Catching up:
Children in the margins
of Digital India


This research follows on from CCDS’s study (2015) on barriers to internet access for adults from economically- and socially-marginalised communities in urban India. It probes the ICT access, awareness and capability of a representative and inclusive sample of urban Indian schoolchildren and points to the vastly unequal digital starting point for young urban citizens who are already held back by poverty and social exclusion. Knowledge of information and communication technologies (ICTs) could open the doors to a better future for disadvantaged children, offering them greater access to learning, communities of interest, markets and services that can help them fulfil their potential and break cycles of disadvantage (UNICEF 2017). However, our data indicate that students from schools catering to the lowest socioeconomic segments, with high percentages of enrolment from the Scheduled Castes (SCs), Scheduled Tribes (STs), Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslims, lag far behind students from schools catering to the middle class in ICT awareness and skills. Their unequal digital access, training and competency could hold them back further as they struggle to catch up in education, livelihoods and social and democratic participation.

The study surveyed 1,300 students at the upper-primary and secondary levels (Grades 7 and 10) from 34 schools across the Pune Urban Agglomeration, one of the fastest-growing urban areas in India, an IT hub and one of India’s “Smart Cities.” The students were drawn from 13 government/local body-run schools, 14 private-aided schools, and seven private-unaided schools. Our focus was on disadvantaged children, and therefore 88% of our student sample came from 30 schools catering to high proportions of children from the economically and socially weaker sections.

Gaps in ICT access and competency of students

The children took an ICT competency quiz and answered a questionnaire on their ICT access (at school and home) and awareness. They were quizzed on four learning strands: 1) operating computers, 2) managing information using basic computer programs, 3) communicating information, and 4) using and evaluating online resources. In addition, 27 principals and 31 ICT teachers from the sampled schools were interviewed. Most of the schools were Marathi-medium, five were English-medium and three Urdu-medium.

The overall score of Grade 7 students was 50.2% (±18.2), and 52.7% (±16.5) for students of Grade 10. Thirty-one of 34 schools had ICT training as part of their curriculum, and the quiz was based on topics covered in most schools. Children scored poorly in the learning strands related to basic computer operations, information management and communicating information. Fifty-nine percent of the total sample did not know how to retrieve a deleted file, 68% did not know what spreadsheets are used for, and 30% did not know how to shut down a computer correctly. Seventy-four percent of Grade 7 students did not know what a word processing program is. Children performed better on using online resources. While 91% could identify the icon for Facebook and 81% the YouTube icon, only 62% could identify the symbol for attachment and 72% for search. This corresponds to the data on access to ICTs and patterns of use—although 88% of all children had access to smartphones, only 35% had access to computers. Fifty-eight percent of the children use ICTs every day for entertainment and social networking, but use them only occasionally for schoolwork, finding new information or learning new skills.

Forty-two percent of students believe that all the information on the internet is accurate, a worrying finding in a media environment where disinformation and inaccuracies proliferate. Thirty-six percent of children would share their address and phone number with a stranger online, 62% would accept a friend request from a stranger on a social network and 49% would share personal photographs with a stranger.    

The study reveals wide gaps in the ICT access and capability of students by school category. Children from the most marginalised classes generally go to government schools, those slightly better-off attend private-aided schools or low-fee private schools, and students from the middle class study at higher-fee private-unaided or aided schools. Schools for the privileged classes have the highest scores (73.4% for Grade 7 and 72.9% for Grade 10), while schools for the marginalised have the lowest (41.4% for Grade 7 and 45.4% for Grade 10).

The access and kind of training students have in school influences their ICT competencies. For example, students from schools that had an established computer education programme for a decade or longer had better scores than those that had introduced computers more recently (58.2% in Grade 7 and 61.2% in Grade 10 versus 42.9% for Grade 7 and 47.8% for Grade 10). Grade 10 students from schools with the ideal ratio of one or two students to a computer scored higher (62.5%) than schools with a computer-student ratio of 1:5 (51.7%) or 1:22 (44.4%). Students at schools with a dedicated and trained ICT teacher scored higher (53.9% for Grade 7 and 55.9% for Grade 10) than students taught by a subject teacher who also takes ICT (47.6% and 47.3%).

The importance of computer education in schools is most visible in the contrast between the average scores of Grade 7 students from the three schools with no ICT training (37.5%) and schools with ICT training (52.1%). All three schools that did not teach ICTs were government-run schools catering to the most disadvantaged, and 67% of the children who said they could not use a computer at all came from these schools.

However, ICT training in school is not by itself able to counteract the home effect—the pervasive influence of economic, social and cultural capital on the ICT awareness and capability of children.

The influence of socioeconomic status

The most significant finding of this study is the gap between children from the lowest and highest socioeconomic (SES) groups. There is an 18-percentage point difference between the scores of Grade 7 children from the lowest SES group (SES 1) and highest (SES 4), a gap that widens to 24percentage points between Grade 10 students from SES 1 and SES 4. Roughly 30% of children in Grades 7 and 10 have ICT competency scores of less than 40%, and of these low-scorers, 77% fall in the lowest two SES groups. Nearly a fourth of the students from SES 1 said they did not know how to operate computers or the internet at all.

