Digital Education in India – Avenues and Challenges

Afnan Mohammad, AIF Fellow (Photo courtesy of the author)

The idea of a child learning with a screen in front of them, interacting with a teacher online or consuming related educational content, is still nascent. While effective technologies are developing rapidly (at what might be said at the speed of light), there is much to explore in the vastness of digital education, probably even circling back to what the essence of education means and what outcomes one should measure.

It might seem that I have taken a rather cynical view of the biggest tool in human civilisation that made the world a global village- (technology and the internet and of course, the gateway of possibilities it opens in digital education endeavours), but I have not. While talking about India, I believe in the power of digital education being the flag bearer of educational access in “untapped, underserved” regions of India. However, lines blur when we think about whether quality mechanisms (if any) are in place, and what educational experience or a wholesome learning outcome a student takes away. The question is, does digital education encourage a more transactional relationship between the teacher/ learning content and the learner as opposed to a wholesome experience of learning outdoors, making connections and maybe in some cases, learning by doing? Also, can digital education be visualised operating independently from traditional classroom teaching or as an aid to the existing mechanisms?

After an awesome play by the changemakers of Lotus Petal Family, the audience cheer for the performers! (Photo courtesy of Lotus Petal Foundation via the author)

During my first month of the Fellowship, these were the questions that constantly nagged me while I was stationed at my organisation’s digital education lab, where teachers in their soundproof cabins, webcams and smart boards connect with students miles away in remote villages, singing rhymes, reiterating number- tables, and narrating beautiful folk stories in Hindi. (The soundproof cabins are not that soundproof). After enduring half of my undergraduate and post-graduation online during COVID-19, I had to check my bias towards digital education being a boring stare contest between my screen and me, and look at the bigger picture and direct myself to contribute my time in making the most of the learning outcome that a student can possibly get.

My organisation emphasises a child-centric approach, and this outlook drives their programs too. Interestingly, my first conversation with Ms Vardhana Puri (assigned Senior Fellow) also began with both of us sharing the scepticism about digital education as a foolproof solution to holistic educational outcomes, especially for primary school students while also taking child well-being into account. The suggestions from Ms Vardhana helped me channel my energy towards imagining myself as a recipient of the digital educational programs and doing an observation study of my organisation’s program along with a landscape analysis of digital education initiatives in the country. My focus was to find gaps, understand the shortcomings and find avenues to facilitate and bridge gaps in the existing digital education sector.

Dum Lagakar – Haishaaa! (Photo courtesy of Lotus Petal Foundation via the author)

The India Report on Digital Education 2021 captures the various initiatives taken by the Education departments of States/UTs, showcasing the extensive efforts to promote digital education across the country. The report provides insights into the remote learning initiatives across India and highlights the efforts of the Ministry of Education and its departments in promoting digital education. The report is an attempt to capture and compile all initiatives taken by the Education departments of States/UTs and is a clear indicator of the government’s interest in digital education initiatives. Another aspect of my research highlighted the gaps in traditional and digital education endeavours, some of them relevant to my project area are:

1. Lack of Trained Teachers: Many teachers in India are not equipped with the necessary skills and knowledge to incorporate technology into their teaching methods, especially in rural areas where there are often fewer opportunities for professional development and on-ground implementation. India is short of 11 lakh teachers, and rural areas are the most affected. An article published in Youth ki Awaaz highlighted that there are 1.2 lakh single-teacher schools in the country, of which almost 89% are from rural areas, indicating the acute shortage of teachers.

2. Lack of Awareness and Access: There is a lack of awareness about digital education, which is a barrier to providing it to all. Even before the pandemic, India experienced a deep digital divide between rural and urban areas. As reported by NSSO data on social consumption services, 66% of Indians live in villages with only 15% having access to the internet while access to the internet in urban areas stands at 42% as of 2017-18.

The digital education divide between rural and urban areas is significant. More than half of the Indian population does not have access to the internet, and underprivileged communities are still lagging in the digital race. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation in 2021 showed that almost 60 per cent of school children in India cannot access online learning opportunities. This highlights a significant digital divide in the country, with a large proportion of students lacking access to the internet and digital infrastructure. The study underscores the challenges posed by the digital divide, especially in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, which necessitated a shift to remote teaching and learning.

The lack of access to online learning opportunities widens educational inequalities, particularly for students from underprivileged backgrounds. The study emphasizes the need for efforts to bridge the digital divide and ensure equitable access to digital education for all students.

