‘Zoom’ing Across the Digital Divide

In March 2020, when India entered into a national lockdown because of the Covid19 pandemic, I was in the last leg of my undergraduate degree. I, along with most other students in the country, rejoiced at the news of our colleges and schools being shut. Little did we know that it would not be a temporary shutdown but one that would stretch on interminably and irreversibly impact the education of generations of students in the country, and in the world. Fortunately, as the situation unfolded, my university adapted – classes and meetings with my thesis advisor were immediately shifted online, provisions were made for students with bad internet connectivity and faculty were instructed to enquire about the physical and emotional well-being of students. Having completed my fieldwork prior to the lockdown, I was able to wrap up my thesis at home – bolstered by stable internet (and several cups of coffee!). And yet, as news spread in the country of the havoc wrought by the pandemic on our education system, I became increasingly aware of my many privileges.

Before I started work as an AIF Clinton Fellow at Prajwala Sangham, my understanding of the digital divide was limited. As I watched my 12-year-old cousin whip out his iPad to show me the app his school had designed for their homework, the script of a Zoom play he had written and the video game that his friend had programmed for a school assignment, I perceived this new digital norm as a boon for children with the right support and facilities – after all it was boosting one of the most valued skills in today’s job market, ‘tech-savviness’. It was thus only during my sessions with the children enrolled in Prajwala Sangham’s gender awareness and leadership programme that the stark reality of the digital divide actually began to hit home. Without computers or laptops, all of the children logged into the Zoom sessions through their phones. While many did not have the internet bandwidth to switch on their videos, others suffered from audio issues – low quality earphones and phones ensured that either they couldn’t hear us or be heard by us. During one such session, a child eagerly offered to perform a rap for us and it was heart-breaking to see his audio fail repeatedly until he got dropped out of the call entirely.

The lockdown has ensured the entry of the phrase ‘digital divide’ into common parlance. Frightening disparities have come into the spotlight, with the National Statistics Office (NSO) pointing out that only 23% of students in urban areas have access to computers and a mere 4% of students in rural areas (Kharbanda, 2020). While access is one aspect of the issue, digital literacy is another – the NSO also found that only 10% of students in rural India can operate computers as opposed to 32.4% in urban India (Kharbanda, 2020). Additionally, while a majority of private institutions have been able to shift to a digital mode of teaching, most “government-run educational institutes are struggling to make this transition” (Kharbanda, 2020). Conversations regarding digital literacy have, in the course of the pandemic, turned inevitably into concerns regarding India’s basic literacy rates (The Hindu, 2020).

Children in school uniforms sitting on plastic chairs, working on computers lined up on desks.
Children accessing technology in a classroom environment, pre-pandemic. Photo source: https://newint.org/sites/default/files/2019/IT63-7.jpg

Technical issues aside, there are some added difficulties with the new online mode of education. Children from working class backgrounds sit in crowded, noisy homes with distractions aplenty. I observed children arguing or playing with their siblings, and parents scolding their children while they were attending the class. Many children spent almost the entire class duration walking around with their phones searching for a quiet place to sit. And while backbenchers in a physical classroom can be motivated and encouraged in many ways, on Zoom, they simply turn off their audio/video and disappear.

5 children sitting around a small tablet computer placed on the carpet, watching a video.
Children accessing technology at home, an image representative of the era of the pandemic. Photo source: https://gbc-education.org/gep-report-release.

In the time I have spent observing these sessions, however, I have also learnt that all hope is not lost. Programme facilitators at Prajwala Sangham use ingenious ice-breakers and games to motivate children to turn on their video and audio and make their presence felt. Zoom breakout rooms are used often to facilitate discussions – in these much smaller forums, each child feels more accountable to partake in class activities and is less hesitant to open up. Of course, one of the most effective methods to engage children is to initiate discussions on topics that are relevant and interesting to them. Many children do not shy away from seemingly ‘heavy’ topics such as gender violence and discrimination, rather these topics stimulate lengthy discussions wherein every child wants to pitch in. I was amazed to witness a ten-year-old boy open up about how news of rapes and forced marriages scared him and a nine-year-old girl express anger at her (female) friend being told off for wearing a skirt. Children who had shied away from other (minor) activities were eagerly switching on their audio and jumping into conversations on gender, the pandemic and current affairs.

