Online Education in the times of COVID-19 and Beyond – Part 2

Author : Jayasree Subramanian.

What makes it possible for us to consider online education as a solution without taking stock of the situation at the ground level and being sure that it reaches all the learners as it should?

Online Education and the Culture of Exclusion

It is obvious to everyone that the lockdown imposed by the country in an effort to contain the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has caused immense suffering to many from the socio-economically marginalized sections. It has also changed one’s experience of home in several ways not only for the poor but also for those who belong to middle class and upper middle-class. None of this is acknowledged and factored into the recommendations of the state for online education.

In a country where 95% of the population is employed in the informal sector, among whom a significant percentage are either daily wage labourers, vendors, employed in small-scale business units or self-employed, the lockdown has meant loss of livelihood for a very large section of the population. Those who all along earned their living, even if meagre, and lived with dignity are suddenly left with no earnings and are forced to borrow or depend on the largesse from the benevolent or the state. Among them, those who migrated to work have been the worst affected as they have often had no place to stay, no earnings to live on and often no support from the state as they do not meet the requirements made by the particular state in which they work. According to the World Bank, the lockdown has affected 4 crore migrant labourers in India. Within a week of the lockdown there were reports across the country about migrant labourers walking back, often more than a thousand kilometres, to their homes, braving hunger, the summer heat, police brutality and innumerable other hurdles on the way. Almost competing with the number of deaths due to COVID-19 infection, we heard reports about migrant workers dying of hunger and exhaustion, of police brutality, of accidents and by suicide.

The lockdown has altered the home space in several ways – never before were all the family members forced to stay confined in their homes for weeks after weeks, with uncertainties, real and imagined fears and a lot of confusion about how the virus spreads. It is not very difficult to imagine how hard it must be for those living in slums in their tiny single or double roomed houses or huts, to cope with not just the fear of being infected by the coronavirus but to stay cooped up in crowded homes, to cope with the loss of livelihood, economic distress and the anxiety about meeting the basic needs of the family. The lockdown has also altered the set routines in homes, with domestic work stretching over the day and sometimes right into the night: vendors go out to fetch vegetables and fruits in the dead of the night so as to escape being beaten by the police; in a few homes, forced to stay back at home with no work outside and no earning, men attend to domestic work while the women go out to work as nurses in hospitals or as housekeeping staff or domestic help; in a large number of homes women have increased domestic work, making several rounds of tea, cooking more frequently than before and attending to men from the neighbourhood who assemble at one place to while away time.

There are also reports of men squandering money on alcohol and gambling as they have nothing else to do, adding to the economic distress faced by the family. With economic distress at home, children, particularly female children, are at a disadvantage as some of them take up work to support the family. Female children are also called upon to share the increased domestic work. With no scope to go out and play with children in the neighbourhood or meet friends from school, constantly under the vigilance of parents who are paranoid about their children contracting the virus or missing out on education, children experience childhood very differently from how they have experienced it up till now. For queer and gender nonconforming children and adolescents, being confined to a heteronormative patriarchal home can be extremely suffocating and stressful. According to several news reports, continued proximity with no scope for going out as a result of the lockdown has also led to an increase in domestic violence and child sexual abuse across socio-economic classes. Moreover, with family income reduced to a fraction of what it used to be, female students enrolled in private schools and colleges are more likely to be pulled out to save the money that goes to pay the fees, and with luck they may find admission in public-funded institutions where education is free. Changed labour laws are already in place in some states, which mean that people are working for longer hours – maybe 12 hours a day sometimes. Several private concerns including software industries are laying off employees. The workload for those who work from home has gone up, resulting in tension at home one way or the other for a significant percentage of families.

Learners whose family members are facing loss of livelihood and loss of self-esteem as result of having to depend on largesse form the state or from the benevolent, facing hunger, conflict or violence at home or whose family members are among the migrant laborers walking thousands of kilometres, learners whose family members are among those infected by the virus, are unlikely to be in any state of mind to sit peacefully and focus on what is being taught. Add to this list those who are ill, require periodic medical check-up (which is made more difficult because of the lockdown) and medication, which may or may not be available or affordable anymore. The case of children affected by Thalassemia has been raised by those working with them – these children require frequent blood transfusion and with the lockdown, they are not able to get blood transfusion as frequently as they should. There is precious little known about how COVID-19 and the lockdown have affected the everyday life of disabled children and what online education would mean for their education.

