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Digital literacy in rural India: Only 21.3% of students have access to computers


By Prateek Aggarwal*
The current age of technological revolution is being led by digital technology (mostly computers) that change the way we work, communicate, navigate social relationships, spend our leisure time, and much more. An inherent part of this revolution is automation—the execution by a machine agent which was previously carried out by a human. (Parasuraman & Riley, 1997)
Automation has considerably affected various aspects of our lives, directly and indirectly, driving the work of modern devices we are so accustomed to, such as washing machines, ovens, cars, mobiles. Automation has penetrated sectors such as banking, agriculture, education, medical sciences, manufacturing, etc., and is seen in most economic, social, and personal aspects of our lives. Automated devices have become a necessity that enables us to have a better standard of living by providing access to a multitude of services and information. However, what is considered automation changes with time. When a machine entirely and permanently takes over a function from humans, it comes to be known as “machine operation.” An example of this is switchboard operators.
On the pinnacle of automation are computing devices connected to the internet such as mobiles, laptops, tablets, and desktops. These devices help us solve complex problems, organize information easily, and provide us with unprecedented instant access to tons of information. Such advancements have rendered several jobs obsolete and, in the process, have created new kinds of jobs that require different skill sets. Computers have become indispensable tools in the workplace.
In every industry, computers provide the means to streamline several essential functions such as bookkeeping, data entry, manufacturing, data accessibility, and much more. Software is customized according to the needs of the job, and adaptable digital skills are required to use those customized hardware and software. According to a report by the world economic forum, an estimated 75 million jobs may be displaced by 2022 while 133 million additional roles may emerge concurrently (Leopol et al., 2018).
Automation and advanced algorithms are transforming the nature of jobs performed by humans. Jobs are evolving and, unlike traditional jobs, adaptable digital skills are needed that can be adjusted to the changing requirements of the job. The term “digital divide” has come into prominence in the past decade to represent the population who are not able to access or navigate the digital world. This disparity of resources affects developing countries the most, which is a result of the availability of limited resources and the “backwardness” of certain communities.
To develop a framework to understand the challenges faced in bridging the digital divide, the term has broadened to include all aspects of digital inequality including technical means (hardware, software, and connectivity), autonomy (location of access, freedom of use), use patterns (purposes of internet uses), skills (ability to use the internet effectively), and social support networks (access to advice from more experienced users) (Chiemeke 2010).
Inadequate technical means are the first and a major block in overcoming the digital divide in India. This is seen by India’s low internet penetration with only 22% of the owners using mobiles to access social media in comparison to the world average of 75%. The numbers become even more problematic when comparing urban to rural penetration of the internet. The consumption of the internet, though on the rise, is still primarily an urban phenomenon. In December 2017, internet penetration in urban India was at 64.84% vs. 20.26% in rural India (Gordon, 2018).
Difficulties in accessing technology resulting from inadequate technical means are faced much more by the rural communities as digital resources are unevenly distributed. Presence of high-speed internet is limited to towns and cities, while many villages struggle to get a stable signal on their mobile phones. In addition, the availability of broadband is almost negligible in rural areas. To improve the situation, the government has implemented flagship schemes like Bharat Net Project, but according to the latest internal government data, fewer than 2.5% of India’s 2.5 lakh village panchayats have commercial broadband connections (Gairola, 2018).
Availability of digital resources does not ensure access to the internet in India; economic disparity also constraints access to digital resources. Due to widespread poverty, many communities find the cost of digital technology unmanageable. For such communities to afford a computer or pay the monthly tariff for internet connection is more of a luxury than a necessity. Having access to computers in government schools will give schoolchildren a chance to adapt better and face the digital world, but most government schools are not equipped with such facilities. According to an ASER study conducted in 2018 in 596 government schools of 619 districts overall, only 21.3% of the students have access to computers in their schools (ASER, 2018).
Rural communities also lack the means to gain knowledge to utilize these resources due to the absence of a social support network, especially for women and older men. Those in rural areas who are able to climb the ladder and gain digital knowledge and guide others usually move out to cities as a result of lack of employment in villages. This results in a lack of social support for those left behind. In addition, other social barriers such as caste and class contribute toward the lack of support for “backward” communities.
Socioeconomic status within rural society also plays an essential role in the ability to access ICT resources. These socioeconomic statuses in rural India are interlinked with traditional structures of caste and accompanied by caste-based discrimination. Such communities are trapped in traditional roles and have fewer education and employment opportunities. The youth of these communities are not part of the social support network of the village and look for support within a community already suffering from socioeconomic discrimination.
Technology and social structures of a society have a complex relationship. On one hand, technology can bring fundamental changes to existing social structures; and on the other hand, technology has to function within the confines of these structures. Social media was first seen as a space where an individual could be free from confining local social structures, but a lack of presence of women on social media and a replication of traditional values and norms on it show that new technology cannot exist beyond the current structures of society.
Basic understandings of how to navigate the social structures are learned by the children primarily from their parents, who inherit it from ancestors and so on. However, these constructs are not constant; each generation needs to agree and create new ways to understand the changing world around them. Rural youth are affected by technology through economic and social structures such as changing the nature of jobs and access to mobile internet, yet they do not have the skills to use the technology effectively and be part of the digital world as a result of their lack of access to digital devices, social support, and learning centers.
