The COVID-19 pandemic has battered and bruised the education system. When learning shifted online, the digital divide in India was exposed and laid bare. It was only then that we realized that this gap needs to be bridged. Without this, COVID-19 may cause an irreparable learning loss for millions of children. And some may never even go back to school.
What we can see clearly is that the education sector underwent a transformation in the last year. There was massive digitization of learning methods across all levels of education. Teachers had to adapt to teaching online and conducting video classes (while training themselves and learning new skills); students learnt to study through their screens. However, not every student in India had access to a smartphone or computer. To bridge the digital divide, we need to strengthen nationwide infrastructure to provide Internet access that is cost efficient and of reasonable speed.
The social divide in our country further adds complexity to the digital divide. According to experts, civil society organizations (CSOs) and grassroots mobilisers can play a key role in bringing education back on track. What is important now is enabling access to education.
Students in rural areas are among the worst impacted. According to the ASER 2020 survey, only 18.3% of children in rural areas enrolled in government schools had access to video recordings while only a mere 8.1% had attended live online classes. Our survey ‘Scenario amidst COVID-19–On Ground Situation and Possible Solutions’ found that about 56% children out of the 42,831 students surveyed did not have access to smartphones. Lack of resources like digital devices and access to Internet, added to financial restraints of parents, have been major hurdles for students striving to receive quality education at the grassroots.
In this situation, CSOs such as Smile Foundation stepped up and went the extra mile to create a positive impact. The work being done in the field of education had to be accelerated to even scratch surface of the damage caused by the pandemic. For instance, our ‘Shiksha Na Ruke’ campaign was launched in 2020 to provide continuous education during the pandemic. Through our interventions, we worked in 201 Mission Education centers across 22 states.
Other CSOs are also creating such interventions. A collective effort with innovative solutions by the government and CSOs, along with active participation from educational institutions, can be the first step to bring education back on track. There are now a number of tech-free and low-tech innovations that can be used to bridge the digital divide across India and make education accessible to all. If CSOs are proactive on this front, this can be implemented on the ground.
Digitization has also helped increase connectivity and networks, allowing us to reach new geographies. Adoption of digital technologies has led to innovative solutions like telemedicine delivery and creation of tele-support tools for education and development. Impact delivery and assessment is slowly seeing a change with grassroots adapting to technology and digitization.
Technological adoption is helping CSOs enable empowerment of communities and create greater social impact.