Computers arrive for a Goa school in the early-2000s: All these years later, the government’s focus continues to be on ICT infrastructure alone. Photo by Frederick Noronha

In India, governments and schools view technology in education as a device to transmit knowledge, not as a way to help students generate knowledge through critical and creative thinking. For high-quality learning to occur, students must learn with technology rather than from it, and governments must go beyond making technology available in schools to working on the entire eco-space of technology and education.  

The digital divide and its consequence, digital exclusion, is a matter of increasing concern. The concern is motivated by the assumption that digital inequities act as barriers for accessing and using information and communication technologies (ICTs). As a result, the digitally excluded cannot contribute equally to economic and workforce development, or access healthcare and education or engage fully in civic participation. In effect, the digital divide accentuates existing inequities.

The digital divide has multiple interpretations, from viewing it as disparities in access between the “haves” and the “have-nots” to viewing it from a use perspective. Following Warschauer (2002), this paper sees the digital divide not in absolute dichotomies but on a continuum of access, use, and empowerment. Jackson (1999), discussing social inclusion and exclusion, adds another dimension that is applicable to digital technology as well. According to her, inclusion and exclusion can occur simultaneously. A person can be included on the access dimension of digital technology but be excluded on the empowerment dimension. These views add to the complexity of locating persons on the digital divide continuum. Since inclusion and exclusion are not absolute concepts then, one should be alert to the slant towards generalisations when discussing them.

Before exploring the digital divide in the space of education, let us clarify the role of digital technology in education. Government efforts and initiatives treat the domain of education in much the same way they do other domains like governance, service delivery or health. For example, the E–Seva project for property tax filing, the Bhoomi Project for digitisation of land ownership, the Gyandoot Project of Dhar district in Madhya Pradesh for digitising information on crops, forests, field and water resources, or Aadhaar for access to government subsidies. In the context of education, technology is used for admissions, transfers, declaration of secondary school leaving examination results, school monitoring, tracking attendance and other information management purposes in schools, as well as for digitising textbooks and open source wikis (encyclopaedia developed through collaboration among schools). Regardless of the domain in which it is used, the purpose of technology is to facilitate consumption of information. This approach needs to be interrogated, however, to highlight the unique features of education that influence the use of technology in education. 

Role of digital technology in education

Education and school are fundamentally different from other organisations as far as adoption of technology is concerned. Cuban (1993) observes that schools are institutions with a set of cultural beliefs about what teaching is, how learners learn, how learning occurs, what knowledge is proper in schools, what the nature of the relationship between students and teachers is, and so on, all of which influence the spread (or lack) of technology in schools. When teachers do use digital technology, they have the challenge of adapting technology to the requirements of students as well as age-appropriate admission policies. These cultural beliefs and persistent adaptation of technology make schools “substantially different from businesses, industries, and other organisations” (Cuban 1993: 1).

Much of the discourse on the role of digital technology in education is framed in the language of efficiency (making management and learning efficient). The use of management information systems is intended to flatten hierarchy and make the system more democratic and efficient. There is, however, no evidence to show “how improved communication is necessarily equivalent to better management, improved efficiency, or flatter organisational structures. Rather, the technology in many cases merely seems to amplify processes and organisational cultures that already exist” (Kerr 2008: 135).

Learning, which lies at the core of the educational system, is more complex than information management for schools. For the purposes of learning, technology provides content through visualisation, manipulations, exercises and activities that are expected to either reinforce or deepen the student’s conceptual understanding. This way of looking at learning is from the efficiency perspective—how to use technology to learn better. While this is important, the major concern of technology in education ought to be on how to make learning effective, with students taking responsibility for their learning and generating knowledge themselves through critical and creative thinking. The effectiveness role is not concerned with preparing students for the job market.

