Plugging the digital gap
One of the areas that demand attention in the post-lockdown phase is education, specifically higher education. The academic calendar has been distorted by the pandemic. Board exams, that were halted midway, have been rescheduled for the next month and naturally, competitive examinations have been shifted further ahead. It may appear that normalcy is returning but the incessant rise in cases dares to speak otherwise. Over the weekend, India brushed past Italy and Spain — the two nations that had been wrecked by Coronavirus in the initial weeks of the global spread — and stands fifth in the list. Since India is yet to hit the peak in cases, educational institutes have been ordered to stay shut for the time being. It means schools, colleges, coaching institutes, etc., which hold the threat of the mass spread must likely be opened once the peak is crossed. But as that period of falling cases is anticipated, both the educational institutes as well as students bear the loss of crucial time. For institutes, it would be their financial structure as well as planning architecture that will have to sustain the brunt of the pandemic. They not only have to manage staff salaries during a financial crunch but also redesign the academic calendar to impart learning with minimal loss accrued to students. While lower grades in schools can still withstand the distorted curriculum due to pandemic, it would be difficult for higher grades as well as colleges to sustain the measured losses. Deprived of physical classrooms, the current situation has facilitated a transition to online learning, which has otherwise been percolating into society at its own pace. The concept of e-learning might not be new but its outreach and viability are to be assessed in the Indian context to maximise its utility. In fact, the Central government had made progress in this regard by launching the DIKHSA portal in 2018 which serves as the national digital infrastructure for teachers across the nation, equipping them with advanced digital technology. Online portals, undoubtedly, bridge the divide that the pandemic has caused in our society today. Virtual classrooms can solve the problem of learning from home. However, the entire concept rests on a few factors that would determine its effectiveness in Indian society. Foremost amongst those is accessibility to digital infrastructure for both students and teachers. While in physical classrooms, internet and technology are mere teaching aid, in virtual classrooms these serve as vital components. The first distinction is drawn between urban and rural areas with former more likely to have better access to digital infrastructure compared to the latter. Unequal access to digital infrastructure can severely impair the entire paradigm of e-learning, making it a privilege of the few rather than a novel solution for masses in the wake of a pandemic.
To this extent, it is important that institutions and governments take cognisance of the glaring need and arrive at viable solutions. The thrust that the country got under the current government's flagship Digital India programme facilitated the adoption of digital transactions in the economy. The programme was successful in penetrating the rural India which serves as an important benchmark for the government in regard to its ambition to follow a similar pattern for e-learning. Given the thrust of digital India and the wide telecom network boasting cheap internet rates should combine to provide India seamless accessibility to digital infrastructure for facilitating e-learning. While the pandemic serves as a tremendous opportunity to pursue this, the fruits of spreading such accessibility would be yielded for times to come. While there are schemes that promote digital education in rural areas, the pandemic has appeared as a prime reason to double the efforts in casting a comprehensive digital net over the whole country. Today's effort to strengthen access to the digital repository of learning would continue to serve students of this country for ages to come, bridging the significant divide that India has experienced in imparting education to its children through the years.