The digital divide in education: The way forward

By Prof Satya Narayan Misra*

There is increasing attention to reduce Urban Rural upheavals in education and find ways and means to provide adequate funding by government, corporates and through PPP model. The prolonged pandemic has not only accentuated the rural urban divide in terms of access to digital access, it has also widened the chasm between children of the uneducated and educated of the country. As per the ASER report 2020 which has done a survey of public school education in the rural areas, it has found that while only 4% of children of uneducated parents had access to online education it was substantially higher in case of children of educated parents (18%). The number of smart phones has also doubled from 30%, the poor has not benefited from this bonanza.  The report brings out how 23% of children of uneducated parents were hugely affected due to non-availability of computers. The ASER report has not been able to quantify the impact on learning outcome because of such digital divide and dislocation.

One of the primary goals of India’s education policy is to bring a synergy between universal access, absence of gender discrimination and access to quality education. Pratham, which brings out the ASER survey of the stated goals of RTE Act 2009, has been constantly lamenting about the poor numeracy outcome in village public schools (28% only) and also reading and writing skills. This has been the major reason why despite free public education, 33% of children, even of poor parents, prefer to study in private schools. States like Kerala which have an edifying record in literacy has about 65% students who study in private schools.

Since the Kothari Commission 1966 and seminal work of Prof. Amartya Sen, the consistent clamor has been to increase the share of education budget in GDP from 3% to 6%. Education being a concurrent subject, the center’s contribution to education is around 1% while there are large inter-state differences in funding, varying from 12%- 15% in most states, to about 25 to 30% in states like Kerala and Delhi. Quite clearly those states which are earmarking more budget for education have harvested greater benefit in terms of learning outcomes. Schooling outcomes in Kerala and Delhi are testimony to such munificence in budget and political priority to quality education. While the NEP 2020 has again reiterated on the need for upping the antenna of overall allocation to 6% and allocation of a state to around 25% of the GDP the ground realities do not seem to match these expectations.

Be that as it may there is a felt need to have public private partnership in the area of education since the education voucher based suggestions by a market economist like Arvind Panageriya does not have much salience and impact. The PPP model is being followed by many Scandinavian countries and Germany with excellent learning outcomes. Unlike infrastructure sector where profit is the driver, the social sector investment has a long lead time to fructify. Therefore, the private sector must come forward with greater commitment towards educational funding out of CSR and also venture into credible PPP arrangements. The initiatives being shown by Ajim Premji Foundation can hold a template for other business magnets of the country to emulate. It is seen that global leaders like US has been promoted by big corporates like the Ford, Rockefeller & Bill Gates Foundations. They have been major contributors to research funding grants and promotion of quality education. The Indian corporates must draw a leaf out of the example being set by their US counterparts.

The national initiatives for digital India suffers from a mismatch between the need for greater investment in hard wire requirement, computer availability and properly trained teachers to handhold, encourage and impart computer training. The experience of UP in providing tablets to children have not been successful due to lack of training support by teachers and frequent disruption in internet availability. On the other hand, the Premzi Foundation has been able to improve learning outcome of children in slums in Hyderabad due to commitment and quality of the teachers who are the fulcrum for successful learning outcomes and quality. Therefore, the idea of the finance Minister in the last budget of promoting digital E-library must be commended. However, the allocation which was made last year has been rather paltry (Rs. 15 crore). There was no allocation for this year for the digital library.

The famous biologist EO Wilson had written “we have stumbled into the 21st century with a stone age emotion, medieval institutions and god like technology”. However, technology will not transform education as it requires a committed, competent and humane trainer behind the machine. Geffrey Sachs has observed in his book ‘Ages of Globalization’ that the future development models have to be society led (industry, local bodies, NGOs and the Govt.) rather than being govt. led. Dr Kalam spoke of PURA (Providing Urban Amenitiesto The Rural Area) as the lynch pin of India’s public policy. But the divide has also to be seen from the prism of income and education deprivation that parents suffer which has concomitant impact on their children’s digital capability. Amartya Sen’s call for equal access to human development capability for all and concomitant need for significantly higher allocation for education, the need to do away with digital divide in a world which is embracing AI, machine learnings and robotics in a big way, the role of corporate to forge enduring partnership with governments, transcending profit motive has come. That will sow the seeds of quality education, high-end skill of all children transcending gender, religion and economic condition. As Plato wrote in the Republic 2500 years back: What’s is honored in a country will be cultivated there”. India’s moment of reckoning in closing the digital gap and fostering higher learning and quality education for all has come. The NEP must be implemented in letter and spirit, with society taking the lead rather than an apathetic state.

 

*Prof. Misra teaches Economics and Constitution Law to Tribal students.

 

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.

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