COVID-19 unveils the great Indian digital divide as curricula neglect computer science

A recent survey found that the education of more than 75% students has been severely impacted by the pandemic as they have found it hard to pursue studies online

Photo courtesy- social media
Photo courtesy- social media

Jincy Chacko

Despite being physically away, the internet has played a major role in keeping urban populace productively engaged and connected within the peripheries of their homes at the time of international health crisis. Subscribers of Netflix and other OTT platforms are at an all-time high. In cooperation with required social distancing, urban schools and colleges continue to teach their curriculum smoothly. Blessed be the internet and technology! Online classes have saved children’s academic sessions.

Statista’s report says that though India is the second-highest internet consumer in the world, the population making this cut is only 34 per cent as of 2017. For those remaining, access to the internet is still a farfetched luxury. About 262 million mobile internet users live in urban communities, and 109 million live in rural areas. As much as we may like to believe that India is sprinting alongside the world digitally, we cannot forget the huge mass of people who haven’t yet seen the dawn of computers: the rural residents.

Rural dwellers are often oblivious to events around them and rely on vernacular mediums and word-of-mouth to catch up with updates which, mostly, reach them very late.

An online scholarship platform, in its recent survey, found that the education of more than 75% students has been severely impacted as they have found it hard to pursue studies online for not having it done before. About 90% students mentioned that they needed handholding to make a shift towards online learning and another 30% said they require a trainer to pursue online learning.

This divide between rural and urban India stems from economic inequality. Sixty-seven million Indians who comprise the poorest half see only 1 per cent increase in their wealth, and 63 million Indians are pushed into poverty because of increasing healthcare costs, every year. It would take 941 years for a minimum-wage worker in rural India to earn what a top-paid executive earns in a year.

If necessary measures are not taken, the existing socioeconomic gap will keep widening with digital illiteracy. The only mechanism to tackle the situation is by teaching computer science, a subject of equal relevance among sciences and maths at the grassroots as well. As of now, it remains an elective subject.

The adoption of computer science as a core subject in K-12 education in Indian state level boards is low and has not received critical attention. Efforts were made to create curriculum standards for computer science, but they have failed to take root. The lack of qualified teachers and the inadequate infrastructure failed at drawing students to this subject.

The findings in a study by S M Sehgal Foundation show that after imparting digital and internet literacy to a group of students for five months in 2017, their knowledge about the internet improved from 11 to 93 per cent. Access to internet banking increased to 84 per cent, which until then was only at 3 per cent. Knowledge of e-commerce improved from 7 to 79 per cent. Awareness on social media improved by 75 per cent. At the initial phase of the study, none of the respondents had an email account; post training, 97 per cent had one. Many were operating a computer for the first time.

The results clearly recommend that digital literacy should be an essential component in the mainstream curriculum of every state educational board.

The internet gives immediate access to vital information. It is also a grave human rights violation to deny the majority of the population the knowledge and skills to access information.

With this academic integration, rural youth will also be equal benefactors of a Digital India programme, giving them opportunities to learn about government initiatives, education, better jobs and avenues of income generation.

Knowledge of internet usage is an essential necessity, equivalent to reading and writing. Digital literacy is an important mechanism to pull the future generation from the continuously rising income divide, in turn saving them from poverty.

The COVID-19 pandemic is one occasion where a huge youth population suffered. We do not know what future will bring upon the world; the least we can do is keeping our citizens connected through technology.

(Jincy Chacko is a communications professional working in the development sector)

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