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There is No App for That: Manifestations of the Digital
Divides During COVID-19 School Closures in India



You find the accepted paper here: here

My Role and Responsibilities

  • Designing research methodology

  • Designing interview questionnaires

  • Conducting interviews

  • Analysing data

About the Project

Project Overview

Problem :

The COVID induced lockdowns forced people to shift several activities, including education, online. However, in the context of online schooling, the Digital Divide has magnified and perpetuated existing inequities in the education system and in society. Socioeconomic factors have also forced a lot of students to drop out of schools and into taking up jobs. Students from well funded privates schools have largely been able to participate in online classes, although the online learning experience is lacking several aspects of an in-person learning experience.

Research Outcome :

Through a mixed methods study with 138 participants across 5 stakeholder groups we find that students in under-funded government schools in India largely have not been able to access online classes because of a lack of devices, reliable data networks and affordable data plans. We present some focus points for researchers and policy makers working in the space of digital divide and education to overcome these disparities.

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Background & Motivation

During the pandemic X million of Y million kids were out of school. With schools moving online and the social and economic fallouts caused by the pandemic have led to several students to face issues continuing their education. The aim of this research was to understand the intricacies of this problem. 

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Understanding the problem


Designing the research methodology


Conducting user interviews


Findings and Discussion

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Design Methodology

Participant data

We conducted a mixed-methods study over 5 months with participants from seven states in India: Karnataka, Telangana, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Our participants comprised 17 teachers from 11 schools, 10 education workers from 7 non-profit organisations in the education sector, 7 parents of school-going children, and two groups of students: Group A comprising 10 students from under-funded government schools, and Group B comprising 94 students from well-funded private schools. 

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Sampling Method

  • The teachers from Karnataka who participated in the study were recruited through the help of the non-profit Children’s Lovecastles Trust (CLT), based in Karnataka.

  • Teachers from Chhattisgarh were recruited through a partner social activist.

  • There was one teacher participant from Maharashtra recruited through personal contacts.

  • The parents are blue-collar workers in our university campus, recruited with the help of the university administration and the outsourced company who employ the blue-collar workers.

  • The non-profit workers were recruited through a social media platform.

  • The Group A students were recruited with the help of a non-profit, Vidyakansha.

  • Group B students were recruited through snow-ball sampling on a social media platform.

  • The difference in the sample sizes in the Group A and Group B students is owing to the difficulty in reaching Group A students during the pandemic and the ease of reaching Group B students over social media platforms where these students from the Group B demographics are active

Questionnaire Design

We developed five different questionnaires for the five participant groups in the study. The questionnaires for the semi-structured interviews for the student in Group A, Teachers, Volunteers and Parents were in the form of broad talking points and the interviews were conversational in nature. The online Survey for Student Group B was in the form of structured questions. 

  1. The questionnaire for the students in Group A was designed to understand how has COVID changed education for them and how they are coping with it. We also wanted to understand here what were the major problems students faced when it came to access to education. 

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2. We conducted an online survey with 94 students from private schools to understand how the digital divide between government school students and private school students might have amplified the inequity in access to education during the pandemic. We focused on structured quantitative questions as the survey was self-administered. 

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3. The questionnaire for teachers was designed to understand how the government schools struggled because of the pandemic and what were the measures taken by teachers and the school to deal with the situation. Teachers were also asked to give their perspective about the problems faced by the student

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4. The questionnaire for Volunteers was designed to understand the initiatives taken by various non-profit organisations to help students from government schools, and what they identified as major problems for the students.

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5. The questionnaire for parents was designed to understand how COVID impacted their family’s life and their children’s education.

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We transcribed the interview recordings for Students Group A, teachers, non-profit workers and parents, and undertook thematic analysis to identify different codes. We present the findings of our study arranged under different thematic categories evolved through a thematic analysis of the interview transcripts and survey logs


1.  Access to internet enabled devices

When classes shifted online, the assumption was that both students and teachers would have access to an Internet-enabled device and would also have access to streaming bandwidth.

“Almost all the kids in my school are from slums and they do not have devices or any Internet facilities.”

“15 girls studied on a single phone”

- A non-profit worker

- A teacher from Karnataka

In contrast all the 94 students enrolled in private schools in Group B reported that they were attending online classes regularly.

2.  Unavailability and Unreliability of Mobile Data Networks

In addition to lack of access to Internet-enabled devices, unavailability and unreliability of phone networks in rural areas is also a major bottleneck in shifting to online education.

“Students used to travel to dangerous mountainous terrains to access network as there was no network in their village, it was risky and we were scared to let the kids go like this"

- A teacher from Maharashtra

3.  Affordability of Mobile Data

Mobile data is not cheap in India when it comes to running high bandwidth applications like video conferencing and streaming, making it unaffordable for many families. A six hour online school day for a single child would conservatively consume 3 GB of data daily, which would translate to roughly |700 (≈ 𝑈 𝑆𝐷9.5) monthly cost on Jio, India’s largest 4G network. 

