The Centre must help provide Internet links to all schools as an essential service
The digital divide in India’s school education system, reflected by the absence of computers and Internet access on campus, emerges starkly from the Education Ministry’s Unified District Information System for Education Plus (UDISE+), for the pre-pandemic year of 2019-20. Physical infrastructure has traditionally meant good buildings, playgrounds, libraries and access to water and toilets, but the advent of hybrid learning even ahead of the coronavirus crisis has made essential online access and computers key adjuncts to make the learning process more engaging. During 2020-21, it became painfully evident that most students had to rely on remote learning, but many faced the double jeopardy of not possessing their own computing devices and smartphones at home, and their schools remaining in the dark without such facilities. In remote areas, particularly in the Northeast, many had to travel closer to mobile phone towers to access the Internet on shared phones to get their lessons. The latest data confirm that a mere 22% of schools across the country on average had Internet access, while government institutions fared much worse at 11%. On the second metric of functional computer access, the national average was 37% and for government schools, 28.5%. Beyond the averages, the range of deficits reflects deep asymmetries: 87.84% of Kerala schools and 85.69% in Delhi had an Internet facility, compared to 6.46% in Odisha, 8.5% in Bihar, 10% in West Bengal and 13.62% in Uttar Pradesh.
Students and teachers not being able to use computers and the Internet is acknowledged to be a form of deprivation, especially during the pandemic, just as the inability to attend in-person classes is another. Many scholars see the teaching-learning process as multi-dimensional, helping to inculcate social skills. COVID-19 has, however, compelled all countries to evaluate hybrid education models, with a mix of lessons delivered virtually now and on campus later when the virus threat abates. In such a multi-layered process, bringing computers and the Internet to all schools cannot be delayed any longer. The Centre must explore all options, such as the National Broadband Mission, the BSNL network and other service providers, to connect schools, including all government institutions that are severely deprived; the upcoming 5G standard with the benefit of high wireless bandwidth may also be able to help bridge the gap quickly. Getting computers to schools should also not be difficult because, apart from public funding, communities, corporates and hardware makers can use recycling and donation options. The UDISE+ shows that many schools have fallen through the net, and they need urgent help to get connected.