‘Digital Apartheid’: Online Education Continues to Widen the Many Gaps of Inequality

*Shahida Akhtar is a visually challenged student in Class 11 at a residential school in Uttar Pradesh. Ever since classes shifted online owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, she has been struggling each day. The school for the blind where she studied earlier was only upto Class 10, so she had to move to a different school, but it isn’t specialised for students with disability.

“I often miss my classes because most of the time, I am unable to locate the online link for the class,” Shahida told LiveWire. “My family members are not tech savvy, so there is no one to help me out.”

The absence of Braille and adequate learning materials at home has made it very difficult for students like her to attend school remotely. Online classes for other students too haven’t been easy due to poor internet connectivity, lack of technical know-how to handle the devices, gender-based barriers at home, linguistic limitations and so on and so forth.

In September 2020, the Delhi high court asked government and private schools to provide digital gadgets and internet connection to students who come from underprivileged sections of the society, and said that not doing so will amount to “discrimination” and “digital apartheid”. But there are many students in India and the world who continue to face problems while trying to attend classes online.

Technical illiteracy

The situation has proved to be a double whammy for female students who are also expected to do household chores while attending classes.

Last year, the government of India started telecasting home learning classes for students who don’t have internet connection at home. However, many female students haven’t been able to sit through the classes because of the timings, i.e. 9 am to 1 pm, which, in most homes, is the time when household chores are done. DD Girnar – a state-owned TV channel that targets the Gujarati speaking audience in India – conducts seven classes in the morning slot (9 am to 1 pm) as opposed only four classes in the evening slot (2:30 to 5:30 p.m).

While technical illiteracy is a major issue in India, the digital literacy and internet accessibility rates are even lower for women in the country. The National Family Health Survey 2019 stated that over 60% women in 12 states and union territories have never used the internet. In a survey conducted in over five states, by the Centre for Budget and Policy Studies in July last year, revealed that only 26% girls and 37% boys could get a smartphone for attending online classes. It also stated that 71% of girls are busy with household chores during their class timings as against 37% boys.

Also read: Universities, Exams and the Online Digital Divide: A Short Survey

The pattern is the similar for girls all over the world. Mobile internet services for online learning have globally been 26% lower for females than males. As a consequence of the pandemic, almost two-thirds of girls are doing more household work now. Half of the girls in the world are expending more time caring for their siblings than they previously did. This has considerably reduced the time they spend on studying. All of this may in the future lead to a lesser literacy rate among girls and also undo some of the gains of global advancement made on girls’ education.

Lack of access to technology

Back in India, the government has further slashed allocation for education by 6% in the 2021 budget, as students continue to miss classes due to lack of access to technology. For example, in one school for classes 6 to 8 with a strength of nearly 350, only 42 students are part of their class WhatsApp group. Shubham Kumar, a Class 10 student studying in another government school, rarely gets to attend his classes. In his family of four, only his father and elder brother, who are both working, own a smartphone which they take with them to work. His family income, which has gone down since the pandemic struck, does not permit his family to buy him a smartphone.

The situation for students in Kashmir is even worse, with 4G internet services being restored only last year – 17 months after the revocation of Article 370 of the Constitution of India. Mahira Afaq, a student from Kashmir who studies in a school in another state of India, is still facing internet connectivity problems. “I had to go to my sister’s friend’s place –which takes two hours by road to reach – to take my online sessional exam,” she told LiveWire.

Minorities in India and all over the world have been further alienated by online education. Linguistic minorities have particularly been disadvantaged by online learning programmes as students are less likely to be taught in their mother tongue during online lectures. According to UNESCO, less than 30% of the low-and-middle-income countries have designed learning materials for students who speak minority languages at home.

Out of the 1.3 billion school students who have been left out of their schools during the pandemic, only 33% have access to the internet at home. High income countries again have an advantage over low and lower-middle income countries in this regard. Nearly 80% of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa have no access to the internet as compared to 15% in Western Europe and North America. Merely 30% of children from poor families in Latin America and the Carribean have access to a computer as against 95% from rich households, says the Oxfam report.

The pressure created by the lack of facilities to attend virtual classes have even led to suicides among teenagers. Whilst students in India and the world continue to struggle, the annual spending gap in the education sector has increased by $30-40 billion in the pandemic.

Does this mean that the ‘digital apartheid’ is here to stay?

*Names of the students have been changed to protect their privacy.

Madeeha Fatima is a Class 11 student at Aligarh Muslim University, and is an aspiring journalist.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty