Education

Using smartphones to boost digital literacy among India's rural communities

A group of emaployees of an Anganwadi daycare centre in rural India hold up their smartphones during a digital literacy training course.

Anganwadi employees are participating in digital literacy courses in parts of rural India. Image: Rocket Learning

Siddhant Sachdeva
Co-founder, Rocket Learning
Ayushree Gupta
Founder's Office, Rocket Learning
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  • Teaching daycare workers in rural India to use smartphones and basic apps can start them on a path of continuous learning when it comes to digital literacy skills.
  • A programme to do this has created a measure for recording digital literacy skills and helping participants to learn more – and pass on the knowledge to the children in their care.
  • As more people get smartphones and internet access, providing educators and caregivers with digital skills will be vital in democratising education for underserved populations.

At a recent training programme for daycare workers in rural India, a field trainer was showing participants how to change WhatsApp group settings by clicking on the three-dot button on a smartphone screen when one participant asked: “Why that button?”

These Anganwadi workers, as the daycare centres are called, are developing their digital literacy so they can use it to impart education services to 3-6 year old children. The innocence and frankness of the question says a lot about digital literacy and how beginners approach the process of learning how to navigate a new technology. Using a new app might be intuitive to you, but some of the underlying steps towards becoming digitally literate might also be invisible to you as a practiced tech user.

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A lack of digital literacy dampens engagement with an app or piece of technology. Imagine trying to make an online payment if you’ve not used a smartphone much before. You need to be able to scan a QR code, input the payment amount and read and enter a password.

Payment apps are available to anyone with a smartphone and an internet connection, but adoption remains low in rural areas and among marginalised people due to low digital literacy. According to an April 2022 field study conducted by 1Bridge, India's biggest village commerce network, just 3-7% of people in rural India actively use a platform to make payments.

India has over 700 million smartphone users, including 425 million in rural areas, as of January 2023. More than 50% of people currently use smartphones and the number of active internet users has grown by 45% since 2019, placing rural India at the centre of the world’s smart revolution.

Tech strategies are often focussed on digitally proficient, educated younger generations, but it is crucial to recognise that a large number of smartphone owners are less educated people. Recent data shows a significant increase in low-income households, falling in the "low education" category, purchasing smartphones for their children's education since the 2020 lockdown.

Making innovative products for digital newcomers and showing them essential technological skills will enable these people to achieve their business and development goals.

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A digital literacy revolution

The government of India has already brought the smartphone revolution to Anganwadis through the Poshan Abhiyaan, a programme that uses technology to improve nutrition for pregnant women, lactating mothers, children, and adolescents. The goal is to empower India's frontline health workers through digital training and upskilling. If digital engagement is to unlock the next frontier of education for Anganwadis – and other people in rural areas – the smartphone revolution must be underpinned by a digital literacy revolution.

As part of Rocket Learning’s early childhood education programme, home and classroom learning activities are sent to parents and Anganwadis via low-tech apps such as WhatsApp. So, frontline staff like Anganwadis need to be able to use these apps to ensure the programme reaches its intended users. They need to create WhatsApp groups and add phone numbers, for example, to ensure educational activities reach the children in their village.

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To help develop their skills, we split an Anganwadi worker's use of WhatsApp into 10 fundamental digital skills needed to participate in our programme, including saving a phone number, creating a WhatsApp group, adding participants, playing a videos and annotating an image. Working with Anganwadi in a couple of rural districts in Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh in India, our trainers watched participants complete the 10 tasks. They were graded on a scale of 1 to 3, indicating whether the work was incomplete, partially completed, or completed.

Bar chart showing the digital literacy levels for 240 daycare workers in India.
Rocket Learning tracks the digitial literacy levels of the daycare workers it trains. Image: Rocket Learning

Using these scores, we created 10 key WhatsApp digital skills, grouped into beginner, intermediate, and advanced. This helped us work out the best training for each person. It also allowed us to make changes to our programme to make it easier for those with basic skills to use.

But we also wanted to help Anganwadis develop their skills further. To do this, we created different learning journeys and used short, action-oriented learning materials. By taking a more individual approach, we worked out, for example, that for some Anganwadi workers, having children or grandchildren help with small learning tasks can help the person learn and feel more comfortable asking questions about the basics of smartphone usage.

As more people get smartphones and internet access, providing educators and caregivers with digital skills will be vital in democratising education for underserved populations. But as technology continues to evolve, digital upskilling must be continuous and should seamlessly integrate with edtech programmes designed for such communities.

This means identifying the core digital competencies educators need, tailoring intervention to suit participants and creating a continuous cycle of digital literacy skill development. Doing this for educators will also enhance educational outcomes for the children they teach.

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