Teachers working in private schools and colleges have received a pay cut and some of the teachers in public-funded institutions have been asked to participate in the COVID-19 relief work. A large number of school teachers are women, and the lockdown has only made their life more difficult with increased domestic work, stretched over the whole day; moreover, working from a crowded home, they are deprived of the space and the atmosphere that the workplace provides to focus on preparation for their classes. With increased domestic work, unfavourable conditions at home and increased teaching load on account of online education and surveillance by parents, a significant percentage of teachers would face extreme pressure which may have very serious consequences for their physical and mental health. Given these altered conditions in which people, which includes learners and teachers, find themselves, how does the state expect them to focus on teaching, learning and syllabus completion for those enrolled in higher education and adopt an alternative academic calendar for those enrolled in school? How can we discuss the merits and demerits of online education as if only the site of teaching and learning is changed from the physical location to the virtual space and everything else is as normal as ever? How can we expect the teachers and learners to engage themselves in structured online education with a prescribed syllabus, leading to examination and grading, while living in abnormal times and faced with extraordinary human suffering? What makes it possible for us to consider online education as a solution without taking stock of the situation at the ground level and being sure that it reaches all the learners as it should?

The answer to this question is right there in the history of education in India. Indian education has systematically ignored the everyday realities of a very large percentage of children. Much has been written about who constitutes the normative learner, keeping whose life as a learner in mind the curriculum is designed. ‘Free and compulsory education for all’ does not amount to anything much for a significant percentage of children belonging to the rural or urban poor, or scheduled caste or scheduled tribe, socio-culturally and religiously marginalised background, disabled children, children of migrant labourers, transgender children, children of sex workers and often a lot of girls who have no schools in their neighbourhood. In this sense, the apathy of the state even in this heightened moment of sensitivity to COVID-19 and its implications, does not strike one as something out of the ordinary. Rooted in the Brahminical notion that education is the not right of all but the privilege of the ‘deserving few’, Indian education in post-independence India never demonstrated any commitment to realizing its slogan of education for all. However, it would be important to enquire into its interest in quickly jumping onto the bandwagon of online education even as it acknowledges the lack of internet connectivity and digital divide.

Technocratic, Brahminical, Capitalistic education

There has been a continued attempt worldwide in the last decade to introduce ICT enabled online learning as a mode of learning coexisting with mainstream higher education. Coursera, Edx and Udemy are some examples of this phenomenon where a learner enrols in a course of their choice paying the registration fee and participates in the teaching-learning activities as an individuated, atomic unit unconnected to the other learners. But there are already trials going on to see the effectiveness of online education for K-12 and higher education in the US, which only means online education is more likely to be a reality even at the school level soon, though it may not be able address the social justice concerns in education, will miss out on the advantages of peer learning and lively classroom interactions and discussions outside the classroom.

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In the Indian context too, there are efforts to introduce online learning, and already programmes using a blended learning approach have been operating for more than a decade now. SWAYAM, a Government of India initiative to introduce MOOCs is one such attempt in India. In its introduction to SWAYAM, the portal says “SWAYAM is a programme initiated by Government of India and designed to achieve the three cardinal principles of Education Policy viz., access, equity and quality. The objective of this effort is to take the best teaching-learning resources to all, including the most disadvantaged. SWAYAM seeks to bridge the digital divide for students who have hitherto remained untouched by the digital revolution and have not been able to join the mainstream of the knowledge economy.” Apparently, some of the universities in India have already made it mandatory for students to do at least one course offered on SWAYAM. In the absence of any measure from the state to acknowledge and address the question of access to technology, making online courses mandatory amounts to using ICT as a means to exclude a whole lot of learners from the margins who seek to take advantage of education to overcome poverty and improve their social status.

Cartoon by Nituparna Rajbongshi

That there has been a desire on the part of several players to bring in online education in a big way is clear from the articles extolling the virtues and the inevitability of online education while paying lip service to the importance of bridging the digital divide. COVID-19 provides the right pretext for experimenting with online education. If not now, what could be a more appropriate time to force the teachers to get (marginally) trained and jump into teaching online? And so, it is not surprising that the UGC and the NCERT have quickly grabbed the opportunity to initiate online education, apparently as a temporary measure. Even as the state as well as the private universities and schools are in a hurry to push online teaching, there have been several voices, particularly those of teachers, pointing to the fact that not all students already enrolled in schools, colleges and universities are able to attend the online classes. One of the early reports in a newspaper claimed that online teaching in India cannot deliver, as only 8% of homes with young members have access to a computer with internet connection (Kundu, 2020).

Shifting to online education in a developing country like India poses a whole range of difficulties. In order to shift from face-to-face instruction to online education, the minimum we need to take into consideration is whether the teachers and the learners, who are forced to function from their homes rather than from academic institutions, have the necessary tools to realise the task of teaching and learning in virtual classrooms. While most of the teachers teaching in private universities, IITs, and central universities may own a personal computer, it is not common for a typical college or university teacher, not to mention a school teacher, to have access to a personal computer or a laptop. Most of them do not have access to internet at home. Most likely a large majority of the teachers and students have only a smartphone to work with.

