Digital divide in education can’t be bridged by laptops and smartphones alone

Its roots lie in socio-economic inequalities, which can only be addressed through systemic changes

The switch to online education under the inexorable pressure of the Covid-19 pandemic has thrown into relief certain realities, which would not have otherwise received much attention. The most basic is the divide between the digital haves and have-nots, a reflection of economic inequality. Distributing smartphones and laptops to children in this context is like treating the symptom rather than the disease. The lasting solution would be in taking all-encompassing policy decisions. Paradoxically, those who need a change cannot bring it about and those who can do not want it. Going behind the façade of the digital divide enables us to unravel the real dynamics.

Globally, the neoliberal era has seen paradigm shifts in education. The shift towards a materialist philosophy in education has been caused by four structural developments: One, the entrepreneurship-led economic growth powered by innovation and technology; two, increasing knowledge intensity of production; three, a borderless world facilitating knowledge flows; four, knowledge explosion, coeval with knowledge implosion. The networked world of flexi-specialisation and changing skill matrix prioritises learning (lifelong) over study (terminal). Knowledge obsolescence involves “creative destruction”, not only of goods and machines, but also of ideas, knowledge, values and attitudes. As the shift from resource-/labour-intensity to knowledge-intensity occurs, knowledge becomes a commodity, leading to commercialisation of education, predicated on creativity and innovation.

While the Industrial Revolution was the first systematic attempt at coordinated/syncretic application in the production of knowledge, today knowledge production, collation, transaction and application are themselves independent economic activities, employing burgeoning armies of scientists, scholars, supporting personnel and using a vast array of labs, libraries and computer networks. The knowledge economy is booming.

The Indian education sector has been undergoing an unprecedented transformation. There has been a rapid increase in student enrolment and diversity; quality and relevance considerations are dominant. Parents and students consider education an assured instrument of mobility. This was, till recently, a middle-class feature, but is now seen across the class spectrum, leading to demands for an inclusive system. Knowledge is a commodity with a thriving market. Commodification leads to commercialisation, attracting private investment. This must be welcomed.

The question of who provides education and with what motives is less important than value re-orientation and attitudinal change. Modern values — quality, competence, competitiveness, optimism, confidence, innovation — must replace older ones — discipline, obedience, hard work, respect, compliance, allegiance. A system of education extolling hard work is anti-human, unproductive and regressive. The importance of creative/productive work done in non-exploitative, self-actualising, self-fulfilling atmospheres must be flagged. Raising questions and seeking answers should form the bedrock of education.

The digital inequality in Indian education is a cause for concern. There is a digital divide which is not educational, but a socio-economic one. The material poor are also the digital poor. The digital revolution, with its emphasis on robotics, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing, will bypass the “capability poor”. The solution hinges on guaranteeing economic security with assured basic income through provision of universal property rights. Article 21A now guarantees the right to education for children in the six-14 age group. This progressive step should be extended to all sectors and levels of education.

Modern education is costly. The exponential growth of demand cannot be curtailed as it is linked to rising democratic and human rights consciousness. The solution lies in exploring the scope for financing on a larger canvas, tapping into the hitherto unexplored avenues, the bottomline being that no student drops out due to an inability to pay. The steps towards this solution could include: One, enhancing budget allocation by reordering fiscal priorities, and applying methods like zero-based/ outcome budgeting etc. Two, put education at the centre of economic/ development policy formulation. Involve the corporate sector in meeting the demand for publicly funded education, not just through CSR, but as part of academic social responsibility, in return for special concessions and incentives. Three, require parents to pay for education by ramping up their economic base through the measures mentioned above. Parents in the new scenario won’t grudge payment. Four, institute endowments and enhance diaspora contributions. Education today is not a question of charity, but a matter of right.

The writer is an economist and former professor at TISS, Tuljapur campus

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