A corollary that emerges from the efficiency-effectiveness perspectives is that digital technology in the context of education is used not just as an information and communication tool to support learning; it is also used to generate learning and knowledge. Effective use of technology requires that students not be consumers of information but more importantly, creators of content. The role of digital technology in education has to be positioned in a framework that transforms and creates learning and does not limit itself to engaging students in the learning process with a view to enhancing it. It is important to understand this aspect of digital technology in education because it highlights the underlying complexity of digital inequities in education and at the same time interrogates the view of digital technology leading to digital equity in the context of education.

Such an understanding of digital technology in education points to a framework that is directly relevant to an examination of the digital divide in education. This framework has been proposed by Hooper and Rieber (1995). It is similar to the other frameworks, except that Hooper and Rieber’s framework is specific to education. The framework focuses on the adoption of technology in education and helps to infer the broad direction in which teachers can be innovative and the curriculum be regenerated.

Framework for technology adoption


Figure 1: Hooper and Rieber’s model of technology adoption

Hooper and Rieber (1995) distinguish between two perspectives on educational technology—the traditional perspective that focuses on technology itself or on the how of a teacher’s instruction; and the contemporary perspective on educational technology that focuses on the learner’s active construction of knowledge. The framework identifies five phases in the adoption of technology in education (Figure 1). Of these, the first three are characteristic of the traditional perspective, and the last two phases constitute the contemporary perspective.

  • Familiarisation: Initial exposure to and experience with technology
  • Utilisation: Trying out technology in the classroom—but if a problem occurs, the technology is discarded
  • Integration: There is a commitment to technology—it is no longer considered “expendable”
  • Reorientation: Reconceptualising the purpose and function of classrooms. The focus is on student learning and not on teacher instruction
  • Evolution: The classroom learning environment constantly changes to meet the challenge and potential provided by new understandings of how people learn.

The Hooper and Rieber framework is nuanced, with the details of each phase spelt out. Our study (Devaki 2001) used a simplified framework based on Hooper and Rieber, consisting of the following phases:

  • Learning from technology
  • Learning with technology

The two phases draw from different epistemological traditions of learning, and differ in the purpose of technology, the nature of technology integration, and the role of teachers and students. The subsequent section uses this framework to look at the digital divide. Most of the observations in this paper are based on the insights drawn from the three-year study on “Empowering Teachers to Integrate Technology in the Curriculum: An Empirical Study” conducted for the Azim Premji Foundation in 2011, which aimed to determine the extent to which learning achievements of students differ in schools that have teacher development processes with and without technology, in comparison to control schools. The study compared three conditions: (a) control group schools, where there was no input, (b) experimental schools-1, where teachers were given inputs for professional development on pedagogy as well as some digital content, (c) experimental schools-2, where teachers were given substantial inputs for professional learning on both pedagogy and technology. The study was conducted in Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Puducherry. In Puducherry, since all schools had computers, we had only two groups—control and experimental school with technology. Each group consisted of 20 schools. All the schools were government schools and located in disadvantaged rural areas.

Access to digital technology is a precondition for the use of technology in education. We discuss this first in the context of education before moving to the two phases of technology adoption.

Applying the model of technology adoption

Access to technology

The predominant definition of the digital divide is through the notion of access. This interpretation leads to the simplistic belief that investing in digital technology is a way to close the digital gap. Researchers have generally looked at access in a quantitative sense through surveys.

Ramalingam and Kar (2014) conducted an exploratory study on 421 students of Grades 6 to 9 from three schools in urban areas and two schools in rural areas of Puducherry. They used a self-administered questionnaire to collect data. The findings show that only 23.8% of students accessed the internet, 63% of them from internet cafes. Significantly higher use of internet (P < 0.05) is reported for boys (30.9%), students from urban areas (39%), and students from government schools (26.3%). Early and late adolescents do not differ significantly in the use of internet. After adjusting for other factors using logistic regression, it was found that if a student is living in an urban area, he/she is 4.5 times more likely to use the internet than a rural counterpart.

Similar findings are reported by Sampath Kumar et al (2014), which looks at computer literacy among Indian students. The majority (91.33%) of urban students used computers, compared to a significantly lower percentage of rural students (32.33%). Most rural students have not used computers mainly because they do not know how to (49.75%), followed by lack of support from teachers (48.76%) and non-availability of computers in their schools (48.27%). Power failure was another major problem faced by both urban (31.75%) and rural students (40.20%).

