India can boast a gigantic telecom customer base, the world’s lowest call rates, the world’s cheapest mobile handset and most affordable 3G phone, but internet penetration in rural India is still around 20%, against 65% in urban India. So far, policymaking efforts have largely focused on overcoming infrastructural barriers to rural access. However, access to ICT devices and internet is only part of the problem of digital inclusion in rural India and rural schools

In a broad sense, information and communication technologies (ICTs) in education can be defined as a “diverse set of technological tools and resources used to communicate, and to create, disseminate, store, and manage information” (Blurton 1999). India’s adult literacy rate is about 71%—64% in rural areas compared to 84% in urban areas (Economic Times 2015). Consequently, the demand for education is very high, often beyond the conventional system’s ability to provide it. There is a growing realisation that ICT-based resources can extend opportunities to previously under-served and scattered populations. To do so, ICTs must be embedded in educational systems to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of education in formal and non-formal settings, as well as to acquaint, familiarise and skill students with digital tools and environments.

The Government of India (2012) formulated a national policy on ICT-enabled school education “which aims at preparing youth to participate creatively in the establishment, sustenance and growth of a knowledge society, leading to all-round socioeconomic development of the nation and global competitiveness.” An aggressive campaign was initiated by the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT) seeking to holistically change the educational environment of the country by assuring network access to remote corners, development of quality e-content, and empowerment of the student-community by providing low-cost tablet personal computers (PCs) called Aakash. However, “…the Aakash type of low-cost initiatives, tied as they are to education, have … run out of steam for lack of adequate supporting infrastructure, which includes content, unlimited data plans and applications, besides a robust distribution network, according to analysts, manufacturers and industry experts. In addition to this, the user experience with the first iteration of Aakash was disappointing, given its resistive touch screen, and the … lack of apps, content and a good data plan” (D’Monte and Agarwal 2012).

Practitioners and academicians concur that integration of ICTs in education has an overall positive impact on the learning environment. ICTs have the potential to innovate, accelerate, enrich and deepen skills; motivate and engage students; relate school experience to work practices; create economic viability for tomorrow’s workers; and strengthen teaching (Lemke and Coughlin 1998; Tearle and Davis 1999). However, Kozma (2005) has highlighted three significant concerns about the impact of ICT on education that bear further analysis. First, student outcomes in terms of higher scores in school subjects or the learning of new skills; second, teacher outcomes such as development of teachers’ technological skills, knowledge of new pedagogic approaches and improved attitudes towards teaching; and third, increased innovation in schools and access of community members to adult education and literacy.

Rural challenges

According to Census 2011, almost 70% of India’s population still lives in rural areas, spread across 600,000-plus villages. India can boast a gigantic telecom customer base, the world’s lowest call rates (Rs 0.01/sec), fastest growth in number of subscribers (15–20 million per month), fastest sale of 1 million mobile phones (in one week), the world’s cheapest mobile handset (Rs 777), and the world’s most affordable 3G phone (Rs 4,999), according to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) (Doshi 2014). Such a strong ICT base can be leveraged to develop a model for increasing literacy in rural India.

However, though internet penetration in urban India is 64.84%, in rural India penetration was still only 20.26% by December 2017, according to the Internet in India 2017 report by the Internet and Mobile Association of India (IAMAI) and Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) Kantar.

The stagnant state of rural education itself has been a major concern for educational policymakers in India. Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2016 revealed that despite increased enrolment, a significant proportion of children in Classes 1 to 8 in government and rural private schools could not read text suitable for Class 2 students or do simple arithmetic their age-group may be expected to do (Mody 2017). The high rate of dropouts—nearly 50% by age 14—compounds this problem. Hence, for the vast majority of rural students who attend government schools, the acquisition of ICT skill-sets and facilities remains a distant dream.

In the rural education landscape, teachers are the most important stakeholders. They are not mere disseminators of information; they are life-coaches, with the school becoming a sanctuary of learning rather than just a building (Shiv Nadar Foundation n d). However, teachers in rural schools are inadequately trained, and often overburdened with multiple roles such as administering mid-day meals, assisting in immunisation programmes, and aiding healthcare and social awareness.

