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India coronavirus: Online classes expose extent of digital divide

BBC Technology 22 Jul 2020 11:47
A student attends an online voice classImage copyright Getty Images

Mahima and Ananya are in the same class at a small private school in the northern Indian state of Punjab.

Teachers describe them both as "brilliant" students, but ever since classes moved online, they have found themselves on opposite sides of India's digital divide.

Ananya, who lives in an urban area, has wi-fi at home, and says she is able to log in to her classes and follow them easily.

"The experience is awesome and classes are going really well. This is our school now," she told BBC Punjabi.

But for Mahima, who lives in a village, it has been a frustrating experience.

For one, she has no home wi-fi. Instead she relies on her mobile phone's 4G signal, a common source of internet across rural and small-town India.

But the phone signal is strongest on the terrace of her house, so Mahima often has no choice but to study there in the searing heat. Even then, she says, she may or may not be able to join the classes online.

Image copyright Getty Images

The government has been touting online classes as a viable alternative, but unequal and patchy access to the internet has meant the experience is vastly different depending on location and household income.

The signal is often uneven, making it hard to stream videos smoothly, and electricity supply is erratic, which means devices often run out of charge.

The Indian Express newspaper quoted senior officials warning that almost 30% of the central state of Jharkhand had poor connectivity, while similar complaints had been made in Arunachal Pradesh in the north-east.

And then there are those who can't afford any device at all.

In the southern state of Kerala, for instance, a teenager killed herself, allegedly because her family could not afford a mobile phone or a television (lessons are being aired on a special educational channel).

"She was very worried that she would not be able to attend the classes. I had told her that some solution will be found by the teachers, but she was very upset," he said.

"At one extreme of this spectrum are those who do not have any type of device and therefore get completely excluded. Many students in government-run schools have faced this problem.

"There is a clear difference in the user experience of doing online classes on a mobile phone versus a computer or a laptop."

The death of the student in Kerala compelled two rival student organisations to work together to provide television sets to students.

But these efforts do little to bridge the gap in internet access. This has caused some experts to question if online education is a fair option at all.

"The education of children cannot be done effectively online," he told the BBC, adding that to do so would "damage education deeply and exacerbate inequities".

"Unless we get a grip on these bare necessities, there is no point in bothering about the education of children."

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IndiaAnanyaMahimaBBCfederal ministry of human resource development
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