Rural communities are affected by the changing nature of jobs as a result of increasing automation. They are not equipped to handle the technical aspects of the jobs requiring technology skills and lose out to the urban elite who are constantly engaged with new technologies and are able to quickly adapt to the new changes posed by the changing technology. Even after the development of IT hubs in India, like in Bangalore and Hyderabad, we see negligible trickle-down effects of technological development across India.
Literacy is a significant barrier to accessing technology. Continuous increases in the advancement of technology have brought a need for changing the definition of literacy. The functional literacy model taken up in the schools requires skills of reading and writing to cope up with adult life. However, this model of literacy has been critiqued by many. According to Lankshear, “in developing countries’ contexts, the espoused goal of functional literacy has been overly utilitarian. The aim is to incorporate (marginal) adults into established economic and social values and practices. Functional literacy has been concerned as a means to an end” (Lankshear, 1993, p.91). However, with the emergence of technology, the established model of functional literacy still followed in the majority of the schools in India needs revision.
Definition of digital literacy according to Digital literacy global framework developed by NESCO states that “Digital literacy is the ability to access, manage, understand, integrate, communicate, evaluate and create information safely and appropriately through digital technologies for employment, decent jobs and entrepreneurship. It includes competences that are variously referred to as computer literacy, ICT literacy, information literacy and media literacy. ”( Law, N. W. Y., et al, 2018) Literacy goes beyond the ability to comprehend text.
The challenges in attaining digital literacy were discerned during the baseline study of youth for digital literacy classes in two villages, Rangala and Khori, in district Nuh, Haryana. The village is an hour drive from the cyber city of Gurugram, known as a financial and technological hub in North India. The figures showed that 44% of students enrolled in the classes had computers in the school while a mere 10% of the students were taught the use of computers. The reason for such a low percentage of digital literacy despite the presence of computers in school was a lack of availability of computer teachers. Only 10% of the students had computer teachers in the school.
The use of digital devices was mostly limited to mobiles, which 78% of the students had access to, while only 17% of the students had access to laptops/desktops. The data indicated that 15% of the students did not have access to any of the devices. The data reflected that overall, only 10% of the students had ever used a computer. When asked about the motivation to join the course, most students echoed that knowledge of using the computer was a necessity for a secure future as it would help them get a job. In addition, students were of the opinion that a computer would help them get information from the internet, do online banking and shopping, and have access to government schemes.
Development in digital technology has brought rapid changes in different aspects of our life, be it our work, social, or personal space. As this new development flows through the old channels of societal structures, urban elites get access to the majority of resources, consequently coping with the changes quickly. Rural communities are left with minimal resources at hand. As illustrated by a hole-in-the-wall experiment, digital skills are picked up by children on their own when they are given a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content (Hole-in-the-Wall, nd). Urban youth are introduced to modern technology from a young age and hence pick up adaptable digital skills naturally, while their counterparts in rural India find it difficult to acquire those skills as a result of unequal distribution of resources, increasing the digital divide.
India has a long way to go to solve the problem of inequality of resources resulting in poverty and vice versa. In the meantime, we need to find other avenues to introduce rural youth to the digital world. Early school education provides the best introduction for children to learn about digital devices and their use. This is especially important in rural India, as many of the girl students stop their education as a result of the unavailability of avenues of education beyond primary. Education is a dynamic sector, and having knowledge of the latest trends is vital for the future of students.
ICT services in schools will help students gain digital skills and improve the overall education standard of schools across India. Having ICT devices in schools is not enough; students must have access to those devices, which is often not the case because teachers share the belief that children will mishandle the device. This is also a result of a lack of digital literacy among the teachers who also need to be introduced to the best practices in order to impart digital education among children. Overall changes in the education system are required to promote the ICT skills among the youth of India.
References
ASER (2018): “Annual Status of Education Report (Rural) 2018, provisional,” ASER Centre, New Delhi.
Chiemeke C. C. (2010) Bridging the Digital Divide in Developing Countries: A Case Study of Bangladesh and Kuwait. In: P. Kalantzis-Cope P., and K. Gherab-Martín K. (eds) Emerging Digital Spaces in Contemporary Society. Palgrave Macmillan, London.
Gairola, M. (2018, November 19). In ‘Digital India’, Not Even 2.5% Panchayats Have Commercial Broadband. The Wire.
Gordon, K. (2018, September 11). Topic: Internet usage in India. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from https://www.statista.com/topics/2157/internet-usage-in-india/.
Hole Hole-In-the-Wall – . Beginnings. Retrieved July 15, 2019, from http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/Beginnings.html.
Lankshear, C. (1993) Functional literacy from a Freirean point of view. In McLane, P. and Leonard, P. (Eds) (1993), Paulo Freire Critical literacy Functional literacy, New York, Routledge
Law, N. W. Y., Woo, D. J., de la Torre, J., & Wong, K. W. G. (2018). A Global Framework of Reference on Digital Literacy Skills for Indicator 4.4. 2.
Leopol, T. A.; ., V. Ratcheva, V.; Z. Saadia, Z. (2018): The Future of Jobs. Edited by World Economic Forum. Genf
Parasuraman, R., & V. Riley, V. (1997). Humans and Automation: Use, Misuse, Disuse, Abuse. Human Factors, 39(2), 230-253. https://doi.org/10.1518/001872097778543886.


*Research Associate at S M Sehgal Foundation, master’s degree in sociology from Ambedkar University, Delhi

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