On college days, 19-year-old Pavitra Gouda and her friends walk five kilometres along the main road that leads to Karwar from their village. In the public bus stop in Devalamakki village along the way, the friends find a comfortable spot where they can get a stable cell phone signal.
Sitting in the bus stop, the friends go through their lessons even as buses, cars and motorcycles speed by along the road. They have been studying like this ever since their college - Kamadhenu College - in Karwar asked them to attend online classes at the start of September.
"When the college asked us to attend online classes, we were confused because we do not have network at home," Pavitra says, speaking to TNM from her home in Nage village in Karwar taluk of Uttara Kannada district. She is a student of Bachelors of Computer Applications (BCA) in Kamadhenu college.
The hardship faced by these students, and others like them, mirror the struggles of students across India who have had to adapt to remote learning ever since colleges were shuttered due to the outbreak of coronavirus cases in March this year.
Students from villages like Nage, Shirve and Kove in and around Devalamakki converge at the bus stop on weekdays to study their lessons and download the notes sent by their lecturers. Over 1,500 people reside in these villages and there are around 15 students who currently have online classes.
"We attend the online classes in the bus stop because the network is better than in other places and there is space to sit. We study from 8 am till around 3 pm and if the lecturer has sent notes, we download it there and then come back home," Pavithra says.
Her home in Nage is surrounded by thick forest areas while Shirve, another village nearby is located on a hill. There are buses connecting the villages to the district centre in Karwar which passes through Devalamakki but the students say that on the occasions they have to start their online classes early in the morning, they tend to walk or travel by bicycle from their home to Devalamakki.
Local residents say that the major issue is the lack of mobile network connectivity and point to the fact that there is only one mobile tower of Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL) in Devalamakki. "Even in the case of an emergency, we have to travel kilometres for a cell signal. There is only BSNL network available and on top of this, there is no network when there is a power cut," Pavithra says.
The plight of the students getting together to study at the Devalamakki bus stop was highlighted by Prajwal Shet, a journalism student from Karnatak University in Dharwad, who is from Devalamakki. "I don't have online classes but looking at how the students were coping with the challenge of finding a stable cell signal, I thought this issue should be highlighted. If online classes will be the norm, then the connectivity in our villages should be improved," Prajwal tells TNM.
Speaking to TNM, Uttara Kannada Deputy Commissioner Harish Kumar said that this issue was discussed with officials from BSNL recently. "A solution will take time since houses in these areas are spread on a large area so we need to come up with a way of ensuring the education of students is not affected," he said. He added that he will elaborate on plans after the election code of conduct has lapsed. It is in effect due to the upcoming Legislative Council elections.
As per the 2017-18 National Sample Survey report on education, only 24% of Indian households have an internet facility while only a little over 15% of rural households have access to internet services. Private network providers have also not assured connectivity to subscribers, particularly in rural areas, a report by Quacquarelli Symonds (QS), which publishes a coveted global ranking for educational institutions, stated.
The Karnataka government is yet to take a decision on reopening schools for students in the state but online classes have been in private schools since June. Online classes have not been held for students in government schools.
Prajwal says that students in and around Devalamakki lack the connectivity for remote learning and this could lead to a digital divide - the gulf between those who have ready access to computers and the internet, and those who do not. "There are scenic tourist spots in these villages but there is a need to improve basic facilities like network connectivity. This will solve the problems faced by students," adds Prajwal.