Pandemic strengthens role of smartphones in Indian schools

Smartphones help classes continue as schools remain closed, but poorest families struggle to keep up

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By Roli Srivastava

MUMBAI, July 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Kuldip Kumar, a farmer in northern India, sold his only cow to buy a smartphone so his children could take classes that changed online when the coronavirus lockdown hit closed schools four months ago.

Kumar was already in debt and the cow was his only asset. He sold it last week for 6,000 rupees ($ 80), which he spent almost entirely on the device.

“My neighbors had smartphones but my kids were reluctant to go there every day to study,” Kumar, 36, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from the town of Palampur.

“I was worried about their education, so I sold the cow,” he added.

India is the world’s second-largest smartphone market after China, and nearly half of the country’s nearly one billion mobile users already have phones with internet access.

For Kumar and his family, the smartphone is new. Neither he nor his wife have ever been online, and so far only their children have used it.

With no clear sign of schools reopening soon, internet access has become a must for children to attend classes, prompting more low-income families to raise the money to buy a smartphone for the first time. cheap or used.

And with a school population of around 240 million, that could prove to be a boon for selling cheap devices to new users, industry analysts say, noting signs of increasing handset purchases. used in rural areas.

The Indian smartphone market has grown over the past two or three years, mainly due to replacement purchases, said Navkendar Singh, research director at International Data Corporation.

For many basic phone users, the switch to digital is still prohibitive:

“Basic phones cost less than Rs 1,000, so how will their users buy a smartphone for Rs 3,000 or Rs 4,000. Even a screen replacement would cost them over Rs 1,000,” Singh said.


Only Indonesia is digitizing at a faster rate than India, according to a McKinsey study of 17 countries.

But despite rapid gains in internet access, the advent of lockdown distance education has highlighted the country’s continuing digital divide.

The suicide of a teenage girl who couldn’t attend classes online because she didn’t have a TV or smartphone has drawn attention to the plight of families who can’t even afford the cheapest smartphone.

In the Pune district of western India, teacher Nagnath Vibhute posted a blog post asking for donations of old smartphones for his students, many from poor families.

India started to Relax its strict coronavirus lockdown for weeks in June, but restrictions remain in many parts of the country as the number of confirmed cases rises steadily, topping one million last week.

In the meantime, teachers send homework via WhatsApp or give virtual lessons on Zoom, but the lack of a smartphone is not the only obstacle to online schooling.

In Panchgani, western Maharashtra, chemistry teacher Moumita Bhattacharjee tackles poor connectivity by recording her lessons – with a board to make it feel like class – so her students can download them later.

Poor connections, the cost of phones and data plans, along with concerns about excessive screen time, are prompting authorities and activists to consider ways to resume offline teaching.

Personalized lessons for students in grades 1 to 12 will be broadcast on television and radio as part of a “one class, one channel” initiative planned by the Federal Department of Human Resources.

“The government is committed to ensuring learning for all (…) to cover all students at all levels of education and in all geographic areas,” Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said in a statement. communicated.

Some states are already broadcasting television courses, and one federal official – who asked not to be identified – said the government was working on solutions that would last “even when everything is normal.”

The nonprofit educational association Pratham, which works with more than 12,000 communities in 19 Indian states, has started texting lessons and homework instead of videos on WhatsApp so families with conventional cell phones can also benefit from it.

Smitin Brid, program director at Pratham, said members of his team called parents and gave them instructions for educational tasks like counting kitchen utensils.

They also enlisted volunteers in the villages to relay the lessons through loudspeakers.


But millions of children, especially those from the poorest families, have dropped out of school.

A recent study of more than 600 migrant workers by the Caritas India association showed that 46% of their children had stopped their schooling during confinement.

Vibhute, the teacher from Pune, said he lost contact with the children of migrant brickyard workers who traveled to their home countries when the lockdown left them unemployed.

Despite his daily struggle with blurry and interrupted videos due to spotty connectivity, Vibhute said it was important to persist with virtual classrooms until offline solutions emerged.

“It is important for us to keep in touch with (the students) or they will be sent to farms to work and once the parents start receiving money from their children, they will regard the schools as irrelevant.” did he declare.

Sitting cross-legged on the floor of his family’s sparse cabin in a room in Mumbai, 10-year-old Gautam Suresh stared at the smartphone his parents bought him and his two siblings for 15,000 rupees while her teacher was giving a lesson.

Suresh’s father, who works as a security guard, has spent more than a month’s salary on the new phone, the family’s second smartphone, which he aims to pay back in six monthly installments.

“I never thought I would have a branded phone. Our parents bought it for our studies, but I understand their problem,” Suresh said as her mother cooked rice.

All three children in the family used their father’s phone for lessons, but the calls often interrupted their lessons, resulting in an expensive purchase.

For Suresh, however, even the sparkling smartphone is a poor replacement for the classroom.

“I can’t ask my teacher questions like I would at school,” he said.

Related stories:

Coronavirus school closures in Asia expose digital divide

Graduate teaches children in Delhi slum without access to e-learning

No job, new debt: virus creates perfect storm for slavery in India

($ 1 = 74.8700 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Roli Srivastava @Rolionaroll; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, which covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http: // news

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