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Learning Rebooted: Online Education During Covid-19 Lockdown Puts Spotlight on India's Digital Divide

Representative image.

Representative image.

While institutes and enterprising teachers are trying to promote e-learning among their students, those belonging to underprivileged sections or living in far-flung areas are finding it difficult to keep up.

Eram Agha
  • News18.com
  • Last Updated: April 3, 2020, 6:16 PM IST
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New Delhi: Most of India is at home these days amid a nationwide lockdown. And many are spending a lot of time online, largely in search of entertainment or education. But, just like the real world, the virtual one too has class privileges.

So, while many universities and colleges are conducting online learning sessions, students from disadvantaged families or living in remote areas may not have access to Telegram, iCloud or, indeed, the internet even in the best of times.

From West Bengal to Maharashtra and New Delhi, News18.com spoke to educators, teachers and experts on how the benefits of online learning have not trickled all the way down.


‘Zoom and everything looks lovely, but...’


Gurudas College affiliated with the University of Calcutta in West Bengal has a large section of students coming from remote areas and backward sections. Apprehending a shift towards digital education, Swati Moitra, who teaches there, conducted a survey in her class to find out how many students were equipped for switching to online learning.


It was a small sample size that showed 69 out of 91 were reliant on internet data plans on their phones. She was told many had connectivity problems and didn’t have tablets or laptops. They expressed to her in plain terms that data usage was limited and could be a financial strain. “I teach in a college where many are first-generation learners, coming from low-income households, who don’t have devices with advanced storage capacity. Now, I hear some teachers are holding Zoom classes and that sounds lovely in elite institutions. But my realities are different considering the students I teach,” she said.


Gauging their circumstances, one of the teachers offered a data pack to some students, but analysts say that is a noble idea and not a practical or workable one which would make the system responsive to the needs of the learners.


Some of the students were asked if they had a family member who could share a device for the class. When no uniform solution emerged, Moitra started recording lectures on YouTube and sharing them on email. “I have students who live in districts with limited net connectivity. You see, having 4G and getting 4G are two different things,” she said.


Moitra expects some learning loss to take place with students who are unable to reap the benefits of technology, and is archiving everything in Google Classroom so that students can go back to it as and when possible.

Tech Tactics


More than 2,000 kilometres away from her, Kanchan Mahadevan from Mumbai University is concerned about the non-inclusiveness of the medium, yet determined to do the best in taking the education to the remotest areas. All her students have smartphones and can access the internet, as well as social media and WhatsApp. Moreover, they have been regularly using technology to connect on class-related matters (such as announcements, project work, discussions).


But, she added that “all students are not in this situation.” Mahadevan was referring to many of those students who live in hostels and had to return to their homes before the lockdown, some belonging to very remote areas. “Without access to laptops or tablets, it becomes difficult to get e-resources and e-libraries. Smartphones cannot always help in this context. Further, students also need iCloud, hard drives, flash drives and other storage devices which they might not get in remote areas," she said.


So, students from economically vulnerable sections are at a disadvantage, Mahadevan said. “But our teachers will make an effort to help such students out by sending them the specific e-resources and scanned copies of texts through email and WhatsApp. Moreover, these students can be assisted with additional classes and detailed attention when the lockdown is lifted.”


The teachers in the University of Delhi also realised that they too have the same problems in taking online education effectively to the backward and remote locations. Swati Goyal, guest lecturer from PGDAV College clips her lectures into small files so that they can easily be sent on email or WhatsApp since many of the students are unable to join Telegram on which heavy files can be easily sent.


“I was thinking of Skype, Google Classroom, Zoom etc to connect with the students in a better way. But then it dawned upon me that it was not going to serve everyone. A lot of students also worry about spending money on data plans, and heavy files take time to download in poor connectivity,” said Goyal.


Though Samira Nadkarni, who teaches at St Andrew's College in Mumbai that gets a relatively more affluent crowd, said that online education still doesn’t trickle down enough, no matter how fancy the institute. Some of her students do not have laptops at home. “It's not just connectivity that's an issue but many of them need assistance and won’t be able to use technology on their own,” she said.


And, it’s not just students who face problems. There are teachers as well who need guidance and assistance. Ela Goyal, who has a PhD in the use of technology in education, is an alumnus of St Stephens College and former professor in a management school, is running independent workshops to train the teachers. “Many of them are not aware of how to conduct online classes; most of them are from socially and economically underprivileged backgrounds and are not aware of such tools,” she said.


They are also a little scared about how they would “look on video, and would the parents of the students be around? Will there be monitoring? There is apprehension that ease of a classroom cannot be replicated in this mode,” said Goyal. Many of them are being trained in how to get students online, and made aware of configurations on the phone and zero expenses required.


Safety and Communication


The teachers are supplementing the online classes with detailed email or WhatsApp communication. Mahadevan is connected with her large class of MA part I level via email. The teachers ensure that the lecture plan, reading list and reading material are communicated before the online class. “There has to be an interactive engagement with student responses to all of this material and questions both through online discussion sessions and through email,” she said.


Learning requires the experiential component that comes from field work, personal interactions, interviews, surveys and public libraries, she said.

“This is especially so for the humanities and social sciences and cannot be done effectively through online methods alone. Students have to struggle without public libraries or field work. Indeed, some of my students who could not complete field work have had to rejig their internal assignment topic to fit in with the restrictions.”


Against the backdrop of these challenges, many teachers believe online education is “not a substitute but an appendage to classroom teaching and other methodologies. It is a temporary aid during the difficult situation that we are facing,” said Mahadevan.


Goyal said that in class ,the teacher-student interaction is candid and a discussion can organically develop, touching upon current political and social events, “In online education, when we share audio files, it becomes a one-way process which can be read out of context,” she observed.


Schools and colleges are a discursive space where youngsters learn to live in a universe of ideas and discourses, said Krishna Kumar , former NCERT director. “The e-peddlers seldom think about this; even among adults, one rarely finds people willing to concede that virtual relationships or conversations are illusory in a fundamental sense.”


Kumar reminds us of theories developed by the communication philosophers like Ursula Franklin and Paul Virilio who warned the world about the digital trap. “In education, the issue is not whether internet services can be fairly distributed across different classes, or whether poor children can have equal access to digital devices. Digital businessmen will happily promise such a future, with quick endorsement by political leaders,” he said.


The real issue, in his opinion, is “whether digital learning is learning at all and whether public money should be transferred from maintenance of schools and hiring of teachers to purchase of digitalia and its upkeep".

Jyoti, a parent of a class 4 student, said, it should never come to that point. She sees her daughter, studying in a school in Gurugram, leave for virtual class at 8.40 am till 3 pm. "Why?" she asked. "The crisis should not open the doors for e-peddlers and schools must resume normally."

Rustom Kerawalla, chairman of the Ampersand Group — a leading school management services provider in India and abroad — is all for e-classrooms and proposes a plan to be pursued in a phased manner with the government rolling out 5G telecom services at the earliest for greater penetration of the telecom network which would have far-reaching effects in the sector.

"As of now, the online education sector currently is not guided by any standard norms or regulations by the government. Further, the definition and framework of online education is lacking and in some cases online education even includes teachers sharing worksheets and study material on WhatsApp and training sessions on Skype," he said.

Therefore, Kerawalla said, it is an urgent priority for the government to regularise the online education sector and define standards and regulations for it. There is a need for monitoring mechanism and online assessment, he added.

In this process, said Kerawalla, it's also important to create a cloud-based system and evaluate how artificial intelligence delivers in online assessment.

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