Do we need digital?

Everyone talks about how digital sweeping all aspects of our lives and the globe. Yet even today there are some times when digital just isn’t the answer. India is supposed to be in the throes of a digital revolution. Yet the ground reality is that villages have little use of a computer when they still don’t have power or internet access. In such villages tucked away from societies purview, computers donated by the government gather dust  (A little bit of Googling will take you to this story). More recently we saw how aspirations to go cashless are thwarted if there is not enough of a supporting infrastructure that also encompasses the marginalised and the small business at your doorstep. These are just few examples of where implementing digital solutions at scale do stumble if not seem challenging. But when I chanced upon the next example, I have to admit as a digital native and marketer I was troubled.

It’s no secret that a large portion of India’s population is the marginalised. Those who struggle to make ends meet. What is crucial is the ability to teach these generations who are marginalised, to give them access to the skills needed to get a step ahead in life. While some might argue this is typical middle-class, white collar thinking, there is truth in it. Education is the backbone of building a better nation of the future. It helps to a certain extent to get through some glass ceilings. It is the very blueprint to ensure that we don’t repeat past mistakes. The first education tool that most people in India will associate with is the slate and piece of chalk. You then graduate to book and notebooks. Today computers have entered the class room. What goes wrong is when these marginalised students are forced to have access to the internet to complete basic education tasks when outside the classroom. Like being able to do their homework. This is when implementing a digital solution become more a hurdle than an enabler.

Common sense demands that you just print the questions after the chapter, doesn’t it? It’s what has been done for years. The internet and any digital experience it offers should be supplementary and not mandatory. Like using an AR app to supplement a lesson you learnt. Or watch historic videos to bring history alive.  Yet a certain Southern State Board in India has textbooks where the lesson is followed by a QR code. Students are expected to scan this QR code to gain access to the different questions that accompany a chapter so that they can do their homework one student tells me. This is a book prescribed to students from marginalised communities. Parents who can barely meet fee payments now need to find a way to pay for their children to access the internet. Never before had I considered the internet to be such a source of a great divide. As more and more services go online, do we really consider the impact this has on the marginalised section of society. Sure we talk of the mobile revolution in banking in Africa using feature phones. But those are solutions that are purpose built. A lot of services that you and I take for granted are probably still out of reach for the majority of Indians.

Digital is designed as a medium that facilitates. Yet if the cost of access to digital is a burden to educating the underprivileged, is digital the medium that we should be turning too? Sometimes, just sometimes, pen and paper and print trump any form of digital technology. In these instances we need to make the right choice of medium. Go analogue.

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