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The Digital Divide in India: Narrowing or Widening?

By Panchalee Tamulee

“Like globalization and urbanization, ‘digitalization’ has already changed the world. The rapid proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT) is an unstoppable force, touching virtually every sphere of modern life, from economies to societies to cultures … and shaping everyday life. Childhood is no exception” (UNICEF, 2017).

Children increasingly have to cope with the fast-changing demands of technological change, which influences their present and future as responsible individuals. However, not every child has an equal ability to afford and access ICT. This existing inequality in choice and pathways to digital access has been dubbed the ‘digital divide’. In this blog post, I highlight key characteristics of digital inequalities among the Indian urban education diaspora captured in the two-year research report Catching Up: Children in the Margins of Digital India.

In 2010, the revised ICT@Schools Scheme was launched by the Government of India to bridge the digital divide among children attending government schools. It aimed at expanding to all government secondary and higher secondary schools, particularly those districts with low educational outcomes and higher levels of social disadvantage. However, after 16 years of implementation, Catching Up emphasises that inequalities persist. Though the scheme prescribes 10 computer terminals per school, in many places this target has not been met, and where it is achieved, maintenance of labs remains challenging. Large class sizes with an average of 60 students also add to difficulties of access. The situation is exacerbated by poor access and quality of access in homes, with India ranking 107th out of 139 countries in terms of households with personal computers and 103rd in terms of households with internet access. Restricted access to devices reduces children’s opportunities to become proficient with new technologies. The lack of access to computers and internet deprives children of opportunities to develop computer self-efficacy, leading to a digital capability divide. This inequality in India is strongly linked with traditional forms of social exclusion based on caste, class, religion and gender, which further extends the divide between these social categories. This report reiterates the influence of different hierarchical factors disrupting the development of ICT competences among school-going children from economically and socially excluded communities.

Digital Cycle of Stratification

This study, one of the first in India to study ICT access, use and skills of an inclusive and representative sample of urban Indian children, reveals exactly how varied and unequal their digital worlds and capabilities are. The ICT competency of a student largely depends on the Socio-Economic Status (SES) of their family, with this study suggesting that the ICT performance of students increases with higher household SES. Scores among Grade 7 students show an 18 percentage point difference between the lowest and highest SES groups, while Grade 10 students face a larger gap of 28 percentage points. Another factor which also affects students’ ICT competency is belonging to a higher risk social category. This is captured in Indian data using the term ‘Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes’; a group which has the lowest ICT scores at 41.4% for Grade 7 and 45.4% for Grade 10. The vast majority of children from these communities do not have access to devices at home which reduces opportunities to practice. Students with some form of internet access at home (whether on smartphones or computers) score on average 54% while those who without internet access average only 40% in Grade 7. Students who have a desktop or laptop at home perform even better, scoring 58% in Grade 7 and 60% in Grade 10. Nonetheless, schools and teachers remain the main source of ICT learning according to 73% of the surveyed students.

What should be particularly concerning to the Samagra Shiksha Abhijan Maharashtra - an overarching programme for the school education sector extending from pre-school to Grade 12 - is that students from private autonomous schools continue to exhibit higher ICT skills with an average test score of 63.9%; against an average score of 44% attained by students in fully-funded public schools. The objective behind providing computers in public schools is to facilitate computer learning among students from marginalised, poor families who cannot afford individual devices for their children, and yet, the report highlights continued violation of the national policy guidelines, leaving children dependent on access at home. The ICT@Schools policy recommends one computer laboratory in each school with at least 10 networked computer access points. In spite of the scheme, 7 out of 13 public schools under study had no ICT labs. The situation worsens with a 1:5 computer to student ratio in the remaining 51% of surveyed public schools, making constructive ICT learning extremely challenging.

Nevertheless, the report praises the ICT curricular policy for promoting digital skills beyond the use of basic applications, encompassing a wide range of topics from the importance of ICT in a knowledge-based society to tools enabling practical learning. However, there is no provision for in-depth learning of computing or coding in public schools, restricting the students to limited options.

Need of the Hour: Restructuring ICT Education

The OECD recognises the digital divide as one of the new characteristics of the global economy. The term largely determines the haves and the have-nots in the sphere of ICT access. Providing computer education and infrastructure in schools is an attempt to reduce the digital divide and redistribute access among students from marginalised communities. However, Catching Up demonstrates how in the process of ICT provision, social stratification can be further exacerbated. The report highlights how people from disadvantaged economic, social, and personal backgrounds tend to be the ones least likely to engage with ICT. Their inability to afford expensive technological devices, the lack of services in schools and pressure to build core subject competencies create a cycle of inequalities which is facilitated by systemic dysfunction. This also reveals how providing infrastructure in schools does not necessarily lead to equal digital literacy among children. There is a need to look into larger fiscal policies to ensure economic parity in order to truly support better and more equal digital access. The report proposes strong concurrence between digital skills policies, non-sectoral policies at the national level and specific sectoral policies enabling children to develop digital skills in a more inclusive and equitable environment. It acknowledges that as a sectoral policy, ICT@Schools has faced significant failures in implementation and there is a need for policy makers to revisit and reform the existing policy. Similarly, the national ICT curriculum has ambitious principles of computer learning but fails to recognise the varying socio-economic positioning of schools. Infrastructural misbalance and a lack of school finances add to this complex picture, which persist despite the ICT@Schools Scheme. Catching Up highlights the urgent need to reform digital policies and governance mechanisms in India if we are to properly address the digital divide.

Thanks to this week's contributor Panchalee Tamulee. You can get in touch and learn more about her work on her member profile page.

Images from Catching Up: Children in the Margins of Digital India

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