India’s National Policy on Education 1986, modified in 1992, stressed the need for educational technology to improve access, quality and governance of education, with the focus on effective implementation of ICT schemes and programmes, including technical education. Effective implementation would mean overcoming the following challenges:

  • Quality content, high-speed connectivity and proper devices: Siddharth Chaturvedi, Director, All India Society for Electronics and Computer Technology (AISECT) says, “Availability of quality content in regional languages … acts as a barrier for delivering ICT-based education in rural areas.” A number of surveys have highlighted infrastructural deficiencies such as small size of classrooms, non-availability of continuous electric supply, non-availability or poor quality of hardware, software or e-content, and insufficient time to integrate ICT with the knowledge dissemination framework.
  • Attitudinal readiness of schoolteachers: The feeling that ICT-enabled education might replace teachers could create resistance to the digital revolution in educational technology.
  • Absence of private sector in rural education: Most schools in rural areas are run by the government. The involvement of the private sector in rural education is very limited. The government appoints ad hoc teachers instead of permanent ones, who are poorly paid compared to the remuneration of a full-time trained graduate teacher (TGT). Non-permanent teachers have no future prospects and thus no motivation to excel in teaching. This leads to dissatisfaction, eventually resulting in a dearth of teachers because they move away to more permanent jobs.
  • Exemption of candidates from Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET): Several states have exempted candidates as only 20% of aspirants clear the TET. This has led to deteriorating teacher quality.
  • Teachers’ proficiency in integration of ICT in existing curricula: Teachers should be willing to modify traditional educational theories and practices to meet the future demands of ICT-dominated global markets. Incorporating training for ICT use in pedagogy would be more beneficial than training teachers to use ICT tools per se.
  • Problems related to language and content: Despite the rising popularity of English as the language of communication, the average Indian student and teacher is accustomed to content and knowledge dissemination in the vernacular medium. As most web-based resources are in English, it is important to focus on content development in regional languages.

What is being done

New digitised education tools in rural India could solve the problems of mass reach as well as quality and relevance of education. Teachers can be made available via virtual classrooms, given their reluctance to teach at schools in remote rural areas. The government has moved speedily to create the requisite infrastructure for ICT-enabled education:

  • The ICT@Schools programme launched in December 2004 and revised in 2010 aims to build the ICT skills of secondary school students and encourage learning through computer-aided processes. ICT@Schools has been subsumed in the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA), which supports states/union territories in establishing computer labs on a sustainable basis and is a major catalyst in bridging the digital divide amongst students across socioeconomic and geographical barriers.
  • The present government’s Digital India initiative includes a massive plan to connect rural areas with high-speed internet networks. For instance, E-basta aims to make digital education via tablets and computers accessible to learners in rural areas, and aims to not only help students in learning concepts, but also to make them comfortable with technology (Ralhan 2017). Steps are being taken to introduce digital aids in preschools. Though digital aids can never really replace teachers, such initiatives can make quality content available.
  • The Government of West Bengal has initiated a number of projects for computer skill development among school and college students as part of its vocational education curriculum, along with a broad-based computer awareness and training programme for disadvantaged groups (Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, Other Backward Classes and religious minorities) as part of its social welfare activities.
  • In 2001, the Karnataka government introduced a fully state-financed computer education and computer-aided education project for students of Class 8 to 10 under the Mahiti Sindhu project.
  • The Gujarat government’s ICT in Education initiative involves setting up computer centres with broadband internet in villages.
  • Some NGOs like eVidyaloka have made noteworthy attempts to spread digital education tools in Indian villages and improve the quality of education in remote regions through digital classrooms.
  • AISECT has pioneered the Multipurpose IT Centre model in India. It is a self-sustainable, demand-led and flexible model that addresses education and ICT services requirements in rural India. The model aims to provide additional income streams for entrepreneurs in rural areas.
  • AISECT’s Advantage PRO Interactive Multimedia Content was launched to provide low-cost and high-quality e-learning modules and solutions to students in semi-urban and rural schools.
  • India’s corporate sector has also stepped into ICT-enabled education. Qualcomm has launched the Play ‘n’ Learn programme for schoolchildren aged 5–8, providing 3G tablets under its Wireless Reach initiative. Similarly, Samsung recently started a Smart Learning initiative to provide interactive study materials to students. Tata and Reliance are also major players in digital education.