At the most basic level, socioeconomic status determines the child’s access to ICT devices and services at home. Twenty-two percent of students from SES 1 and 25.8% from SES 2 had a desktop/laptop at home, compared to 40.1% of SES 3 and 80.8% of SES 4. The gap in family ownership of smartphones is smaller, with a 15.8-percentage point difference between SES 1 (81%) and SES 4 (96.8%). However, a significant 19% of students from SES 1 came from households that did not have the economic capital to buy even an entry-level smartphone.

This differential access affects competency scores: children from households minus even a smartphone scored 37% in Grade 7 and 49% in Grade 10. The score increases to 52% for 7th-graders and 54% for 10th-graders with smartphones at home, and further to 58% and 60% for those with computers at home.

The access divide, however, is only the first level of digital inequality. Even if the access divide were to be bridged, many children in our sample would continue to be handicapped by poor social and cultural capital, which contributes to a poor learning environment. Their parents may have little or no education and be engaged in occupations that do not call for anything more than basic ICT skills. Children with mothers who have no education or only primary education score 46.3% for Grade 7 and 46.6% for Grade 10, more than 26percentage points less than the scores of children with mothers in the highest education category (74.3% for Grade 7 and 72.7% for Grade 10). Similarly, children of fathers who are better educated score higher (62.3% for Grade 7 and 69.9% for Grade 10) than those whose fathers are less educated (46.2% and 44.9%).

Social and cultural capital also influences the purpose and patterns of ICT use, and the extent to which children are able to tap into new digital opportunities. These are the more complex aspects of digital inequality. In our sample, students across SES groups were aware of and used the internet for entertainment and communication, but 74% of students from the lowest SES group were aware of the internet’s use in searching for news and information, against 87% of children from the highest SES group. Sixty-four percent of SES 2 students knew they could use the internet to learn new skills, against 76% of SES 4. And while 83% of SES 4 Grade 10 students used email, only 38% of SES 1 and 43% of SES 2 students did.

Socioeconomic status also appears to influence students’ abilities as discerning users of ICTs. Forty-one percent of SES 1 students and 52% of SES 3 students believed that all online information is accurate, against 25% of students from higher socioeconomic backgrounds. Only 3% of children from schools catering to the middle class would fall prey to clickbait, against 24% of students from schools catering to the disadvantaged. Likewise, 40% of the children in the lowest two SES groups would share their phone number and address with a stranger online, against 17% of those in the highest SES. Over 50% of children in the three lower SES groups would share personal photos with strangers online against 29% of SES 4. And while 69% of children from SES 4 could identify the most secure password from the given options, only 31% of children from SES 1 could.

The language barrier hampers the ICT competency of disadvantaged students further. Our data show that medium of instruction significantly affects the competency of students. Students who reported English as the preferred language on computers or internet have higher scores than those reporting use of regional languages.

Vulnerable children are most marginalised in Digital India

While India has had policies mandating ICT in Education for the last three decades, this study found schools serving disadvantaged children—government and private—still struggling to find the resources to acquire and manage ICT infrastructure. Where the infrastructure existed, schools lacked the resources to hire dedicated and trained ICT teachers. The public private partnership (PPP) model recommended by government places the burden of mobilising civil society or corporate social responsibility (CSR) partnerships on schools, while the build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT) model had benefited only five of our sample schools, and does not enable schools to develop adequate internal capacity to manage their ICT programme.

ICT was a compulsory subject at the board level at the time of fieldwork, but policy increasingly seems to favour the integration of ICTs in the teaching of all subjects rather than ICT as a standalone subject. The implication is that technology is trickling down to the base of the pyramid, closing the access gap, and as even low-income households acquire smartphones and other mobile devices, all children will have the skills to use ICTs. Our study questions this simplistic view, making it clear that children do not benefit equally from ICTs, and that in fact children from the poorest and most marginalised communities benefit least. The skills that children acquire informally on devices such as smartphones may suffice for entertainment and simple searches but not for lifelong learning, discerning use of digital information and media, or livelihoods.

This study challenges the over-optimistic view of children as “digital natives” and of ICTs as empowering all children equally. It builds an argument for a more nuanced understanding of digital equality in India, one that puts the social contexts of new digital technologies at its core. It makes a case for regular and robust research on the social, cultural and economic implications of digital technologies, on the digital access and competencies of vulnerable populations, and on how ICT in Education policies play out at the ground level. The study advocates for formal ICT training throughout school, a conception of ICT literacy that goes beyond the ability to operate digital devices and basic information management programs, and special policies and initiatives aimed at digital equality for disadvantaged children without the infrastructural and social capital to compete as equals in a digital world.

Unless equal ICT access and ICT capability for all children is ensured, technology cannot be meaningfully integrated in pedagogy. Our companion volume, Technology in Education: The Gap between Policy and Praxis, offers perspectives from academics and policymakers on the conditions necessary for technology to transform school education, and ground reports from educationists and activists on what actually happens when technology meets the classroom in India.

Introduction: digital divides and children

Chapter 1