It is time to applaud the governance for accepting the ground realities of inequitable access to online education and evolving a road map to negotiate this digital divide in the country. Kudos for envisaging a huge investment of Rs. 60K crores for providing nearly 40% of the total students in higher education institutions (HEIs) with laptops, other digital devices, internet, etc. by 2025-26.
There are ample pieces of evidence of the positive outcome from the free laptop distribution to the meritorious students in the state of Uttar Pradesh during the Akhilesh Yadav Government. As per available information, this free laptop distribution scheme of U.P. provided laptops to more than 16 lakh students, and the same can still be seen in the use of digital devices by the students in higher education.
Thus, the present initiative for the distribution of laptops or other devices to the deserving candidates is likely to go a long way in easing out the learning processes of the beneficiaries in the present age of ICT.
The distribution of digital devices becomes much more relevant in the absence of preventive medication against coronavirus, where the society has to live with the threat of its infection, and a new normal is emerging in the education sector.
The post-COVID education system may have increased dependence on online content sharing as part of the teaching-learning process. The varying socio-economic conditions necessitate the provisioning of laptops or other digital devices to a sizeable number of students for accessing the online learning content.
Hopefully, with the apportionment of funds, the digital devices are likely to be procured and provided to the targeted 1.5 crore students with proposed spending of Rs. 22,500 crores in 2021-22. Here the average cost of device per student works out to be around Rs.15K, but let us assume that the suitable devices shall be provided to the students in need.
This is reflective of the commitment to bridging the digital divide with a huge expenditure of public funds. Also, the said budgetary provision being spread over a period of time will result in a gradual increase in the number of students accessing online education.
Simultaneously, it needs to be ascertained that around 45000-degree colleges and 1028 Universities do possess robust ICT facilities. Introspection into the availability and sufficiency of internet facilities in HEIs exposes the fact of the internet is not being amply provided in several institutions nonetheless every HEI is supposed to have the internet as per statutory requirements.
Hence, it is equally important to strengthen the ICT support system in the HEIs with equitable access to the students for good quality education.
Looking at this welcome initiative of providing digital devices, it becomes imperative to look into the digital divide due to some areas being still the unserved areas for internet, speed of internet connectivity, cost of accessing data, availability of electricity, study conditions at home, etc.
There is a need to create strong internet connectivity infrastructure and ensure the availability of electricity in every household. The money invested in setting up internet infrastructure and providing electricity will automatically get paid back by the enhanced learning levels of the students for their better productivity along with the increased productivity of others from various economic activities due to online access & connectivity to the world.
Also, the availability of cities like ICT infrastructure and digital tools, will check the tendency of migration from rural to urban areas. The country should strategize for it at the earliest.
With the constant push for encouraging online education in the present circumstances, it is equally relevant to assess the traditional class board-based book-copy-pen teaching vs. teaching through laptops or other digital tools.
The process of providing laptops or similar gadgets for accessing the online content of education will lead to the situation of some amount of books getting replaced with electronic gadgets loaded with the content or with access to the content.
The likelihood of replacement of books with laptops may affect the conventional way of face-to-face teaching-learning in classrooms. Nevertheless, these digital devices will permit storage, frequent retrieval, using computational tools, and digital communication.
Undoubtedly, on the positive side, the use of ICT will facilitate access to information through the internet but on the negative note, it may also act as a detractor and alter the learning outcomes.
It needs to be understood that the mere availability of digital devices and access to digital content alone cannot improve learning outcomes. This is very similar to the fact that the availability of books in the library of any institution can not improve the learning unless the learners use these books appropriately.
The computer-assisted learning will improve the learning outcome provided there is mediation by teachers for accessing the pertinent information and learning content. However, there are some apparent risks with online teaching/content sharing, such as,
- The likelihood of reduced degree of student involvement in online as compared to face-to-face teaching where students are psychologically under obligation to write on notebooks
- The unsupervised learning may result in lack of practicing by the students themselves
- Too much dependence on machines for learning affects the cognitive skills of the students adversely
- The uniform level of rigor for the whole content and the vast extent of coverage may miss the focussed learning of important aspects of the respective subject
- The absence of peer learning in the students
- The lack of self-discipline will affect the learning process adversely, etc.
Given the above, it should not be presumed that online teaching/content sharing will be acting as a panacea for achieving excellence in the education system. Howbeit, online education does possess great potential when used as a supplement to the traditional face to face on-campus teaching.
The efforts to empower the deprived ones with laptops and other digital tools will enrich the education outcomes provided other associated aspects of equitable access, and the elimination of the digital divide is taken care of honestly.
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