Blog/Opinion

Why we must all do our bit to help bridge the digital divide: A student’s endeavor towards this in India with his initiative, Get Set Learn.

Author:
Sidhant Sharma
Contributor:
  • SDG 3 - Good Health and Well-Being
  • SDG 4 - Quality Education
  • SDG 9 - Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure

As reported by TRAI (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India), India had 719 million internet subscribers by end 2019. The number seems large and is a definite growth from earlier years, but with India’s population, this translates to only about 50% of people connected to the net. Compare that to an 85-90% internet penetration in developed countries. A closer look also reveals huge disparity in digital access by gender, rural and urban areas and within the poorer states of the country. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in my being in online school midway through grade 9 onwards, through my entire 10th grade and into my ongoing 11th grade. My last day in physical school was on March 13, 2020 and it is only now that a few schools are beginning to tentatively open doors. I know that the situation is echoed across various geographies. It hasn’t been the easiest – screen fatigue, isolation, limited social contact and classes stripped of the fun moments of peer-to-peer interaction and of teachers really knowing their students and their personalities. The bottom line, however, is that the device on my table and a stable internet connection has kept me in school and has allowed uninterrupted learning. 

That’s more than millions of children can say, for no fault of theirs. 

An initiative called Get Set Read, which was my pivot to a digital format of an original plan to take story books in local languages to government school children, while well received and reaching almost 0.3 million children, revealed first-hand the stark reality that many children had no access to online platforms due to a lack of digital devices in their homes. They were and many continue to be out of the formal school system. While we go through waves and cyclical opening and closure of schools, hybrid systems of education seem here to stay for a while. 

This led me to expand my program to a broader agenda - Get Set Learn – an effort to bridge the digital divide. Multiple outreaches to corporates, CSR heads in organisations and individuals helped me surpass my initial target of raising funds for 200 digital WIFI-enabled tablets to procuring 1000 tablets. It has since then encouraged more corporates to magnify these numbers, taking it up to over 9000 tablets. It showed me the power of collaboration and what change can be brought about, if one makes a start. The tablets help children access online education and will eventually, when we are all back in physical school spaces, come back to create digital classrooms and enable a long-term digital education. It’s cemented my belief that individuals can come together to bring great change in their communities, even while the government works towards digital equity. 

Impact studies along with the non-profit, YUVA Unstoppable, that I launched this initiative with to aid in identification and distribution of the tablets and on-ground support, has shown significant results. 

Recipients of the tablets, when asked how the tablets have helped them, responded: 

“I am in 7th grade and my sister is in 12th grade. Both of us had to study during lockdown. But we had only one smart phone in the entire family. This caused many problems. The tablet is helping us study better without having to fight over the smart phone every day.” -Komal Bharward, Grade VII, Vinzol Primary School, Ahmedabad

“I was in my 12th Boards when the lockdown was announced. Studying from home was next to impossible with one smart phone among 3 school going siblings & poor internet service. This tablet will now help me attend classes as well as prepare for exams.” -Bansi Bhuva, Grade XII, Jawahar Navodaya Vidhyalaya, Gujarat 

Get, Set, Learn continues to get more children digitally connected but there are millions more who aren’t and need support from every avenue possible. 

My endeavor has also highlighted another aspect in need of support – we need a much higher penetration of broadband services across cities, free or subsidized public WIFI access and last mile connectivity into rural areas. Even with digital devices, many cannot afford the internet plans for a stable connection. While 3G and 4G data plans might be available, households with children needing to access the net cannot afford individual data connections for each child. And yet, children must stay in school in the short term or through rolling lockdowns. This will require innovative thinking, significant government support and individuals and youth coming together with unique solutions to tackle the digital divide at various levels and scenarios. 

The Indian government has announced the launch of the PM Wani scheme in December 2020 that follows a distributed node system. I am hopeful that this will gain ground. An urgency on measures to be put in place, however, is required to solve the connectivity issue for children sitting in the slums and densely populated lower- and middle-income housing societies of my city, Mumbai. 

Does the solution lie in identifying key areas to create hotspots with the required bandwidth? Can the many housing societies and community centres become free public WIFI hubs as a first agenda instead of public spaces like train platforms? 

For the key SDG of digital equality for all to be achieved, we must look at  new and innovative ways to build digital infrastructure, both with devices and connectivity. We cannot imagine our day without access to the internet be it to attend school, hold a meeting, access information, book a train ticket, find out about the weather or just watch a movie. If we are to be truly inclusive and equitable in achieving the SDG on digital inclusiveness, no individual should have to imagine what it would be like to be connected.   

Get Set Learn, an initiative to bridge the digital divide in India
Sat, 11/13/2021 - 06:54
Summary of Video
Traces the journey of Get Set Learn, originating as a reading program and moving to an online story reading outreach, before beginning a parallel fundraiser to source digital tablets to aid in online education through the pandemic.
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