A survey on access to technology by the Central Square Foundation (2016) reports that while government schools in both rural and urban areas have access to computers (rural 96%, urban 92%), access to functional computers is drastically low (11% rural and 34% urban). This creates digital inequities for students studying in rural areas. Another source of digital inequity comes from the type of school. The Central Square survey also notes that the availability of smart boards in government and low-fee private schools is minimal (at 12% and 7% respectively), and in high-fee schools it is as high as 74%.

Most studies look at access in a generic sense and not in terms of where technology is used to teach curricular subjects. The Azim Premji Foundation’s study on empowering teachers to adopt technology (2011) also provides insights on other factors that disrupt access of students and teachers in schools.

  1. Electricity: This was another barrier to accessing computers. The problem was greater in Odisha, compared to Puducherry or Chhattisgarh. Two schools we worked with did not have electricity, and in a few schools the power was cut off because of nonpayment of bills. Our team members had to discuss the issue with members of the gram panchayat and facilitate a meeting with panchayat members, electricity board and school management committee to get the problem addressed.
  2. Poor maintenance: Schools were in extremely poor condition. In Odisha, schools were infested with rodents that ate up the computer cables. In Puducherry, the buildings were in a dilapidated condition and rainfall often damaged computers. We realised that computer maintenance does not happen smoothly even with annual maintenance contracts in place. This required frequent follow-up, particularly in places that were far-flung, as in the case of Ranpur in Odisha. We realised that the maintenance persons did not see the consequences of leaving maintenance unattended as affecting student learning.
  3. Computer-student ratio: While we have very little idea of optimal computer-student ratio, we do know that a ratio of over five hinders learning. In our study, the Azim Premji Foundation provided one computer for three students. The significance of the computer-student ratio is because (1) some children (perceived to be more intelligent, or male students) tend to monopolise computer time at the cost of other children, thereby affecting the quality of digital learning, and (2) no strategy is in place to rotate computer time. In some schools in Odisha, the computers were taken away for use at the block level or were placed in the head teacher’s room for administrative purposes. This disrupted the computer-student ratio. In Puducherry, the disruption of the computer-student ratio came from a policy decision of the union territory to merge small schools with large schools. This increased the number of students who accessed the computers.
  4. Administrative issues: Departments of education in most states tend to work in silos, one section dealing with technology and another with content. The two sections do not talk to each other. In Chhattisgarh, most of the teachers were para teachers/assistant teachers with no professional qualifications. Their content knowledge, as also their knowledge of pedagogy, was extremely limited. So even before training those teachers to use technology for teaching, their content and pedagogical knowledge had to be enhanced. In order to conduct capacity-building programmes for teachers, a letter is sent to the department of education with a request to depute teachers and indicating the purpose of the learning programme, dates and venue. Although our request letter explicitly stated that the programme was on helping teachers use technology to aid learning, the request letter inevitably went to the section dealing with technology. They in turn would send a deputation letter to teachers with the statement that the learning programme was for learning computers. This resulted in a mismatch between the expectations of the teacher participants and the purpose of the programme. On talking to administrative officials, we realised that they saw technology as an add-on to education, not integral to it. This was not merely a matter of education but also a mindset. Whatever the reason, they nevertheless were real barriers.The nature of the administrative barriers was different in Puducherry. There were power tussles between the head teacher and other teachers. The key to the computer lab became a symbol of power. Teachers who were in the good books of the head teacher got the keys easily. Others could not take their students to the computer lab because its key mysteriously disappeared. Many teachers said they did not have time to practice what they learnt. On our insistence, the computer lab was kept open during the lunch hour. On subsequent visits, we realised that teachers feared going to the lab during lunch hour because the head teachers suspected they were using the computers for entertainment and personal reasons, rather than school work. The second challenge was that not all teachers in schools engaged in teaching although the timetable indicated allotment of classes to them. In almost all the schools, one teacher helped the head teacher in office work, and one teacher was responsible for all outside work, including collecting or delivering forms and coordinating with education department officials or the teacher’s union. This affected the student-teacher ratio. Usually, one teacher handled two classes. So teachers would send one set of students to the computer lab and teach other students. An assistant teacher took charge of the computer lab and her responsibility was to help students with technology and ensure that students do not break anything.
  5. BOOT model: All the schools used the build, own, operate and transfer model in which computers were procured from private technology firms (such as Educomp, NIIT, ApTech) which are responsible for building the computer lab, operating it, and training students and teachers to operate computers. Ownership of the lab is transferred to schools after five years. Gurumurthy (2009) has brought out in detail the problems associated with the BOOT model. A separate computer lab hinders the integration of technology in education. The movement of students and teachers from classroom to computer lab breaks the rhythm of learning and reduces the already limited 45-minute period for learning. In contrast, high-fee private schools with broadband connections are able to invest in advanced and portable digital technologies. Another problem with the BOOT model is that of sustainability. In most schools, after a few years of completion of the study, we found the computer labs dysfunctional and the teachers not in a position to take responsibility for using computers for learning (or even for their own development). The BOOT model and the less advanced hardware compared to the advanced hardware used in high-fee private schools is one more source of digital inequity from an access perspective.

