Photo by Aaron Burden / Unsplash

The great online school migration lands differently for rural Indian girls

Published in partnership with LexisNexis.

In India’s West Bengal, 16-year-old Nargis Sheikh* spends her days helping her mother with tailoring work, and then completing the household chores at their village in South 24 Parganas district. In between her chores, she thinks of when she used to attend school.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Sheikh was a student of class 8. As classes came to an abrupt halt due to the lockdown imposed across India, she thought it was a temporary setback. Her optimism wore off when classes shifted online at the government school she attended – Sheikh and her two younger siblings had no access to a smartphone. She was eventually promoted to the next grade, but Sheikh has never attended school since.

“We did not have any phone. How would I study? I still have the deep aspiration to study,” Sheikh says in a quiet voice.

The UNICEF had observed that schools were closed for a year for more than 169 million children. In India alone, 247 million children enrolled in elementary and secondary schools were affected due to the closure of 1.5 million schools, the report said.

As schools adapted online classes, its benefits remained uneven across different parts of the world. With the existing rural-urban divide, only one in four children had access to digital devices and internet connectivity in India. There is also an urgent need to address the issue through a gendered lens with girls having less access to technology as compared to boys.  

The non-profit Internet Society points out digital divide is not a binary but a multifaceted issue, including access, affordability, quality and relevance.  

“The use of technology in education often puts the onus on individuals to have the right devices and infrastructure to access education. As a result, women and girls risk falling behind because their access to technology is lower and more controlled as compared to boys and men. An important guiding principle around the use of technology in education is ensuring that the government/school provides the necessary tools and infrastructure to enable learning through technology,” says Ankit Vyas, an independent education consultant.  

One of the ways ahead in overcoming this challenge is to make sure there is targeted support and funding to increase women and girls' access and usage of technology, adds Vyas.

“However, it must be understood that the gender divide in use of technology is a part of the larger problem of patriarchy. Thus, a long-term improvement in access to devices and digital education for women and girls will only come about with an improvement in overall gender indicators related to freedom, autonomy and choice.”

Swati Bera, the mother of a 10-year-old girl, grew restless as her husband’s small-scale garment shop shut shop during the lockdown sending ripple effects across the finances of her household. She wondered what this would mean for her daughter’s education. When schools resumed, and students returned to classrooms virtually, Bera’s daughter found it difficult to negotiate the online classes. She’s not alone - a 2020 survey showed one in three students found online classes difficult. 

“We had a smartphone in our house, but we have never known what online classes are before the lockdown. My child found it difficult to navigate the classes,” said Bera whose daughter goes to school in the state of Odisha’s Kendrapara district.  

An OXFAM study showed that 82 percent of parents reported challenges like/internet speed issues, data being too expensive, lack of devices, difficulty in negotiating software, and no internet connection as the major challenges when it came to supporting their children’s digital education. 

Itishree Bera, program lead at ThinkZone, an Odisha-based social enterprise that works in improving the learning outcomes of children in low-resource settings, says the way forward is integrating parents into a programme to overcome digital divide. 

“Initially, it was a big challenge to involve parents. We were overwhelmed with the response when we eventually managed to integrate parents into the programme during the pandemic. When schools shut, and the digital divide expanded due to online classes, we decided to give simple instructions to parents that could be sent on non-smartphones,” says Bera. 

Parents who are not educated wondered how they could support their children in learning.

“We simplified learning for them based on the available household resources like used glasses to teach counting, calendars to teach them about dates. The idea was they would not have to buy anything but use the resources already available. We are still continuing with the home-based learning programme,” adds Bera. 

*Name has been changed.