Behind India’s Lockdown Education Divide - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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Educators are innovating to keep schools in session while under lockdown.

By Maroosha Muzaffar

Misbah Ansari, a student at Ambedkar University in New Delhi, stands near the door of her house in the Ajmeri Gate neighborhood, phone in hand. “Hello … hello, hello!” she shouts into it repeatedly. No luck. After a few minutes, Ansari gives up and messages me on WhatsApp: “Am facing network issue.”

It’s an issue that is increasingly defining India’s attempts at pivoting its massive education system — the second largest in the world after China’s — to a digital-only learning experience in the face of the coronavirus crisis. The country’s 1.5 million elementary and secondary schools and 52,000 colleges and universities have shut as part of a nationwide lockdown that started on March 24. Schools and colleges are expected to keep their campuses closed until at least June, even if the broader lockdown lifts earlier. Like their counterparts across the world, most Indian universities have started offering, or are planning to offer, online classes. Many public school systems in the country are also making the transition.

But a deep divide in internet access and quality of phone connectivity is threatening to exacerbate an already existing chasm in education, in the one area that kids from poor or rural backgrounds have traditionally had an opportunity to catch up with their wealthier, city-raised peers: college. Only about 35 percent of Indians live in cities. More than half of the country’s university students — 55 percent — come from rural backgrounds, and while the colleges they attend are mostly located in urban areas, students have had to return home during the lockdown. An urban student is five times likelier to have internet access at home, even if on a smartphone, than a rural student, government surveys show. Even megalopolises like Mumbai and New Delhi have pockets where only third-generation networks are accessible.

That divide is forcing educators and universities to innovate in ways that will at least allow them to continue teaching their curricula. Some are asking students to join livestreamed sessions with their cameras off, to assist reduced bandwidth. Others are using different hacks, including sending lesson details to rural students via text or WhatsApp. At Ansari’s university, professor Bodh Prakash says that livestreamed lectures are also being recorded and emailed to those students unable to attend the virtual classes. “They can download the lecture whenever they have a stable connection,” Prakash explains.

Attending Zoom classes … is impossible.

Misbah Ansari, college student

These bare-bones innovations hold potential lessons not only for other countries with a large digital divide but also countries in the West where educational systems are often more rigid and educators have less leeway to break the mold.

Still, the irony of the moment is hard to ignore. For years, India — and large parts of the developing world — have been sold the promise of digital technology as a potentially transformative bridge across rural-urban divides. Yet in higher education, it is the city-based campuses of India’s top public universities — such as the Indian Institutes of Technology and Jawaharlal Nehru University — that have drawn the country’s brightest rural students, and have helped shaped their careers and lives.

The lack of reliable network connectivity on smartphones is a frustration even for urban students like Ansari. “Attending Zoom classes … is impossible these days,” says the literature student. She doesn’t have a computer, and so has to study on her phone. “My family thinks I am just passing my time on the phone,” Ansari complains. 

India Goes Into 21 Day Lockdown Due To Coronavirus COVID-19

In India, an urban student is five times likelier to have internet access at home than a rural student.

Source Burhaan Kinu/Hindustan Times via Getty

That revolutionary potential of digital technologies is still real, says Narayanan Ramaswamy, partner and head of education at consulting firm KPMG. It is the government’s responsibility to provide students with facilities that will let them continue learning, he argues. A recent KPMG report that Ramaswamy helped produce lists technologies like blockchain, 5G, the internet of things, cloud and gamification platforms as pivotal to the future of education in India. “Are digital companies bringing in money to create more digital content? Yes,” he says, clarifying that when universities had to suddenly shift to digital-only teaching, they weren’t prepared.

“Teachers were not ready to switch to a digital mode,” says Ramaswamy. “And also infrastructure is not ready.”

For those from more privileged backgrounds, though, the transition has been a lot easier. Madhavi Mukherjee, a sophomore student of urban sustainability, is in front of her laptop every morning ready for online classes. The internet speed is good for the New Delhi–based daughter of former university professors, and she is able to attend all her classes.

Meanwhile, educators are scrambling to think two steps ahead. Some institutions like Ambedkar University are trying to assist poorer students financially as well, “as much as we can, to help them get the internet connections,” says Prakash. For those who can’t access even recorded lectures, he says, the classes will still be available when the university reopens.

Yet despite all those steps, the students whom Prakash is trying to help will have to struggle much more for their education than their peers like Mukherjee, further widening the opportunity gap.

Back at Ajmeri Gate, Ansari has more immediate challenges. She is unable to email her class project to the teacher and says she’ll wait until there is a “stable network.” She knows that could be hours — or days.

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