Is online education catering to the needs of a chosen few?
Those students who have facilities to attend online classes face barriers in terms of unavailability of physical space, which is equally applicable to teachers who are supposed to conduct online classes from their homes.
By Vidya Hattangadi The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the worldwide education system. Schools and universities haven’t faced this level of disruption in generations. The new system of education is online lectures, from nursery to PG level. Learners, teachers and families are at the heart of the new education arrangement. However, this alternative medium has also brought to the fore some stark realities of Indian society characterised by social disparities in terms of availability of resources to all students in metros as well as rural India. It appears that digital initiatives are not monitored. The digital divide between rural and urban and rich and poor shows a yawning gap.
The transition from classroom to online faces a big problem; according to the most recent data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) of the US, 14% of children aged 3-18 don’t have internet access at home. More than 9 million schoolchildren will face difficultly completing assignments online. The biggest problem is in households where multiple children are studying and have access to only one smartphone with limited data pack; how can children do justice to attending lectures?
Students and teachers also have their own struggles while accessing these online platforms. Due to financial constraints, students are not able to access the internet, and are devoid of electronic gadgets such as laptop, phone or computer or even radio and TV. Those students who have facilities to attend online classes face barriers in terms of unavailability of physical space, which is equally applicable to teachers who are supposed to conduct online classes from their homes.
Given the great difference in the infrastructure across states in terms of the internet and allied facilities, it appears to be a huge task for state governments. In addition, NGOs that support the weaker sections of the society in terms of health, education and livelihood and also collaborate with governments are facing a huge financial crunch as most of the funds are being diverted to tackle the pandemic.
Quality of the content is not at par: Teacher-student relationship can be best established in a classroom only. The interaction and the questions a student asks the instructor in the class cannot happen in an online interaction. As a teacher, I stress on the fact that virtual learning offers a good substitute to classroom learning in the time of emergency, as the current one, but it cannot replace the classroom.
Technology has been considered central to the reform of school education and has gained exceptional impetus during this pandemic. It is being perceived as a solution to fight all education-related issues, hence the hurry to transfer classrooms into the virtual world without taking into consideration the reach to all learners.
In a country as diverse as India in terms of regional, linguistic, caste, class and gender, and socioeconomic status, the school system is also characterised by stratification from elite to low-fee private schools as well as government schools, which creates a plethora of issues about specific educational, psychosocial, emotional and financial needs of students as well as teachers based on gender, caste, class and socioeconomic status.
What is worst in the current situation is, from politicians to bureaucrats to private institutions and deemed universities, all are concerned with completing the syllabus, assessing students and conducting entrance tests for medical and engineering courses through online mode in a haste, ignoring the issues and concerns of the side-lined section of the society.
When only 24% of households of students in India have internet access—in urban areas, 42% of households have access to the internet as compared to 15% in rural areas—this online education is catering to the needs of a chosen few. Isn’t this a grave issue?
Why can’t we learn some lessons from countries like Syria, and Kenya and other African countries that have faced several political, economic and natural disasters such as conflict, recurring refugees and recurring epidemics like Ebola? They have the experience of making provisions for education of children during difficult times. Over the years, they have developed policies to keep the schooling of students going. There is evidence to show that for children belonging to disadvantaged groups, low-tech mediums such as radio and TV are useful.
The experience of tackling the Ebola crisis has helped Sierra Leone—a country in West Africa—to prepare a better strategy to address Covid-19-induced educational disturbance. The country has implemented a plan to provide education to its children which includes radio broadcast as well as distribution of pen, pencil and books to students. With 80% mobile phone penetration, the country is trying to capitalise on it by developing a mobile phone-based educational intervention. Let’s replicate their model.
We cannot miss the point of providing equity and equality in education as per our Constitution. The Indian Constitution aims to provide equality of education opportunities to all the citizens irrespective of caste, class, gender and religion. Article 29 (1) provides for equal access to educational institutions maintained by the State without discrimination on grounds only of religion, race, caste, language or any of them. Similarly, the Right to Education Act 2009 mandates to provide equitable quality education to all the children from six to 14 years of age. But the fact is that people from weaker strata of society are left high and dry.
I conclude my point stating that while the government is making provisions for online learning or planning to resume offline on-campus schools post-Covid-19, a serious thinking is needed at all levels; inclusivity is lost in virtual lectures.