The Azim Premji Foundation’s study highlights that access is not merely the physical availability of digital hardware and software, but covers the entire eco-space of technology in schools. All these tangible and nontangible reasons bring out different levels of the digital divide. More importantly, these are issues within government schools and not between different types of schools, suggesting that government schools are not a monolith. Different schools have different kinds of access problems. These need to be identified and addressed. On the whole, it is evident that the attempts of governments must go beyond making technology available in schools to working on the entire eco-space of technology and education, including mindsets.

Learning from technology

Learning from technology uses what Hooper and Rieber call “product technologies”. These include 1) hardware, or all machine-oriented technologies, such as audio-visual equipment (computers, DVDs and so on), and 2) software technologies, such as e-books and computer software or computer-assisted instruction (Hooper and Rieber 1995). The role of technology is to transmit knowledge through the use of digital resources such as virtual laboratories, maps, virtual fieldtrips and so on. Technology reinforces what students have learnt through visualisation and manipulation, drills or tutorials. Students consume knowledge delivered by technology and are expected to reproduce it. In the Indian context, technology has another role—to motivate students who are disconnected from learning.

In learning from technology, the role of the teacher is to provide instruction on the use of technology and to use technology as an aid in their own learning of pedagogical practices. In our study on empowering teachers in the use of technology, we initially encountered resistance from teachers in adopting technology in their classrooms, and the resistance was the outcome of two factors: the fear that digital technology would eventually replace teachers, and a negative attitude towards technology. Most teachers said they had “no time” to learn to use technology although they saw it as inevitable. We were able to address this fear to a large extent in Puducherry where many teachers had higher levels of education (most were postgraduates and some were pursuing their doctoral studies) because they were keen to communicate with their relatives living elsewhere. These teachers learnt practices such as email and browsing, but were reluctant to use technology for teaching or searching for new educational resources.

The thrust of learning from technology is to increase the efficiency of learning. A quick look at the digital resources that are available show that these promote learning from technology—be it the CDs used in the Foundation’s experimental study on empowering teachers, or the digital content produced by commercial companies. In fact, privatisation of digital content is the bane of digital equity. Since most digital content is produced by private companies, they tend to look for high returns from minimal investment, and digital content in English has more buyers than content in other languages. This results in a relative paucity of digital content in regional languages. Consequently, English-medium schools have access to a range of digital contents. The CDs produced by Azim Premji Foundation are one of the few exceptions. These CDs are given to government and private schools free of cost. The Foundation has produced CDs in 14 Indian languages and four tribal languages. This, of course, in no way diminishes the fact that English-medium students are in a more advantaged position compared to regional language students.

