash a movement to donate old but usable smartphones, laptops, desktops and tabs to students who cannot afford to get them. Initiatives like #MillionMobileCampaign need to be aggressively taken up by the voluntary sector. Several NGOs have started similar initiatives and educational institutes with resources have started training young children on digital learning and teachers in online teaching from the schools and colleges which cannot easily afford these. 

Blended/PhyGital Education Must Ahead:

But alongside, the schools, colleges and universities have to quickly move to a blended or hybrid mode of education asking only a section of the students to come to campus each day ensuring physical distancing for health safety and lesser burden of travel and expenses on the families, and continue education digitally on other days. If a student comes to campus only for two days, but can still study digitally for the other four days of the week (with all support of the eco-system as noted above to be digitally connected), digital divide can be reduced drastically and higher education of the sections on the verge of losing it can be ensured as well. 

Blended learning will also need that all study materials and learning resources (aggregated by the mentor from open sources or prepared by the mentor as his/her proprietary content) must be given well in advance to the learners for self-study first, as per the flipped classroom concept, before the topic is taken up digitally or physically for discussion. 

Face to face education can focus on group work, peer-based learning, lab and studio based practical learning, etc. However, conceptual, theoretical and knowledge-based learning can still go online with enhanced digital access.  

This is the new freedom movement ahead: freedom to be digitally connected in learning, and physically connected in practicing what is learnt online, going ahead. We may call it also as PhyGital Learning, where the digital gives the concept and continuation, and the physical gives the human touch, practical and group exposure in education. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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