3. Foundational Literacy and Numeracy: Lack of foundational numeracy and literacy in Indian primary schools have been a significant challenge in Indian education. A World Bank study reported that about fifty-six point one per cent of children less than 10 years old cannot even read common words. ASER studies also point out other weaknesses such as readings and simple subtraction. The National Education Policy 2020 focuses on foundation literacy and numeracy (FLN). The policy introduced the NIPUN Bharat program aimed at attaining 100% FLN competencies for grade 3 students by the year 2027.

Colors of Diwali – Many Cheers for Change! (Photo courtesy of Lotus Petal Foundation via the author)

In addition to the above-mentioned challenges in the Indian educational landscape overall, digital education solutions also pose certain psychological and sociological challenges that circle back to the question of whether digital education is a holistic educational solution or a transactional one. The challenges that I observed during the first month of my fellowship include:

1. Lack of Physical Interaction: One of the major disadvantages of digital education is the lack of physical interaction, which can make it more challenging for children to communicate with their teachers and peers.

2. Social Isolation and Increasing Screen Time: Digital education can cause social isolation for children who naturally thrive from group learning and have a more aesthetic-based style when it comes to assimilating information.

3. Lack of Personal Attention: Online learning can pose a challenge for teachers who may lose both the opportunity and conviction to give enough personal attention to individuals who may need it.

4. Limited Feedback: Online student feedback is limited, where the teacher may not always get the time to interact and follow up with the students and give personalized feedback.

5. Use of unfair means during assessments: One of the biggest disadvantages of digital education is cheating through basic and creative methods. Compared to physical examinations, students can cheat on assessments more easily as they take assessments in their environment and while using their personal computers.

The above challenges give a gloomy description of education both offline and online, yet I have realised how my host organisation is trying to address the same challenges through their initiatives. My host organisation combines the shortcomings in the overall education landscape in India with digital education solutions. Project Vidya Sahyog addresses three key issues: the dearth of trained teachers in schools and connecting them to partner schools via digital infrastructure in semi-urban and rural areas of India. Vidya Sahyog focuses on foundational numeracy and literacy with English, Maths and Hindi as the chosen subjects. A significant part of my project is dedicated to working on donor relations, partnerships and collaborations to strengthen the existing infrastructure and to expand and sustain new associations.

All employees of Lotus Petal Foundation gathered around Dhunela School Campus, Gurugram during quarterly townhall and Diwali celebrations. (Photo courtesy of Priyanka Mehra, Senior Executive – Lotus Petal Foundation via the author)

An area I am trying to explore is how to make online classes more effective by gradually introducing/
suggesting activity-based, scenario-based and gamification-based teaching methodologies to combat the challenges of social isolation and lack of physical connection. These strategies are proven to increase teacher-student interaction and rapport-building. I believe am trying to work towards an outcome that would make online classes the antithesis of a staring contest between the screen and the learner. Here’s to hoping that I make the most of my project proposal and beyond to contribute to the cause of wholesome education that I am deeply passionate about.

About the Author:
Afnan Mohammad is an American India Foundation (AIF) Fellow who is dedicated to making a positive impact in the developmental sector. Her current role at the Lotus Petal Foundation in Gurugram involves assisting in the development of a go-to-market strategy for the Vidya Sahyog Program. This program focuses on educational initiatives to support underprivileged or marginalized communities. Afnan’s background and education have prepared her well for this role. She completed her Bachelor’s degree at Gargi College, Delhi University, and furthered her education by earning a Master’s degree in Applied Psychology from Jamia Milia Islamia. This academic background equips her with the knowledge and skills needed to understand the psychological aspects of community development and education. Afnan’s passion for community development is evident in her past projects, where she has worked on various issues such as Education, Gender Sensitivity, Mental Health, and LGBTQ+ rights. This diverse experience reflects that she possesses a well-rounded perspective on the challenges and opportunities within the developmental sector. Outside of her professional commitments, Afnan enjoys simple pleasures like making ramen and watching anime during her free time. Her approachability and willingness to engage in meaningful conversations over coffee, chai, or blueberry smoothies make her eager for building connections and collaborating with others in her field. As an AIF fellow, Afnan aims to contribute her best efforts to create lasting change and hopes to establish a network of passionate and talented individuals who share her commitment to community development. Her dedication and diverse background make her a promising addition to the field of developmental work.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here