Despite being perceived as digital natives by parents, teachers, and policymakers, school-going children in India are not supported sufficiently to foster their digital literacy. The shortage of digital skills among the country’s youth is also worrying and coexists with a rapidly evolving job market where 90% of positions already entail a digital component – a trend poised to escalate. A recent NSSO survey assessing digital skill levels among Indian youth aged 15-29 paints a disconcerting picture, with only 27.5% of the population classified as “digitally skilled.”
UNESCO enumerates digital literacy as the indispensable fourth pillar of foundational literacy. Digital literacy refers to the abilities that enable individuals to use technology in a secure and efficient manner. It extends beyond fundamental digital skills, encompassing a range of digital know-how that enable individuals to execute a range of everyday tasks by leveraging technological solutions. These could include filling a Google form, analysing data sets on Excel and making a presentation for work. These represent the spectrum of digital proficiencies that are increasingly becoming essential.
However, the skill paradigm of digital literacy is only one half of the story. Limiting digital literacy to a skills-based understanding leads to dire consequences. India’s experience during COVID-19 and the accompanying misinformation crisis was the most recent example of mass scale digital illiteracy across all age groups of India’s population.
A digitally literate person is identified by five key competencies, in addition to the presence of fundamental digital skills – communication and collaboration, information and data literacy, problem solving, safety, and digital content creation.
Gender and geographical disparities exacerbate India’s digital skill divide. Young girls consistently lag behind their male counterparts in fundamental digital competencies. Societal norms from the physical world mirror themselves digitally, leading to girls’ exclusion from the benefits of the digital ecosystem. Geographical disparities extend beyond the rural-urban divide, with southern states outperforming northern states across all indicators set by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation (MOSPI).
While the government has made efforts to ensure online safety through initiatives like the Digital India Bill, insufficient attention has been directed toward the digital illiteracy crisis, despite the pervasive digital immersion experienced by children.
The shortage of digitally proficient and gender-sensitised educators is an obstacle to children’s digital skill development. This is in addition to persisting challenges related to information and communications technology (ICT) infrastructure access in schools – 18% of schools with functional computers do not have internet connectivity.
As a result, even when students have the opportunity to access functional ICT environments, they may still struggle to acquire digital skills. While students may attain basic proficiency, the absence of critical thinking and awareness could hinder their ability to become effective digital citizens, potentially contributing to the pervasive misinformation crisis. Immediate macro environments of children, comprising teachers and parents, are crucial to avert this.
Teachers play a pivotal role in fostering digital literacy by shaping the learning environment within schools. Equipping teachers with skills and infrastructure is crucial, necessitating interventions at two levels:
1. Building teachers’ awareness and skills
In-service training should not only focus on building digital literacy of the teachers, but also on practical strategies for transferring the skills to students. Along with its emphasis on enhancing the pedagogy, training should also build digital literacy of teachers by incorporating these seven inseparable elements.
2. Investments to advance digital literacy in school
Gaps in digital infrastructure can be bridged through public-private partnerships. Education receives substantial corporate social responsibility (CSR) funding to the tune of Rs 8,382 crores, that can be leveraged to build better infrastructure. States must allocate funds for ICT infrastructure maintenance and innovative solutions, such as solar panels, to address rural schools’ power shortages. Investment is essential to develop a comprehensive digital literacy curriculum covering basic computer skills, citizenship, and digital navigation skills for all levels of learning.
Parents’ digital illiteracy can create a complex dynamic which often oscillates between imposing strict limitations on device usage, to adopting a fully permissive approach, with parents frequently having limited awareness of the online world in which their child is immersed.
Empowering parents necessitates a multifaceted approach, including national awareness campaigns, education, community involvement, and stronger parent-school connections. Two prominent types of initiatives stand out:
1. Parent-Teacher Associations (PTAs)
PTAs encourage communication between teachers and parents. These can be leveraged for knowledge sharing on internet safety, social media literacy, and essential digital skills for parents. These interactions can be facilitated via WhatsApp, workshops and parent-teacher meetings.
2. Digital Literacy Campaigns
Collaborations among NGOs and government entities can drive awareness campaigns highlighting the importance of digital literacy for all genders. These campaigns can encourage parents to build trust, and help overcome their biases towards girls’ access to the digital ecosystem.
Digital Literacy as the Fourth Pillar
Digital literacy is not just essential for harnessing the nation’s demographic dividend; it is also key to shaping a knowledge society. In the past, reading, writing, and comprehension were the core pillars of learning. However, the internet has ushered in new modes of learning and knowledge dissemination, emphasising visual consumption and content creation. In this evolving landscape, it is time to recognise and facilitate digital literacy as the fourth essential pillar of literacy.
(Shweta Gaur comes with over 14 years of experience leading pan-India projects in the social impact sector. As the Engagement Manager at Sattva, she is a part of the Education Practice Area at Sattva Knowledge Institute.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.