Human Development

Covid-19: Online classes and the digital divide

  • Blog Post Date 09 April, 2020
  • Perspectives
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Abhiroop Mukhopadhyay

Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi Centre


As the Covid-19 infections rise in India, there is justified pressure to keep universities closed. Online teaching is something many institutions are contemplating, but do the Indian students have the network bandwidth for online learning? In this post, Abhiroop Mukhopadhyay argues that internet access at home is pitifully low in India, with ‘day scholar’ students, particularly those whose households belong to rural India, having the worst home internet access problems. Online teaching is therefore a non-starter for most institutes.


The fear of Covid-19 outbreak has shut down schools and universities in India. Online teaching is something many institutions are contemplating, but do the Indian students have the bandwidth for online learning? Preliminary data analysis indicates that online teaching is a non-starter for most students and institutions in India! 

‘Don’t worry, Zoom into their lives with online classes!’ This has been the war cry of many a university during the current lockdown. Most Deans look hopefully at an online solution to the unexpected advent of Covid-19. The thought that nags all is that while it would be fairly easy to connect to one set of students, reaching others through the internet would be tough. Then, not only would pedagogy be compromised, but the inequity in terms of what one can deliver to students becomes glaring: a digital divide that is evident in teaching resources that a student has access to. That many public institutions have not even tried the online option point to such problems is becoming a source of real worry to administrators. 

The matter is not so clear cut: while inequality of access to anything is ubiquitous in India, most students who reach tertiary institutions in India are likely to be a selected group of people, often the most privileged among their respective social groups. Perhaps it is possible to reach these students through the internet. But what are the facts? 

Difference between at-home and in-general access to internet

According to data collected by the National Sample Survey as a part of the Survey on Education (2014), only 27% of households in India have some member with access to internet. Access to internet does not necessarily mean that a household actually has internet at home. In fact, only half of the households (47%) that have any access to internet own a computing device (including a smartphone). While direct estimates on how many households have internet access at home are hard to get, one can make a rough estimate by assuming that those who have internet at home report some internet access in general, and report possession of a device that can be used to go on the web. Using this definition, only 12.5% of the households of students in India have internet access at home. There is an urban-rural divide: 27% have access in urban areas and only 5% in rural areas. Given the current crises, this does not auger well for holding online classes for students who have gone back home. It is perhaps this view that makes people apprehensive about online classes. 

The distinction between home and in-general access to internet is important during these times. The gap opens up starkly for some states of India. While 51% of rural households in Kerala have access to the internet through a myriad of sources, only 23% of rural households have access at home; the difference is even starker for states like Andhra Pradesh where 30% of rural households in Andhra Pradesh have access to internet but only 2% are likely to have access at home. In states like West Bengal and Bihar, which traditionally have a large number of migrant students, only 7-8% of rural households have any to access to internet; the proportion that have access at home being a miniscule number. Differences in internet access among urban households across states of India are less stark; however, that internet access at home can still be serious constraint among urban households is apparent as states like Bihar and West Bengal have only 18 and 21% (respectively) of urban households who can access the web at home. 

As pointed out above, an argument can be made that students in tertiary education are a selected group, hence their connectivity at home may be much better. Around 85% of children who belong to urban households and study in universities have access to the internet, but only 41% are likely to have access at home; among children from rural households, there is internet access at home for only 28% of them. Such low access is a big worry as 55% of children studying in universities are from rural households. Thus online teaching to such children through the internet would rule out teaching to a large proportion of children in rural India. 

Many universities and institutes in this country have residential programmes. Almost 5 million students – constituting 15% of all university-level students – live away from their homes. A substantial chunk of them (55%) are from rural households. The current crisis has meant that hostels have been evacuated and students have been asked to go back home. These students are one of the primary prospective recipients of online teaching. These students are indeed a more selected lot but almost 48% of them do not have internet access at home. Only 42% of students who reside in rural areas have home access to the web, while 69% of such students who reside in urban areas can get online from home. 

Reason for low home internet access

Among rural households, the problem seems to be ownership of devices as more than half of the households of such children do not own a smartphone or computer. This problem is less severe among urban households, as 71% of such households do own devices, so the constraint there comes from access to an internet connection. 

The higher home internet access for students who stay in hostels relative to the overall access among all university students (reported above), imply that the group that in fact has the worst home internet access problems are ‘day scholar’ students, especially those whose households belong to rural India. How does one connect to such day scholars? While it is not clear whether they travel to cities for studying, at least 30% of such people with no home internet access in rural areas study in institutions that are more than 5 km away from their homes. 

What needs to be done if universities remain closed for long?

To conclude, internet access at home is pitifully low in India. This is a combination of low internet coverage in India as well as the fact that many households do not own smartphones that can get them on the internet. As the Covid-19 infections rise in India, and there is justified pressure to keep universities closed, one must be mindful of these numbers when suggesting online teaching. While the long-term strategies may involve increasing ethernet connectivity, or subsidising data on mobiles, it would seem that device ownership is as much a worry, especially for children coming from rural places. If universities remain closed for a long time, it is important for the universities to subsidise cheap smartphones for students to get on with the business of teaching. This is in addition to any subsidies that need to be paid for bandwidth (assuming that it is a surmountable problem). Without such help, online teaching is a non-starter for most institutes of India. 

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