Faster, Please: Breaking Down Barriers to Access the World
By Michelle C
Learning to speak Korean is a new passion for the three sisters who are ardent K-pop fans. They know all there is to know about the Korean pop bands such as BTS and their mother watches in awe as the three of them try to converse in Korean. They also enjoy the video game Minetest where they join an online server, hang out with their friends, collectively build houses & towers and play around in each other’s digital spaces.
Meet the Gond sisters, belonging to the tribal community of Warlis living in Dahanu, which is considered a “remote and backward” region of Western Maharashtra. Studying in classes 5, 7 and 8 the girls are as integrated to the modern digital world as their peers in the cities. Though their cultural and economic realities may be vastly different, digitisation has opened up new possibilities and imagination for rural children.
Between the three sisters, they share a laptop and their mother’s smart phone to enjoy the content rich internet world as well as take their classes online. They have a dog and a cat, enjoy going fishing in the creek outside, cooking up a meal and looking after their little niece.
They remain dependent on private phone companies for data and struggle for stable and reliable internet. The government’s promised dream of broadband in every village remains on paper. But they can’t wait to hear the next K-pop song. So they grab their phone and tune in to youtube.
The pandemic has thrown open various debates on children’s right to access online education. Mainstream media continues to offer us a standard rhetoric of rural areas being resource starved and gadget poor in comparison with their urban counterparts.
While the struggle for better infrastructure continues, it’s important that the changing ground realities be acknowledged. This will help in building a new narrative of the use of technologies in shaping children’s lives. It will also change perceptions and binaries that are being presented to us. So how have the ground realities changed?
Last Mile Connectivity
To start with, last mile connectivity has reached most villages. Though it is often unstable and not at high speeds, it is definitely accessible in many rural areas. As students of the Tamarind Tree School, in rural Dahanu Taluka, the Gond sisters participate in the online classes scheduled by the school.
In fact, the school finds that of the total strength of around 100 children, around 60 to 70 tribal children are able to regularly access online course content and classes on the school’s Learning management platform on My Big Campus. Moreover, the school has organised learning for the students in a manner that a lot can be done asynchronously. For example, students learn Math online on Khan Academy and do not need to come to a live online session but can learn at their own pace and time.
The reality is that video consumption and gaming are entertaining. How these have taken the remote rural areas by storm would also help changing our assumptions about access.
PUBG – Playerunknown’s BattleGrounds is a massive multiplayer synchronous game that is 2GB in size (!) and requires 200 – 500 MB worth of updates every month. Nobody thought that bandwidth in India would ever support such a game, but it took the country by storm.
Not very surprisingly, many of the tribal children in Tamarind Tree became avid players of the game and sessions discussing the pitfalls of a shooting game had to be taken up in school! Obviously these children had both gadgets and bandwidth to participate in online gaming.
Willingness to buy Digital Devices
Parents from marginalised backgrounds are also willing and eager to ensure that their child does not lose out and is able to access the school’s online classes.
Most of the students in classes 9 and 10 have invested in their own personal smartphones. They use this to take their classes online as well as shop, play games and enrol for their NIOS (National Institute of Open Schooling) board exams. In fact, without a phone, they are unable to register or enrol in the open schooling exam being conducted by the Central Government.
Many parents of even young children in classes 5 to 8 have invested in laptops, raspberry pis and phones for their wards.
It cannot be denied that access to the internet is as critical to the holistic development of tribal children as their right to proper nutrition. Unfortunately, due to structural inequities regions like Dahanu struggle equally for both. Despite this, communities living in the hinterland are working hard to access and participate in this global world. The least we can do is acknowledge this participation and not push a typical narrative that online education cannot be a reality for rural folks.
Michelle C is part of the team that runs Tamarind Tree, an Open Education model with tribal children in Dahanu.
Pics courtesy: Sourav Dutta and Michelle