Study in contrast: Digital divide education’s biggest test in Covid era – Times of India


Anu, a Class XII student of Government Girls’ Senior Secondary School in southeast Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar, attended online classes only on weekends when her two brothers relinquished the use of her family’s pair of mobile phones. “I go through the recorded videos of the week’s classes. I don’t know whether this is enough to help me prepare for my board exams, but my parents cannot afford a third phone,” she said.

The paucity of expertise on online teaching, new modes of exams and the uncertainty over bandwidth and indeed, internet access, have made 2020 difficult at both the school and the university levels. Amid this, two realities have emerged. Many families are not okay with sending children back to school since they can afford the infrastructure for online lessons. But those, like Anu’s parents, have realised that classroom attendance is the only way their kids won’t miss out on studies. Delhi government data shows 15% of students were not connected to any form of online learning. These are students like Anu and others, whose economic capacities do not allow them the luxury of devices and data costs.

Ashok Pandey, director, Ahlcon Group of Schools, summed it up when he said, “Digital inequality existed earlier too, but the pandemic exposed it.” He said schools “reconstructed and re-prepared ourselves” for the Covid era, but even then due to the digital divide, Pandey said “there could be as many as 50% of the students suffering learning loss across India”.

The CBSE exams of 2020 and 2021 are a major source of stress for students and parents alike. The March 2020 exams had to be cancelled and the board had to find a different assessment metric. There are questions now about the 2021 exams to be held without the students having attended a single physical class.

Ashok Ganguly, educationist and former CBSE chairman, was clear that online exams were neither the alternative to traditional tests nor could the board depend on summative assessment alone. “We need to have a continuous formative assessment,” he said, adding that blended learning was the way forward. He described blended or hybrid learning as simultaneous offline and online learning.

With time, institutions have adapted to a more meaningful study mode. Munish Tamang, assistant professor, Motilal Nehru College, explained, “The sudden lockdown and the shift to online teaching allowed no transition to digital learning. Initially, it was just remote teaching, not digital learning. However, over the months, the teachers undertook formal training through institutional support and workshops to move towards more comprehensive digital learning.”

Tamang, however, pointed out that a formal approach had to be found to help students for whom access to digital tools and the internet was a challenge. Ignored, the problem could have disastrous results, as in Lady Shri Ram College student Aishwarya Reddy killing herself. This prompted many Delhi University colleges, among them Janaki Devi, St Stephen’s and Hindu, to provide assistance to disadvantaged students.

The reality of the digital divide was never fully accepted earlier, opined professor Atul Sood of the School of Social Sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru University. He said that during the lockdown the impression was created that a perfect substitution to face-to-face teaching was online lessons. “Shifting to online education without preparing for and acknowledging the social challenges will only add to the already prevalent divisions and disadvantages,” said Sood.

The repercussions are there to see. Studying the developments of the recent months, SPK Jena, professor of applied psychology at DU, believed that digital education, especially for those facing problems related to devices and the internet, triggered mental health issues. “Besides anxiety as loss of lessons, many students also find the information load in long hours of online classes too burdensome, leaving them depressed,” he said.

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