What needs to be done

  • So far, policymaking efforts have largely focused on overcoming infrastructure access barriers such as provisioning of computers and broadband internet. The rationale is that once these gaps are bridged, internet use would be homogeneous. However, the challenges of digital inclusion do not end when people overcome access. On the contrary, when connectivity is provided, psychological and sociocultural barriers emerge (van Dijk 2006). Studies have found that interpersonal ties and a sense of community are strong predictors of technology use in rural areas (Boase 2010; Venkatesh and Sykes 2012).
  • Policies should ideally reflect the best interests of all the stakeholders in education—learners, teachers, educational administrators, policymakers and the multicultural community at large—so that all are aware of the issues concerned and willing to work towards ICT-enabled education. Institutional networks at the panchayat level can facilitate in-service training of teachers and panchayat officials such as block education officers to ensure optimal utilisation of ICT resources. These institutions, if provided adequate funding and professionally trained staff, can effectively take the responsibility of capacity-building at different levels to ensure absorption of ICT inputs. Crucial components such as a legal framework, privacy and data protection laws, and cyberspace security need to be addressed simultaneously.
  • Given India’s cultural and linguistic diversity, grassroots intermediaries and the involvement of the community are key factors for the success of ICT models in rural India and the rest of the developing world (Cecchini and Scott 2003).
  • When assessing e-government website use in rural India, Venkatesh et al (2014) found that besides demographic predictors, personality was also linked to e-government use. For example, people who were open to new experiences were more likely to use e-government sites in rural India.
  • Where India’s educational system is concerned, grouping by learning abilities rather than grades can enable students to use digital content modules depending upon their capabilities. In addition, just as workers from every vertical are subjected to annual performance appraisals, the performance of teachers must be closely evaluated. Setting key result areas (KRA) for teachers across schools will set the targets required to achieve and monitor student-teacher activities. 

The way ahead

The ICT revolution has ensured that learning is no longer restricted to classrooms and libraries. It has become a lifelong process. The availability of high-speed internet to every citizen, easy access to government e-services, and allocation of private space on the public cloud are some of the features that will revolutionise the lives of rural populations across India. While Digital India has been gaining momentum and digital access has become the focus of attention nationally, making rural India tech-savvy will need to begin at schools. Despite considerable progress in the incorporation of ICT tools in education programmes, there is still a huge gap between aspirations and reality. The complexity of policy processes, the gap between development rhetoric and its translation at the grassroots, the largely theoretical approach to implementation of progressive strategies, without taking into account several practical parameters, all hinder successful action. An absence of a clear direction and purpose undermines the effectiveness of all educational reform and development policies. “However, with 2010–2020 declared the Decade of Innovations by the Government of India six years ago and initiatives like digital literacy going on at fast pace, in the coming years, the e-learning scenario will see a 360-degree turn, especially in remote areas,” said Chaturvedi.

Bridging the digital divide is not simply about giving people access to tools. It is about creating policy and regulatory environments, institutional frameworks, and human capacities that foster information flows, innovation, and effective use of the world’s knowledge resources in every dimension of sustainable development. As far as sustainability of ICT-enabled education is concerned, Rumpa Das (2012) says that ICT projects need to be linked to a self-supporting mechanism so that they do not face closure. Multiple financing channels should be established for contingency support, and all stakeholders must be convinced about the virtues of ICT-enabled education. Cost-effectiveness, appropriate technology, and synergies between strategy, finance and implementation need to be ensured.

The future of ICT-based education will depend on the speed of broadband penetration, availability of web-enabled and mobile-compatible learning content, and the maturity of consumers in accepting the digital format of education. Digital education will be a win-win situation for all—students will be able to study at their own pace, while teachers will be able to prepare their lesson plans with an innovative mix of animation and elaborate audio-visual effects. “ICT is the greatest tool for India and other developing nations to create their own set of digital immigrants who will drive their country’s progress and make it into one of the biggest knowledge economies and a global superpower” (Doshi 2014).

Dakshayani Madangopal is the former CEO of the Don Bosco Research Centre, Mumbai. Madhavi Madangopal is a student of computer engineering at the Father Conceicao Rodrigues Institute of Technology, Vashi, Navi Mumbai.

 

References

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