Affordability is another factor exacerbating the digital divide in school education. Many private firms have produced visually appealing multimedia software. A study by the Ministry of Human Resource Development on the ICT architecture of some private schools, shows that they use software such as English mentors, 3D labs, Smartclass tabs, EduIgnite (a diagnostic assessment test) and Mindspark (an adaptive, self-learning technology), whereas in government schools, digital technology is limited to the computer labs set up through the BOOT model, and smart boards in a few schools ( Teachers in private schools are also supported in the use of this software and in the process, they are better able to use technology compared to teachers of government schools. Access to a variety of software resources, coupled with advanced technology, creates the right conditions for seamless integration of technology in learning. In theory, this level of integration makes learning more efficient. All this technology is expensive, however, requiring schools to revise their fee structure periodically. The investment in ICT infrastructure in private schools ranges from Rs 50 lakh to Rs 1 crore, inclusive of recurring costs, whereas in government schools investment in all aspects of education is low.

Learning with technology

One reason for the digital push in education is that it transforms learning. For high-quality learning to occur, students must learn with technology rather than from it. Hooper and Rieber (1995) refer to this as idea technologies, or technologies used to generate ideas. The goal of technology in education is not so much to support learning as to generate learning. This view sees technology as a device to learn and not a device to transmit knowledge. It consists of using technology in ways that “enable students to explore, expand and enhance their own capabilities, that is, to create their own knowledge” (Hokanson and Hooper 2004: 1). The goal is not to make learning easy or efficient, but to make it effective; to develop and instill knowledge and not information.

In this view, digital tools are used to create knowledge. For instance, students use the Excel program to create databases that are relevant for their learning—for example, relational databases that show the grammatical and meaning relationships among words they acquire. Jonassen (n d) discusses a variety of such applications. For instance, creating semantic networks or mind maps by using visualisation tools such as SemNet, MindMapper and XMind, or using dynamic nonlinear authoring tools like hypermedia. In creating hypermedia texts, students must think through a range of questions: What is the purpose of creating this text? For whom am I writing? How should I organise and structure the text? What information, pictures, maps and other resources do I need to create the text? Where can I find these resources? How do I incorporate each of these resources so that they convey what I want to convey? Hypermedia, unlike a linear text, consists of writing in chunks. This helps writers think of a variety of ways to link different aspects of texts, thereby creating new understanding for themselves and for readers.

The role of the teacher, the curriculum and the nature of the classroom changes when students begin to learn with technology. At this stage, technology is seen as indispensable for learning, because the tasks that students are engaged in simply cannot be undertaken without it. The curriculum is reorganised so that students consistently engage with technology to generate knowledge. The emphasis is not so much on what technology is used by students; it is on how the technology is used. In enabling students to learn with technology, the teacher acknowledges that her own knowledge of technology is limited because technology is not seen as something that has to be mastered. Instead, she is open to new ways in which technology can be appropriated, and since these appropriations are creative, they are not anticipated by teachers. The role of the teacher thus changes from imparting instruction to creating conditions that enable students to construct their own knowledge. A teacher dons different roles depending on need—as coach, organiser, project designer, consultant, resource manager, editor, evaluator and audience. She is also a co-learner with the students, exploring technology for its innumerable possibilities (Turner and Handler 1997). The teacher is unfamiliar with the software, taking the risk of trying out new instructional strategies, and she needs a lot of support in the use of new technologies. To enable innovation by teachers, schools should have a supportive and enabling culture.

In learning with technology, according to Hooper and Rieber (1995), learners (whether teachers or students) become the subject rather than the object of education. When children learn with technology, there is digital equity and educational equity.

