Ever since the novel coronavirus pandemic stepped into our lives and we were introduced to the term “quarantine”, the spectrum of rapid and widespread online education has gained momentum. A lot of people claim that the transfer of knowledge virtually has a lot of benefits and that it would definitely be a major component of the education world in the future. Agreed, there are no doubts in the fact that e-education has a lot of perks such as extirpating the hindrances of geographical constraints. But unlike the common belief or assumption, I still somehow feel this entire school of thought around online literacy is a bubble that might burst in the coming years; revolutionizing the education system, once again. Well, let me share with you why I think this way and why I feel that online education is not the way forward.
Firstly, inclusivity and connectivity are hostile to online education. While it is imperative to bridge the digital divide, a step toward online education is likely to dismantle the transformative potential of university spaces and usher in learning commodification.
With the imposition of a strict national lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, schools and colleges across the country have been closed since the end of March 2020. Although the government of the Union has allowed states to open educational institutions since mid-October, depending on the local situation, many schools and colleges have yet to be fully reopened. Meanwhile, online classes and tests have become more and more prevalent.
The trend toward online classes and the use of digital technologies in primary, secondary and higher education predates the pandemic, but due to pandemic-induced curbs on physical meetings and spaces, it has gained greater public interest. Among other items, the new National Education Policy announced by the government in July 2020 has evangelised “online” instruments as a game-changer in education and facilitated their adoption.
Online education seems harmless enough at first glance, an easy way to carry on teaching learning when physical classrooms are not viable. A drive for online education, however, not only hides access disparities caused by the digital divide, but also fundamental pedagogical concerns. Online education does not provide a space for active socialisation of teachers-student and students-students. Teaching is merged into a’ product’ with online education and learning becomes about acquiring marketable skills in a neo-liberal sense, rather than about personal or political development.
The different problems surrounding online education are illustrated in this reading list.
Digital Divide and Education Access
The issue of connectivity is the first most evident question about a widespread transition to online learning. In a country where a majority of students lack access to either digital devices, such as smartphones or tablets, or internet connectivity, or both, at any given level of education, online education becomes unviable.
Reddy A et al (2020), from Bheemeshwar, wrote, The National Sample Survey Office Study (NSldata on Social Consumption of Education (2017-18)) estimates that only about 9 percent of students currently enrolled in any course have access to vital digital infrastructure, and immense socio-economic and spatial inequalities encompass such measly access. Therefore, the attempt to make online education an opportunity out of the crisis of Covid-19 poses a serious risk of leaving many students further behind, especially the socio-economically disadvantaged (UNESCO 2020).
The greater the socio-economic disadvantage, the less access it provides. Just 2% of students from the lowest income groups have access to internet-based computers, only 3% have access to home computers, and 10% have access to the internet via any digital interface. There is also similarly measly access for students from scheduled tribes (STs) and scheduled castes (SCs), they added.
Not only are the socio-economic but also regional inequalities in access apparent, digital technology and connectivity differ from state to state as well as from urban to rural.
Rajagopal Devara (2020) highlighted the gender gap in access to online education:
India’s gender gap in access to technology is among the largest in the world. According to the 2020 mobile gender gap study from the Global Framework for Mobile Communications Association, only 21 per cent of women in India are mobile internet users, while 42% of men have internet access (Civilsdaily 2020). The study notes that while 79 per cent of men in the country own a cell phone, the number for women is 63 percent (Civilsdaily 2020). Although there do exist economic barriers to girls owning a cell phone or laptop, cultural and social norms still play a major part. For women, the male-female disparity in mobile usage also exacerbates other gaps, including access to data, economic opportunities, and networking. (2020 Civilsdaily)
Thus, Reddy A et al (2020) concluded that the double whammy of low access and deep digital divide could potentially exclude a vast majority of online education students from fully engaging in and gaining from it.
This sentiment was shared by Ketan K Shah (2020):
The availability of good Internet access and modern-day technological devices is the fundamental prerequisite for the success of online teaching. In terms of digital infrastructure, it is well known that we rank very poor. That India suffers from a digital divide is also not a secret reality. Compared to children in rural areas, children in urban areas have greater but not the best access to these prerequisites. Not everybody in metropolitan areas have this right. Expensive appliances can only be afforded by well-to-do families. In this way, online education is a vehicle for further exacerbating the gap in skills and thereby expanding economic inequality.
In addition, Saumyajit Bhattacharya (2020) stated that “access does not merely imply internet availability.” He wrote:
There are several corners of one’s living space where the data signal is weak in a lockout situation, trapped within the house. In addition, many students do not have unrestricted Wi-Fi plans and have data packs of a small size. For several students in the low-income bracket, many classes in a day may be a considerable expense.
He noted one instance of the gendered dimensions of internet access as follows:
Given, the grossly disproportionate burden of domestic work shared by women at home, the female student frequently has to take on these additional domestic duties during the lockdown; when she is expected to carry on some inflexible domestic duty, she does not have the freedom to attend an online class.
Devara (2020) noted, highlighting the logistical semantics of access:
When going out to work in a family with only one cell, the earning family member must hold the phone (Pandey 2020). How does one determine who gets to attend classes in a family that has, say, three kids, assuming the phone is available? (Pandey 2020). The biggest challenge in homeschooling is the difference of connectivity, from power and internet connections to devices such as smartphones or computers.
As studied by researchers including Sumandro Chattapadhyay and Jahnavi Phalkey (2016) and Ashu Bapna et al, government initiatives to make digital education technology more available to socio-economically deprived sections, such as the introduction of the low-cost “Aakash” tablet, have not been effective in bridging the digital divide in the past (2020).
Bapna et al (2020), analysing the difficulties in resolving the inequalities in online education from the supply side, asked:
Are state agencies really prepared to operate quickly in a fast-moving market, where prices drop rapidly and technology shifts much faster, when they are limited by numerous accounting and procurement regulations and a reliance on external technical/education experts? You know the answer and so do I. I have no intentions to say that online education is something precarious and pernicious to society but just that India is still not ready to witness this digital shift. At a time when the government and society, in general, are burning both the ends of a candle just to reduce the vast disparities and differences that exist today, this idea of online education simply comes as a sword cutting down the thin thread with which we were sewing together the two broken and divided parts of the nation. The digital divide, as we call it, would further strip apart these two pieces of cloth, making it more difficult than ever before to bring back an era of equitable distribution and equal opportunities and growth.