Rustom Kerawalla, Chairman, Ampersand Group

Rustom Kerawalla is a renowned educationist, an EdTech entrepreneur, and a veteran expert in the global and Indian education policy landscape. He has over three decades of experience in working with diverse policymakers and government institutions. Recently, he was included as part of the Confederation of Indian Industry Western Region’s Task Force on Education. Ampersand Group is one of the leading organizations for providing end-to-end school management solutions to private institutions, government-operated institutions, public-private partnership projects across India, and Africa. Kerawalla has also established VIBGYOR Group of Schools which has 39 branches across 14 cities in India.

 

Education is one of the areas where digital disparity is prominently visible. The divide is mainly between those who have adequate access to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) including physical access, motivation, skills, and actual usage of digital technologies and those who have ‘zero’ or poor access to the technologies.

There are clearly many who have crossed over and have made digital advancements and secured their digital and technology infrastructure, while a large number, particularly those in the government-owned landscape, have been lagging behind. The availability of hardware, software, network equipment, connectivity, and 24X7 reliable information are keys to bridging the digital divide in education.

According to current data, India has over 60 crore internet users roughly covering under 50 per cent of our population. This is significantly below the global population coverage ratio of about 60 per cent. In some developed countries, this number is much higher. The digital disparity is pretty stark in the higher education segment in India where a large number of educational institutions still have infrastructure that is far below the requirements of today’s times when online and technology-aided education is fast becoming the norm.

Despite the big claims of digitization, India still has over 600 million people who do not have access to high-speed internet or have poor connectivity.

What is needed primarily is to ensure that all get access to hardware, network and connectivity to start any initiative of digital education. This is not a rich and poor argument but one of access as there are many areas in the country where people are not so poor but who lack proper connectivity. At a time when education is going online and becoming technology-aided, one of its prerequisites is that all users have Internet access. They not only need to be online but also need high-speed and reliable and robust connectivity. This has serious implications for higher education as inequitable internet connectivity can seriously affect access to learning.

The promise of online learning will be a distant dream if the challenges of accessibility, proper gadgets and proficiency are not met. Without these, interactive classrooms will continue with the current disparities and the digital divide will continue to exist.

The current digital divides have many implications for higher education. To begin with, learners lacking sufficient network access will have a harder time completing their Internet-dependent studies, whether taking LMS-based discussions or participating in video conference with classmates and outside experts and teachers.

The second digital disparity comes from behaviour. Parents are skeptical of giving modern digital devices to their children for the fear that they will be misused and that the children will access content that they are not supposed to. Teachers too are scared that the digital infrastructure and technology will make them outdated and ultimately irrelevant in modern times. This needs to be addressed carefully. While children have to be made aware of what to access and what not to, teachers need to be trained for online teaching and technology-aided education so that they are in tune with today’s fast-changing education landscape and so that they can effectively utilize technology for more effective and interactive learning.

Most of today’s educational technology depends on users having Internet access. Students, staff, and faculty need to be online to engage in learning, digital tests and student information systems. They do not only need to be online and have a robust connection, they also need high-speed connectivity. The private sector needs to come into this and ensure that they are able to remove the digital disparities in higher education particularly through funding to ensure that educational institutions have adequate digital and technology infrastructure.

This can also be done in collaboration with the government in a Public-Private -Partnership (PPP) mode where the private player develops the digital infrastructure in a government educational institution and runs it. That is the thumb rule for today’s time when increasingly, institutions are adopting digital technologies for education and going in for online and distance learning with the aid of technology.

The new National Education Policy also talks about bringing in technology in higher education and about online and technology-aided learning and that educational institutions should bridge the digital divide to enable technology in their teaching and learning systems.

With the COVID-19 pandemic ensuring that physical classrooms will not be possible for some time to come, there is an urgent need to ensure that all students, especially at the higher education level have access to devices with which they can access their online content. This is also an area the private sector can get into.

The government needs to step up its efforts to ensure that both hardware through devices, computers and mobile phones and software through content, software and learning systems and robust connectivity is available to students to bridge the digital disparity in higher education. It needs to collaborate with educations providers, Ed-Tech companies and the private sector to complete this essential task.

More About Rustom Kerawalla

The non-profit trusts guided by Rustom Kerawalla Foundation have enabled the transformation of hundreds of Balwadis and Anganwadis across Maharashtra. Recently, they have successfully conducted an online Teacher Training program under the Samagra Shiksha program with the Government of Jammu & Kashmir. Besides these, they regularly engage with various Central Tibetan School Administration, Adarsh Schools in Punjab and Tribal Development Department in Thane, Maharashtra for Teacher Training, amplification of digital technology, and other school management services. The Group is also gearing up to commence several projects with the Tamil Nadu Government for development & up-gradation of Anganwadis.

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