The government must play an active role in ensuring learning for all students, including fellowships, and provision of tablets and high-speed internet facilities.

Digital divide and online education in IndiaImage for representation
Voices Digital divide Wednesday, June 17, 2020 - 18:17

On June 1, a Class 9 Dalit student in Kerala’s Malappuram district set herself ablaze after missing the online classes on the first day of the school reopening. According to the Deputy Director of Education at Malappuram, out of the eight lakh students in Malappuram, the most populated district in the state, as many as 64,000 currently don’t have facilities to attend online classes. In another incident in Punjab, a 17-year-old girl from a village in Mansa reportedly died by suicide as she did not have a smartphone to attend online classes.

In both cases, the family couldn’t afford electronic devices for facilitating online education for their children. Both cases highlight the deeper problems associated with online education and its accessibility.

All educational institutions across the country have been closed since the lockdown began on March 24. However, there has been a push towards online education. But this push fails to take into account the rooted socio-economic inequalities in India.

The following figure shows the online education trinity, the three necessary conditions for successful imparting of online education. Lack of any one or more will fail to provide education electronically.

As the figure shows, apart from the electronic devices and internet connectivity, infrastructure is also a vital facet of online education, one that is often overlooked. For instance, if during an online class electricity or space or both are not available, then a student will be unable to attend the class and be left out.

The Kerala government started trial online classes for school students even when their fact-finding survey reported that more than 2.61 lakh students do not have access to the internet or TV. The University of Hyderabad planned to start online classes but later dropped the idea when a survey conducted by the university revealed that 45% of students can access internet only infrequently and 18% cannot access the internet at all.

The key findings of the Household Social Consumption on Education in India, 2017-18 National Sample Survey (NSS)1 shows the digital divide not just between rural-urban, private-public educational institutions but also by caste.

At the graduation level, less than 6% of rural and 25% urban households have access to a computer. And, less than 17% rural and 44% urban households have access to internet. At the school level, the situation is even worse (see figure below).

If the differences between government versus privately run schools and universities are observed (see figure below), then more students have access to computer and internet under private institutions. However, even at the college level for privately run universities, access to internet and computer is under 33% and 54% respectively.

Digital divide as an exclusion mechanism

Out of all students enrolled for education, around 77.8% of Scheduled Tribes and 69.4% of Scheduled Castes were in government institutions whereas more than 52.2% of Forward Castes were in private institutions (see figure below). It clearly shows that a higher proportion of the deprived groups are dependent on government sources for education, as it is significantly cheaper and affordable than private institutions. The move towards online education will put additional financial burden on the students and their families.

Out of total enrolled students, 96% of Scheduled Tribes and 96.2% of Scheduled Castes did not have access to a computer whereas 83.8% of Forward Caste students did not have access to a computer at their homes (see figure below).

For students enrolled in colleges that year, 95.1% of Scheduled Tribes and 94.1% of Scheduled Castes did not have access to a computer at home as compared to 80.1% of students belonging to Forward Castes.

Another requisite for online learning is access to the internet. The stark difference in access to internet for different caste groups (see figure below) shows how already oppressed groups would be further kept out from education. 89.3% of Scheduled Tribes and 85.7% of Scheduled Caste households whose children were in school did not have access to internet whereas for Forward Castes it was 64.9%. Similarly, the difference in access to internet is quite high for higher education as well.

The latest household survey data on education highlights the persistence of socio-economic inequalities in India. Higher education in fact helps in bridging the social gap. It is true that online teaching has been forced by extraordinary circumstances. While it is important that teaching and learning do not become a causality of the pandemic, it is also critical to ensure that a big segment of students do not get left out of digital learning.

We propose that the central and state governments play an active role in ensuring learning for all under the circumstances. This should involve timely fellowships, provision of tablets and high-speed internet facilities to students, and changing the exam structure so that students don’t fail for lack of facilities.

Such intervention will cost only a small proportion of the GDP, but would go a long way in ensuring that social inequalities do not exclude millions when teaching and learning go online.


1. Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India, NSS 75th round, 2017-18, Government of India, Ministry of Statistics & Programme Implementation.

Avinash Kumar and Mayur Kumar are PhD research scholars at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU).

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