Apart from being a major health crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is also one of the biggest educational calamities in human history. The effect is seen not only in higher dropout rates but also in the disparity with respect to learning opportunities. The shift to online learning requires teachers and students to use personal technology devices like smartphones, laptops or tablets. Students from underprivileged backgrounds have been severely disadvantaged in this process. It is imperative to bridge this vast digital divide. If done the right way, it has the potential to provide holistic learning not just to individuals but also to entire families. Here is a story that shows how this has been achieved in a community of Navi Mumbai.

Born with speech and hearing defects, Lakshmi uses sign language to communicate with her elder sister, Pournima and their parents. Pournima is Lakshmi’s constant companion, interpreter, translator and guide. The girls’ mother is employed as a sanitation worker at Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) and their father is a painter. Lakshmi’s parents cannot afford to send her to a school for the differently-abled and she has always studied at the local NMMC-run school, which her sister also attends.

When the lockdown was announced and schools closed down in March 2020, it marked the beginning of a tough phase for Pournima and Lakshmi. Their school was to stay shut for an indefinite period of time and, being first-generation learners, they had no means to continue their learning journey independently. Unknown to them, however, a little window of opportunity was already being opened. Being a student of class 7, Pournima was enrolled in the THINK BIG STEAM program conducted at her school by Learning Links Foundation in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Once schools closed, this program was to be offered virtually. The primary challenge was that around 50 percent of the students did not have access to smart devices.

The Learning Links Foundation team approached AWS with this pressing problem, which was depriving students of precious knowledge. The perfect solution came in the form of the AWS tablet donation drive. Tablets were gifted to those children from the THINK BIG classes who lacked digital devices for online learning. Since many students and their families were handling smart devices for the first time in their lives, an orientation session was also conducted to teach them to use the tablets effectively.

A recipient of one such device, Pournima was overjoyed to be able to participate in the online STEAM activities and continue her studies. As expected, she was a sincere student, never missing a single session. One day the program Resource Person (RP) conducting Pournima’s class spotted little Lakshmi in a corner of the screen. She was listening intently to what the RP was saying, and nodding her head now and then. Little did the RP know then that the girl was trying hard to read her lips. Taking a chance, the RP involved Lakshmi in the class, too. Initially, the RP and Lakshmi took some time to be able to communicate with each other. However, they soon caught the right rhythm. The RP found an enthusiastic and bright learner in the little girl. Thereafter, there was no looking back. With her parents’ consent, the RP included Lakshmi in the digital sessions and activities. With the use of hand gestures, facial expressions and her dear elder sister, Lakshmi embarked on her virtual learning journey.

Today, Lakshmi eagerly continues her academic pursuits. She also aspires to be a dancer. In her free time, she uses the tablet to watch online videos and is teaching herself different dance forms. The device is helping her experience a whole new world, which is not limited by physical impairments and disabilities. There’s no stopping this little ball of fire now. The world is yours, Lakshmi, conquer it!

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