"Our pre-pandemic school hours were 5 hours, but this turned out to be impossible to carry out online because parents complained that their entire data pack would get over in a single day, and it gets too costly for them to recharge every day. "

- A teacher from Pune

4.  Attempts to work around the access and affordability issue

In the absence of Internet-enabled devices and streaming bandwidth, the Karnataka government started running classes on TV channels.

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A snippet of the TV classes in Karnataka

In order to reach areas with no internet and devices some states even took up the path of teaching through radios. One such successful attempt happened in nashik.

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The Nashik radio initiative :

"50,000 to 60,000 kids were reached"

"150-200 teachers from Nashik"

"Where there is nothing, there is a community radio"

A snippet of teachers recording their classes in the radio studio

In Jharkhand and Chattisgarh we saw teachers teaching over loudspeakers.


1.  Economic Factors and Fallout

The pandemic-induced lockdown led to several parents in India losing their jobs and livelihood overnight. In several cases parents who had lost jobs pressured children to take up jobs or the children had no choice but support their families.

A 15-year-old girl participant studying at a school in Hyderabad has now started working as a porter in her free time to augment her family income.

Similarly a 10th standard student at another Hyderabad school has started working at his father’s butcher shop, where he feels his time is better utilised. S

2. Social Factors and Fallout.

Deaths because of COVID in the families also severely impacted the students’ education.

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“My husband died soon after being infected by COVID-19. He was sick for the past 5 years, forcing me to be the sole bread winner for the family and draining all our savings. During a major part of the lockdown I was without employment or income. As soon as the lockdown was eased, I had no choice but to make my two daughters aged 18 and 20, leave their education and work at a factory. "

- A 39 year old parent from Hyderabad

A interview snippet

Many of the students complained that the atmosphere at home is not at all conducive for studies and that they could not focus on their studies. One teacher recalled that they would try to convince parents to not ask the children to do household chores so that they may attend classes. A non-profit worker in our study said,

“We tried calling the parents to make them realise that they need to spend some time with the students or that they need to provide the children with phones once they are back from work, but it fell all on deaf ears."

- A teacher from Telangana

- A teacher from Telangana

As a grave social fallout of students dropping out of school, a non-profit worker participating in the study said,

“The cases of sexual assaults by teenage boys on teenage girls have significantly increased since the lockdown. I feel this is directly associated to the lack of schooling."

- A teacher from Chennai

- A teacher from Chennai


1. Effect on Learning in Group A(underprivileged students) demography

The participants observed that actual learning has become a casualty during the pandemic.

“Students who were joining the first standard when the pandemic began will soon be transitioning to the third standard. As we have been unable to teach offline, we are not sure as to what extent the students have learnt. So when the students come to third standard, they might have to be taught basics from first standard due to the lack of schooling"

- A teacher from Karnataka

The participants reported that parents of younger children had a hard time in getting their children to sit in front of a screen and pay attention to the class.

2. Efforts by Teachers and Non-Profit Workers to Continue the Learning Process

Realising that learning is being affected, teachers and students went out of their ways to make sure they could try to get students too continue schooling.

“I went down to almost all of my students’ homes when they did not show up for classes for a few days. "

- A teacher from Maharashtra

Teachers in Chhattisgarh started teaching students offline in groups when they realised the online classes weren’t helping the students. A teacher started to conduct Mohalla Classes (Community Classes) where a few students would gather in an open area and attend classes while maintaining social distance. Similar initiatives were taken by teachers in Karnataka as well.

3. Effect on Learning in Group B (Private school students)

In the open ended questions, the students mentioned that they felt a lack of personal touch and a communication gap. The students feel out of sync with what is being taught and many times zone out and lose concentration during the classes.

Around 75% (95% CI 74.3% – 75.9%) students reported that the number of schooling hours has come down. Group B students were asked to rate the online learning experience on a scale of 1 to 10. The weighted average of the ratings is 5.2 (95% CI 4.7 – 5.7).

Discussions & Reflections


Can Technology platforms be a replacement for regular schooling

Different research has reported that Ed-Tech can at best be a supplement to classroom teaching, and not a replacement. It is important that policy makers address the digital divide in the long term


Disruption as a mirror for society

Disruptive events often hold a mirror up to society and test the resilience of the systems and infrastructure in place. While the health and economic fallout of the pandemic has been widely talked about, one silent casualty of the pandemic has been school education. Deeper thought needs to be put into this problem by both educationists and designers of technology-enabled education platforms.


Digital Divide is not an access problem alone

There are several social, cultural and economic factors which play important roles in widening the digital divide. Researchers and practitioners should also be mindful of the resource (bandwidth, devices) demands that platforms designed by them make, and also be mindful of the capabilities and socioeconomic context of our audience, including students with special needs like learning disabilities.


Need for Internet access to be a basic necessity

With more and more services moving online, the access to services for people on the opposite sides of the Digital Divide are in sharp contrast. It is time for policy makers to think about making access to the Internet and developing capabilities to use the Internet an essential and universal service.

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