Even if the teachers have access to a personal computer or laptop and also have good network connectivity with a bandwidth good enough to carry out online teaching, it would be difficult for the teachers to see the students, make eye contact with them and know if they follow what is being taught, and in fact know if the students are there at all, because most of the students have limited bandwidth on their mobile phones and switch off the video. Often students are not able to hear the teacher clearly, or listen to the whole lecture, they are not able to respond to the questions raised by the teacher or ask the teacher to provide a better explanation of something because of connectivity issues. Even students who come from upper middle-class backgrounds and own a laptop but live in rural locations face serious difficulties because either they have no network facility at all or have one that is too limited to attend several classes in a day.

Cartoon by Nituparna Rajbongshi

Students from socio-economically marginalised backgrounds who in spite of several hurdles manage to survive school education and enrol for higher education of course face major difficulties with online education – some of them do not even have a smartphone, or cannot afford to take a network plan that provides a reasonable bandwidth. Many of them come from a vernacular medium of instruction in the school and have major difficulties following English even in person. With virtual classrooms, the difficulty that these students face multiplies manifold. And some of them come from homes that are too small for them to hear the online classes without any disturbance. How can the state institutions consider online teaching as a viable alternative to face-to-face classroom teaching unless it sees these learners as disposable learners?

Online teaching in India can make sense only if we can see within the country an India that matters, an India that is entitled, insulated and impervious to what is happening to the rest of the country. And indeed, such an exclusive India consisting of a section of socio-culturally and economically privileged people exists and it is this section that sets the pace for the rest of the country. The only students who can benefit from online teaching are those who are socio-culturally and economically privileged, have high academic ambitions, have full cooperation and support from the family for whatever they want to be or do, can afford to be indifferent to the happenings around the world and have managed to ‘do well’ academically. Online teaching is to ensure that these students, secure in their comfortable and supportive homes, protected from the coronavirus infection and the economic implications of the lockdown, whose everyday life is not majorly affected by the lockdown, and who have all the space and the facility to use their time to focus on virtual teaching and learning, the ‘deserving’, ‘promising’ students, do not miss out on their opportunity to carry on with their academic advancement because educational institutions are closed due to the lockdown.

While online education serves the interest of a select minority of entitled learners described above, it would be naïve to ignore the larger context of privatization of education in India (and also the world over) within which online education gains importance. With more and more private universities and high fee-taking private schools dominating the arena of education, the lockdown due to COVID-19 necessitates the introduction of online education for the immediate economic interests it serves. To understand this, for a moment let us assume that ICT has not advanced enough to support online education of the kind we are able to do now. In such a situation, the lockdown would have meant closing down of the educational institutions till such time as it is safe to reopen them. Students would have lost a semester or a year and would have been left to their own devices to occupy themselves during the lockdown. While school education at the primary and upper primary levels would have tried to reorganise the content to ensure that eventually students do not lose a year, from high school upwards, losing a year may have been inevitable.

For private educational institutions however, not continuing education for a semester or a year would mean losing the profits they make and the money they need to keep their institutions going. The availability of ICT allows private institutions to promote online education so that they do not forgo the money they make by running their institutions. In the higher education institutions, faculty salaries constitute a substantial part of the expenditure the institutions have to incur and should the institutions continue to pay their faculty members, they will be in dire need of recruiting students and bringing in the fees – large or small – that they charge the learners. But not just the higher educational institutions, even private schools catering to the low-income bracket would need the fees from the students to pay the teachers. This explains why there is an urgency to push online education even when several economically better off but academically underprepared students, who cannot cope without the kind of handholding that happens in the classroom, are not able to attend online classes because of the lack of internet connectivity.

The commodification of education ensures that the difficulties students face because of lack of internet connectivity is not taken into consideration, and the ritual of evaluation and issuing of certificates – which is the main interest of a significant percentage of students enrolled in these universities – will go on no matter what learning has or has not been achieved through online education. Online education in India is therefore fuelled by the coming together of Brahminical, capitalist, and technocratic forces and serves the interests of different kinds of privileged sections of society differently; access to technology itself plays out differently in these places. To be more specific, at least in the case of higher education we will have the following scenario: the socioeconomically marginalised students in the public-funded premier institutions are more likely to miss a year or two, because, in the absence of not just ICT but also the enabling conditions that the entitled enjoy, these students will not able to meet the academic standards upheld by these institutions; the economically better off but academically underprepared students enrolled in private universities are more likely not to suffer because of lack access to ICT as the institutions might take their difficulties into consideration in their assessment process.



I would like to thank Senthil Babu, Kishor Bhat, Neeraja Budhey, Kishore Darak, Shreya Khemani, Anupama Pradeepan, and Tulsi Srinivasan for their valuable comments and suggestions. I would also like to thank Nityanand Rao for meticulous proof reading in a remarkably short time.