Education During Pandemic: Bridging the Digital Divide

Digital Inequality
Artwork by Grant Thornton

In the onset of a global pandemic, various sectors are facing a transition to accommodate the new norm of physical distancing. As Indian economy is plunging with a sharp rise in unemployment at the rate of 8.37 per cent developing a trust deficit among youth in the education system. An estimate of 17 million women has lost their jobs in both the formal and informal sector─  unfolding the need to look at the gender dimension of online education. The Prime Minister’s Independence day speech promised an ambitious target to connect 6 lakhs villages with optical fibre in 1000 days. However, the announcement warrants a reality check with sound policy to ensure the benefits reach out to the masses. 

 The divide between ‘haves and have nots’ is manifesting into an education shortcoming that if not addressed right now might break the recovering economy post the pandemic. 

Academic institutions across the country rushed to conduct online classes during the period of lockdown. Undoubtedly, technology has provided a makeshift solution for the majority of universities to continue with education. The overwhelming impact of technology in education is still unable to veil the systemic inequality present in the system of education. South Indian states are largely expected to be performing better and perceived to be advanced in comparison to other states. It would be a good starting point to analyze the status of the ‘developed’ states to extrapolate and comprehend the overall digital divide present in India.

The transition has also highlighted the true nature of the asymmetric access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) for digital learning across the states. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines this digital divide as ‘the gap between individuals, households, businesses and geographical areas at different socio-economic levels with regards to their opportunities to access ICT and to their use of the internet for a wide variety of activities’ This abstract definition only captures the division between groups at different socio-economic levels, when in fact a theoretical distinction exists between the first-level and second-level digital divide. The first level deals with the problem of access to computers, while the second level focuses on the user profiles of new technologies. Having access to computers is one thing, but using those computers to access the internet and being able to successfully achieve the task that the user was trying to accomplish is another aspect all together.

Outcome of Economic Inequality

Most studies on the digital divide deal with social inequality, regional aspects and ethnic background. In fact, a general conclusion across all literature is that the development of digital divide parallels that of income inequality. It is also unanimously accepted that access to new technology correlates to a large degree with the distribution of central resources to human welfare, including education. The perfect example to understand the non-technological factors affecting the digital divide is through the case of online gaming. It has been observed that Native English-speakers are primary participants in such environments. A study conducted has shown that when an English speaker enters a non-English conversation, other participants switch to English but the same is not done for an in-coming non-English speaker. This puts the non-English speaking participant at a disadvantage by reducing their ability to effectively communicate, irrespective of how good their gaming-skills are. Hence, it is important that the Digital Divide is understood from the perspective of Digital Literacy.

In an exclusive study conducted by Yong-Hwan Noh and Kyeongwon Yoo where they looked at panel data from 60 countries from 1995-2002. The study concludes that the positive impact of the spread of the internet is reduced if it is accompanied by income inequality, which is likely to be true for developing countries like India.

As per the World Inequality Database, as of 2012, the top 1% in India has control over 30% of the nation’s total wealth, while the bottom 50% account for a meagre 6%.

Higher-income inequality exists in urban areas when compared to rural areas. It can be safely hypothesised that the basket of commodities purchased by the residents in rural areas are fairly standard in nature, and are catered towards necessities, while a basket of commodities for consumption in urban areas seems to have a good mix of essentials as well as non-essentials. This can be supported by observing the lower Monthly Per Capita Expenditure in rural areas, as compared to urban areas. 

The question remains if the expenditure on supporting education will be considered essential by households. As we witness income contracting, it is highly unlikely that households would prioritise investment in education via a digital platform.

Women in Higher Education- Changing Perspective

 As reported by the World Bank, India’s Gini Index lies at 37.8 per cent and has only been consistently rising since the last two decades. The index remains indicative of the fact that there is rising income inequality, that needs to be addressed through efficient policy measures. As per the All India Survey on Higher Education Report for 2017-18 (AISHE), there are a total of 903 universities across India, most of which are State Public Universities (351), State Private Universities (262) and Deemed Private Universities (80). It is important to note that 79 per cent of the total number of students are enrolled in the Undergraduate level program in India. To give a rough estimate, as per the Department of Higher Education there are 1.6 lakh students enrolled in PhD, which is a little less than 0.5 per cent of the total student enrolment.

 University Grants Commission is set to chart out an online education policy for India along with the Education Ministry. At this juncture,  it is crucial to understand the impact it will have on the digital divide in India. 

The recent approval of National Education Policy, 2020 has not attempted to accommodate an inclusive, equitable education with a focus to resolve the new-age problem of the digital divide.

Gender is an important social dimension that has to be studied to enumerate the realistic challenges of conducting an online education at a graduate level. 

Gender parity index for enrolment in higher education in favour of females is much better in south Indians states. Karnataka and Kerala, with an almost equal ratio in Kerala, the index reports poorly for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, where the enrolment is in favour of male students. Overall, the southern states have moderate performance in gender parity- explicates a rosy picture about gender equality in education. However, in the realm of new-age online education internet access is the primary key for quality education. According to the Internet and Mobile Association of India, female users account for only 29 per cent as against male users contributing to 67 per cent. 

On an average household, women spend 2.6 times more time on unpaid care and domestic work, which restricts the time they can spend on paid work or upskill themselves.

Young girls and women are more vulnerable during the time of pandemic as studies show that parents prefer investment on male children. 

Households in Economics are studied as a problem of allocation of limited resources, and with most households having none to limited access to Information and Communication Technology, it can be expected that there will be a further increase in gender disparity, leading to widening of the digital divide. 

An inquiry to bridge the gender gap while implementing online learning takes precedence with fewer women having access to the internet. Even the south Indian states cannot be expected to perform the same in an online format if the technology ownership remains with men. The future of education has to ultimately account for the discrimination factor to ensure women access to the internet and digital technology. 

India’s overarching education system is characterized by inchoate plans for a comprehensive gender-inclusive policy  The quality of internet connection─  measured using the speed of uploads and downloads is pretty low. As most digital learning systems will require students to have access to a stable internet connection and a device that will also support the format of the online lectures, disgracefully low internet speeds will undeniably prove to be a major hindrance in the adoption of online education. IIIP has also rated 5G deployment in India with a qualitative rating of zero, re-assuring the lack of infrastructure in place for the adoption of such online learning technology. While mobile phone tariffs are relatively affordable in India, the high cost of the device makes up for the convenience of purchasing affordable data plans.

Key Takeaways

Although shifting to an online format is an inevitable option during the pandemic, the existing inequality in access to education will accelerate in the coming chapters of online education

• South Indian states with higher literacy and gender parity also will face the digital divide challenges in the epoch of online education if there exists income inequality.

• The digital divide will deepen and manifest into an education crisis if not prescribed with sufficient policy solutions in a decentralized manner.

• Gender inequality still remains relevant─ female access to internet/technology becomes an additional indicator to be studied along with the female enrollment rate.

Authored By

Manjari Balu

Founder, Econfinity

Economics enthusiast and a coffee lover aspiring to build a network of like minded thinkers across the world.

Abhishek Mukherjee

Abhishek Mukherjee