As the Modi Administration talks about the Digital India Campaign, one of it’s most promising decisions could be to focus on improving digital infrastructure in schools.

The Modi government’s ambitious “Digital India” initiative aims to usher in a holistic, all-encompassing digital transformation in India. It aims to enhance effectiveness, efficiency and transparency in sectors like health and education; enhance the accountability of government officials; make government services cheaper, easier and more accessible; enhance ease of doing business; and also drive the government’s financial inclusion agenda.

In this Digital India series, we look at the present state of digital inclusion and empowerment in different social and economic sectors – beginning with primary school education – to understand how much has been achieved and how much more needs to be done.

The use of ICT (Information and Communication Technology) in school education is critical for many reasons. Apart from improving the quality and effectiveness of teaching, ICT could provide a much broader range of learning resources to choose from, and make quality education more accessible to remote parts of the country through distance education. Together, all of these could make improve learning outcomes, which is now recognized as the next major challenge in primary education in India. Most importantly, the starting young is the best way to increase digital literacy in the country, which according to most estimates is still below 10%. This would improve the effectiveness of other “e-interventions” by the government in sectors such as financial inclusion, agriculture, small industry and government services.
The RTE, implemented through the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, has led to significant improvement in school infrastructure at the primary level. The enrolment rate nationally is close to a 100% at primary level, although secondary school enrolment rates remain low. However, the goal of digital empowerment of our schools still remains far from being realized. According to the latest DISE survey (2013-14), only 23.3% of our elementary
schools (Class I-VIII) had a computer, with stark variation between major states, as shown below:

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What is worse is that only about 63% of these computers (all-India) were functional.

Clearly, traditionally lagging states such as Bihar, UP and Assam need to do much more in their schools on the “digital” front. This would include not just computers, but other ICT infrastructure such as broadband connectivity, development of online open course content, and most importantly, dissemination in multiple languages to ensure wider reach and deeper penetration. In his first budget speech, the Finance Minister had proposed to allocate Rs 100 crore for a pilot scheme – CLICK – for setting up of virtual classrooms and developing online courses. The status of the release and utilization of this amount is still not clear.

In the coming Budget, the first full budget of the new government, it is hoped that more financial resources would be allocated to the development of high quality ICT infrastructure, even while continuing to focus on other school infrastructure such as toilets for girls, better teaching tools, as well as investment in improving the quality of teachers in our schools.

The eventual aim must be to create a digitally empowered citizenry, which could more effectively utilize the services and benefits available to them, and simultaneously contribute towards much greater economic productivity in the country. The best way to do this, like with most other good things, is to start young.