DIGITAL LEARNING: A LAST MILE RESORT

There has been a significant boom in technology in the last two decades, led by an optimism that technology can solve all the world’s problems, be it air pollution, natural disasters, food shortage, hunger, rising crime, declining health or poor quality education. Added to that, two long years of a pandemic of epic proportions and scale, has the world looking to technology for solutions to problems raised by an unrelenting virus.
The effect of the Pandemic on education in particular, has been nothing short of catastrophic, with far reaching consequences that will likely take our world decades to correct. Schools and colleges have been shut down to safeguard children from the effects of Covid-19, and slowly but surely, learning has taken a back seat. While many countries have tried to limp back to normalcy, public schools in a vast and highly populated country like India, continue to stay shut, most for almost as long as 2 years.
Online education or E-Learning has taken the place of what should have been happy, healthy school times.

E-learning has widely been acknowledged to aid in the teaching learning process, allowing people to learn from anywhere, anytime, have access to more content than was previously possible, benefit from rich and engaging content and most importantly, learn at one’s own pace. Particularly, in schools, e-learning has also been touted as the answer to teacher shortage, and inadequate teacher capability.

And now, e-learning is the answer to @Home Learning during Covid.
But has Digital Learning really helped in these tumultuous times? Let’s take a look.
The number of players in the Digital Learning market has increased dramatically in recent years, with a market size of over US$ 250 Billion and expected to exponentially rise. Much has been done to improve technology and content, with personalized and adaptive learning now the much repeated buzz words in the industry. Sadly, however, we seemed to have missed the basics somewhere. Not much is being done about basic access to Digital Learning, something that is possible if and only if one has access to electricity, mobile connectivity, and yes, a device.

What happens to the children who live in remote and inaccessible regions of the world? What about these children who truly live in the last mile?
As per a recent report by Statistica 2022, there are today, many countries which still have areas without mobile connectivity. India, the world’s largest democracy, leads the list with the largest offline population of a whopping 685 million people! The Indian Himalayan Region, a harsh and challenging high altitude region in Northern India, with 13 states, in particular, is the worst affected with large percentages of entire states in complete blackout and network shadow zones.

Let’s add to this to already bleak situation, the lack of basic infrastructure, lack of continuous electricity, poor road connectivity, harsh climatic conditions, frequent natural calamities and general inaccessibility, and you have 5 million children in this region alone, who have not had access to any form of digital learning these past two years. With schools shutdown, exams postponed, villages disconnected physically and otherwise, hundreds of thousands of children have been left ignored, stranded and ironically, left to their own “devices”.

The National Survey Office, Government of India, in 2020, released a report stating that not more than 4% children in rural India have access to a computer. Let’s acknowledge the depth of this digital divide and ask ourselves this question. Is building an EdTech Solution enough? What does it take to ensure that every child, in every geography, has access to learning, and is able to learn well? Building an equitable and just education system for all children can only happen if it is designed for the most marginalized, the most disadvantaged and the most disconnected. Digital Learning Platforms have to be more than just technology solutions, with hardware, software and content. They have to take into account geography, cultural context, teacher capability, community mind sets, infrastructure access and economic backgrounds.
In the example of India and more importantly, the context of remote and rural areas, what does it mean to implement an EdTech Solution in a school, or a village?
In the past two years, Governments and Non-profits alike have been struggling to design and create Ed Tech solutions which are contextual and designed to overcome the challenges faced in remote and rural areas.

For starters, how do you suddenly put a device in the hand of a child who has barely seen a smart phone, owned a television or had electricity in their home? Taking this child to a level where they are able to benefit from e-learning has to start at basics. How do you expose a child to a firehose of content from a device when the only exposure they have had is from the lone textbook in the classroom?

Let’s not forget our teachers, who are the backbone of a child’s learning journey. The Pandemic has thrown the entire teaching fraternity of rural and remote India into complete and sudden disarray, resting the entire burden of schooling on the teacher as an individual. While they themselves struggle to adapt to online learning, they have also lived with the reality of large percentages of their children not having access to either a device or internet connectivity. In most rural and remote areas, teachers have been going above and beyond their duties, traveling house to house to physically reach their young learners.
Helping a teacher understand how a digital solution can reduce the burden on her shoulders is key to adoption. Digital Solutions, for e.g. can help immensely in standardized assessments, personalized learning and also bring to life concepts that children have trouble visualizing. However, using a tablet, projector, or a computer, along with the chalk and talk that a teacher is used to, takes a lot of unlearning and practice. Putting in place a good Blended Learning Model is a crucial and critical part of Digital Learning in the classroom. There is no one model that can work and understanding that a teacher has to evolve a methodology that works for her and her students is of paramount importance.
Communities also play a critical role in the adoption of technology in schools and even households, especially in remote and rural areas. The reality of children stuck at home during Covid, without devices or access to school, has forced many parents in remote and rural areas to engage their children in more “productive” household or other duties. Agencies working on the ground in these challenging areas therefore need to place a lot of emphasis in generating awareness, getting communities to be comfortable with technology and mobilizing them to contribute and play an active part in using technology in the education of their children.

Today, a child sitting in a remote, network shadow region of the world can dream of seeing a world outside their homes. Digital Learning seems to be the main recourse for learning for children everywhere. The technology to take learning home exists. However, it is still out of reach of millions. And time is running out for these children Now is not the time to create more content or build more solutions. Now is the time to take what is already out there and ensure that it reaches those who need it the most. Now is the time to work harder than ever, to focus on access first and foremost, and to raise awareness about children unlucky enough to be born outside network zones.

It is time for organizations, Non-profits and Social Enterprises alike to collaborate, and time for Governments to quickly pilot, adopt and scale.

When EdTech can reach the remotest and most inaccessible of geographies, is when children can hope to have a fair chance at being educated and even competing with their counterparts in the more accessible and connected parts of the world.

Digital Learning cannot be the last resort for these forgotten children. It has to be the only Last Mile Resort.

Written by Sujata Sahu
Founder, Chief Executive Officer, 17000 ft Foundation
The Author is a Founder of a Nonprofit Social Enterprise that works to transform the access and quality of education for tens of thousands of children in the most challenging Indian Himalayan Region