Implications for digital equality

In our experience, the digital divide in schools results from barriers to access as well as the fact that our students are learning from technology, with disparities in the nature and language of content. There is very little digital divide when we come to the phase of learning with technology. This is alarming, though not surprising given the quality of education in our country. To leverage learning with technology one needs to know how to analyse, organise, interpret, relate and communicate information. According to Bonilla (2005, cited in Nemer 2015) digital inclusion can only be achieved through appropriation of technology. Appropriation of technology is an ideology; an ideology created by conditions and opportunities whereby the “marginalised are able to participate, question, produce, decide, change, and become an integral part of social dynamics in all instances” (para 19). There are several barriers to students developing these skills. A few major barriers are presented below:

Poor basic literacy skills: In conditions where children are struggling to acquire basic literacy skills, this kind of digital inclusion is a pipedream. According to the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017, which surveyed youths in the 14–18 age-group, with eight years of schooling completed, a significant percentage still lack foundational skills in reading and math. About 25% of students in this age-group still cannot read basic text fluently in their own language (italics added) (

Purpose of school according to parents and teachers: In our interactions with teachers of government schools and parents in Puducherry, we realised that they held a different perspective on schooling itself. For the parents, school was a safe place to leave their children while they were busy at work. Or they sent their children to school for free books, uniforms and free food. The free books and uniforms were often sold to meet daily expenditure or drinking needs. Students would come to school every morning, eat the midday meal, and run home. Parents, according to the teachers, looked at these as an entitlement rather than an aid in getting an education. For teachers, school was a safe space for students who had everyday crises at home because of drunken fathers, sick mothers or siblings they had to take care of. So education in the sense of developing lower- and higher-order cognitive skills, was quite an alien concept for them. In such a situation, teachers also saw their roles differently. One Class 6 teacher from a Puducherry government school summed up this view thus: “I can, of course, force children to learn; I know I am responsible for ensuring that the syllabus is completed. I also know it is important. But, knowing their home backgrounds, if I push them to learn, I will be doing them an injustice. I feel that my responsibility is to ensure that these children develop as mentally healthy human beings. So I spend my time talking to them; counselling them.”

The teachers’ commitment to students’ well-being also came through in our interactions. They used their lunchtime to talk to parents (mostly mothers) and children who showed behavioural problems. They pooled money to help children tide over financial difficulties. According to these teachers, the purpose of school was to ensure the emotional wellbeing of students.

Location and social context: In rural areas, children of one locality go to the same school. In Puducherry, for instance, in schools located in areas dominated by scheduled caste communities, the majority of children come from these castes. They share very similar socioeconomic disadvantages and their access to cultural capital is also limited. Within the school too, they have no models amongst themselves from whom they can learn. They have no support systems in their neighbourhoods to help them in their studies or homework. Most are first-generation schoolgoers, being socialised into the system of schooling, discipline, examinations and so on. They are disadvantaged children going to schools located in disadvantaged contexts, creating a double disadvantage for students. This problem can be addressed only when educational policies cease to be decontextualised, taking a one-size-fits-all approach.

Conditions of pedagogy: Finally, we come to another major problem, the pedagogical conditions pertaining to teachers, teaching, training and support. First, the number of qualified teachers that the country requires is enormous. A solution to this problem has been to recruit teachers with minimal educational qualifications (often one who has passed Class 12) and no professional qualifications. These teachers go by different names in different states—assistant teachers, para teachers and so on. In most schools, the teacher continues to be the transmitter of information. That is why it has been relatively easy for private companies to dominate the digital content enterprise. The “training” that teachers are given is not relevant to their requirements and continues to be decontextualised—it does not connect to class size, home backgrounds, cultural beliefs and so on. Our understanding of the problems faced by teachers in rural areas compared to urban areas is also inadequate. On top of this, teachers from urban areas are posted to rural regions with a cut in their housing allowance (thankfully, this policy is being revisited by the government). As a result, marginalised rural students are further marginalised with unprepared and demotivated teachers. The support systems for teachers is bureaucratic and regulatory, without any element of mentoring. Teachers have no autonomy to innovate with or without digital technology.

The digital divide then, has to be addressed by taking into consideration the entire eco-space of education and not just of technology. The digital divide is more an issue of education than of technology.

L Devaki is a Professor at the School of Education, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.



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