At the outset, then, it may seem like the solution to the digital divide is as simple as providing children with the technology needed to bridge the gap. In actuality, our approach needs to be far more nuanced. At the outset, I believe interventions are needed in three spheres: technology, parent and teacher training and finally, pedagogy. Investment in technology for education needs to extend beyond computers/smartphones to study tables, chairs and even earphones. The need for quiet, dedicated study spaces and timings for children has to be impressed upon parents. I noticed that the children whose parents ensured that they were ready with their books, pens and were presentable for Zoom classes, had a higher capacity to focus and learn than those who were unprepared for the session and were therefore distracted throughout. Traditional pedagogy needs to be re-examined and revamped for the era of online education. Given that children tend to get more easily distracted at home, teachers/facilitators have to ensure that the content is far more engaging and interactive than is typical in a physical classroom. Hour-long lectures need to be replaced with activity-based learning. At the same time, teachers have to be given the tools and techniques needed for effectively using new pedagogies. For instance, while it is understandable that in the chaos and stress of online classes teachers end up overlooking the backbenchers with their audio/video off, it is imperative that these children are not forgotten. Teachers must be trained and incentivized to notice the students who seem to be falling behind online and engage on an individual-level with them.

Author's study desk: laptop covered with a "Linkin Park" band sticker, along with charging cable, pen, mouse, headphone, and paper notebooks.
Having a dedicated workspace is a privilege not many can afford. Photo credit: Author.

Most importantly, we cannot neglect the psychological impact of the digital divide on students. With bad technology, performance suffers, as a result of which children are either penalised or left behind. Students who were once at the top of their classes may now be forced to the bottom percentile by the lack of resources. Additionally, while children from more privileged backgrounds have ways to connect with their peers digitally (WhatsApp groups, Zoom parties, etc.), more disadvantaged children have become isolated from friends and classmates. Students who were poised to become first-generation graduates or even literates, may now be facing a future of menial labour and living below the poverty line. In the midst of what is therefore the most confusing and traumatic time of their lives, it is unacceptable that children are made to feel as though they don’t deserve to be comforted and counselled.

A recent study by Oxfam found that while almost 80% of India’s students were unable to access online schooling during the lockdown, many of these children may never return to the classroom again (Beniwal, 2020). Organisations such as Prajwala Sangham have worked on the holistic development and welfare of children marginalised by the digital divide during the pandemic. The need of the hour is to bolster these organisations while also mainstreaming their teaching philosophies and incorporating them into the Indian education system. The path ahead is long and difficult, but there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Bibliography:

Kharbanda, Bharat. 2020. “Glaring digital divide in education in India: Covid-19 gives opportunity for digital inclusion”. India Today, September 11. https://www.indiatoday.in/education-today/featurephilia/story/glaring-digital-divide-in-education-in-india-covid-19-digital-inclusion-1720817-2020-09-11.

The Hindu. 2020. “NSO report shows stark digital divide affects education”. Accessed December 12, 2020. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/nso-report-shows-stark-digital-divide-affects-education/article32554222.ece.

Beniwal, Vrishti. 2020. “Covid Risks a Lost Generation Amid India’s Digital Divide”. December 17. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-12-16/covid-risks-a-lost-generation-in-india-as-digital-divide-widens.

Amiya is serving as an American India Foundation (AIF) Clinton Fellow with Prajwala Sangham in Hyderabad, Telangana. For her fellowship project, she is documenting the educational work that has been co-created with women, girls, and women prisoners. Amiya’s interest in gender and caste developed during her undergraduate studies in Sociology. She conducted ethnographic research on the Dalit community in Bangalore and Delhi and presented her work at conferences organised by Shiv Nadar University as well as the University of Toronto. To better understand these social realities, she spent her summers working in rural India. Her first internship in rural Telangana involved training the underprivileged students of a women’s college with English language and communication skills, while also encouraging them to pursue various career opportunities. Here, Amiya began to understand how gender and poverty stood in the way of equal accessibility and exposure. Her second experience was as a research intern at The Timbaktu Collective in Andhra Pradesh, where she helped ideate and implement an impact assessment project for the NGO’s Mogga Sangha initiative. Here, she interacted with 300 children by travelling to over 20 villages, during which she witnessed harsh realities such as child marriage and gender imbalances in rural Indian schooling. The collective’s successful organic farming and sustainable livelihoods initiatives also piqued her interest in these areas. Since Amiya aspires to pursue a career in development, the AIF Clinton Fellowship is a tremendous opportunity for her to learn, grow and make an impact. She has been placed with Prajwala Sangham, in Hyderabad, an organisation that pursues critical interventions in gender and caste sensitisation as well as women and child rights. In her free time, Amiya reads, bakes and plays basketball. As a Bengali raised in Bangalore, she is perpetually caught in a dilemma between eating kosha mangsho and paper dosa.

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