Fact check of internet for online education in soi-disant Digital India

Recent declarations for blended learning and some courses being taught in online mode as an option amid Covid-19 scenario need honest thinking concerning internet access in view of the digital divide in the country.

India witnessed the nucleation of digital initiatives way back in 2014 with the formation of a Digital India Group for evolving innovative ideas and solutions to make Digital India. In 2015, the Government of India started its flagship programme titled Digital India for creating a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy. A lot of new schemes have been started by various ministries for transforming the country into Digital India.  The society at large has been benefitted with the digitalization of different transactions like in banking, payments, communication, uniform public disclosure, learning resources, etc. through their efficacy, ease of operation, lesser dependence on officials, transparency, and accountability. Kudos to the government for envisioning to create Digital India. It was inevitable to keep pace with the compelling technological advancements for digitalization across the systems.

Now, with the COVID-19 necessitating physical distancing and lockdown along with various other measures, the continuance of the processes through information technology options came into much more prominence. The country witnessed an entirely new mode of operation in which most of the people started working from home with the use of computer/laptop/smartphone and internet-enabled audio-visual interactions from remote locations. The disruptions have been reasonably addressed in the sectors where the processes only needed intellectual interventions and online transactions were sufficient for the execution of the processes. Nevertheless, the quality of deliveries was not of concern in the crisis period as it primarily demanded the processes to roll on.

Like other sectors, the disruptions in education due to lockdown were also addressed through the online education model which became quite popular. Despite the concerns about the digital divide from different quarters, the online education model continued in the majority of the institutions barring a few, whose stakeholders questioned its feasibility concerning access and quality. Recent declarations for blended learning and some courses being taught in online mode as an option need honest thinking concerning its access. This is quite relevant as access requires online infrastructure with the students which requires financial support from the family of the student. The cost of education being met by the students in the country makes the education sector different from other sectors from the use of the IT facilities' viewpoint.

Undoubtedly, the uninterrupted access offered by the technology in the Digital India program holds the key to solve a lot of problems in society. But, the current state in this regard should be assessed from the internet statistics as the internet is the basic requirement for digital transactions in the country. There has been a huge expansion of internet connectivity, however, the availability of high speed and reliable broadband connectivity all-time for all in the country is still a dream. For quite some time public Wi-fi hotspots are established to provide ubiquitous access to the internet. TRAI mentions in one of its reports that the mobile users in major economies of the world depend on Wi-Fi for about 50 to 70 per cent of total usage. While it is less than 10 per cent in India meaning thereby that Wi-Fi technology requires expansion to provide affordable broadband internet connectivity.

The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicator Report of Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) up to September 2019 states the number of total internet subscribers in the country to be 687.62 million out of which the broadband subscribers are 625.42 million and rest are narrowband subscribers. Out of the total internet subscribers, there are 439.99 million urban internet subscribers and 247.63 million rural internet subscribers. As per this report, the Per capita internet subscribers are 0.5208 which means there are 52.08 internet subscribers per 100 population of the country. While the number of internet subscribers per 100 population is  27.57 for rural internet subscribers and 104.25 urban internet subscribers per 100 population. In context to the broadcasting and cable services, the total active subscribers with pay DTH operators is 69.30 million. These numbers should be seen in light of India’s total population of more than 1300 million. 

The numbers report for nearly half of the country’s population having access to the internet.  As per statistics available on www.statista.com, the number of smartphone users in India hovers around 402 million. While the number of television households was around 195 million in 2019. Similarly, the number of personal computers per 100 people in Indian households was 3.13 in 2007 as per World Bank collection of development indicators which might have risen significantly by now. 

The statistics of internet penetration and availability of interfaces like smartphone/TV/computer/laptop in Indian households is not suitable for embedding the conventional education processes with online resource sharing and teaching. The integration of on-campus face to face teaching with online teaching in blended mode is feasible, provided the institutions ensure high-speed broadband internet connectivity with its all stakeholders i.e. enrolled students and teachers.  It will not be unreasonable on the part of education providers to get the internet connectivity status before venturing into the substitution of any portion of regular teaching with online teaching. All caution must be taken to ensure that access to education is not curtailed on account of the unavailability of IT resources or facilities. 

Undoubtedly, the country is marching fast on its way to become Digital India and will accomplish the goal in the near future. But the present digital connectivity gaps hinders enforcing complete digital transactions in the sectors involving individual level internet connectivity procurement. The varying economic standing of the country’s citizenry should not act as a deterrent in the intellectually propelled process of learning. 

First Published:June 17, 2020, 10:22 a.m.