The worldwide spread of COVID-19 has led to a significant disruption in all educational activities across the nation. Educational institutions have been closed since March this year, as a justified preventive measure to mitigate the risk of contracting the virus.
As expected, the lockdown led to a significant loss of "learning time" for the students. Fearing academic damage and indefinitely long learning gaps, schools have resorted to a seemingly effective solution of online teaching. However, over time, the approach seems rather myopic.
Schools – and policymakers – have pushed continuously for this technocratic approach and have paid no attention to the possibility of creation of a digital divide within the students, already struggling with class, caste, and gender inequalities.
An Inequitable Solution
To minimise academic losses, some states launched the new academic year online, and schools started delivering knowledge through video calls, lectures over online platforms like Skype, Google Duo, Zoom, and WhatsApp.
Undoubtedly, the learning must continue to happen, but such an approach appears to be a figment of whims and fancies of policymakers who lack an understanding of the ground realities of internet and hardware access to the students of the country.
Online classes, in practice, have come across as a piece of decorated systemic oppression which excludes the already underprivileged students from the society. The recent case of suicide by a Dalit student is a grim reminder of the extreme privilege that the online classes demand.
The 'no-child left behind' policy is rendered as a toothless document if the education system of the country fails to provide inclusive learning for its students. Any solution which is not capable of being equitable is bound to create the "un-equals."
The current outcome-based education machinery of the country does not differentiate between the "haves" and the "have-nots" and evaluates all the students based on the exact same parameters. And then, the privileged are bound to perform better than the others.
Unequal Access to Resources
As per NSS 2017-18, only 10.7 percent of households in the country had computers, with a wide gap between the rural (4.4 percent) and urban areas (23.4 percent).
Smartphone penetration in the country, too, hovers around 24-27 percent only. Furthermore, the effective availability of the device reduces even more when multiple children in one household have to resort to sharing the resources.
Access to the internet is another critical issue. As per NSS 2017-18, only 23.8 percent of households across the country have access to the internet, with a wide rural-urban divide.
There is a vast difference in internet penetration for different states as well. While more than 50 percent of households in Delhi have access to internet, only 15 percent have access to internet in Bihar and Chhattisgarh. Online classes emerge as a serious challenge for the states lacking enough digital infrastructure.
Access v/s Effective Access
Moreover, access and effective access to internet are different. The former category includes a person accessing internet at any location, including their own home, schools, offices, cyber cafes, Wi-Fi zones, etc., but with the lockdown and subsequent closure of all such internet zones, the effective access to internet is further restricted.
Furthermore, weaker strength of internet connectivity and patchy networks in some areas cannot be overlooked either.
In all certainty, the access to internet practically excludes a significant proportion of the students from participating in the online classes leading to major implications for the non-participating students and causing grave damage for the government's no-child left behind policy.
Different Challenges Faced by Students and Teachers
With already a small proportion of households having requisite digital support for online classes, there are specific issues for households with one device and multiple children.
"If there are multiple children in a family and their time table clashes, it becomes an issue for the children because only one of them can attend the class then," said Surbhi, a teacher at a school in Panipat, Haryana.
Irregular power supply, too, leads to disruption in the online classes.
Surbhi, who conducts her lecture over Zoom, further said, “Sometimes, network and power-cuts also cause an issue, especially with these recurrent rains. This leads to a rise in call drops, and I spend a considerable amount of my class adding students back to the lecture again and again.”
The schools generally merge more than one class, and this increases the pupil-teacher ratio per lecture.
"I teach two subjects, and one of the classes has 80 students. It is difficult to manage this class, and I often end up spending time scrolling through the screen to see each of the 80 students," Surbhi added.
Additionally, the housing accommodation of some students does not offer an environment conducive to learning. 37.1 percent of the country's population lives in houses with one-room.
It is challenging to experience quality learning under such constraints as it can impact the attention span of the child. Such classes often demand adult involvement, which itself is a luxury not all the students experience.
Challenges For Differently-Abled Students
A pandemic hits different sections of society differently. While some are fortunate enough to have adult support at home, others, like the children of the migrant workers, have no choice but to fend for their survival.
As a result, these students are bound to be left behind in the learning curve, and there is a high likelihood of them eventually dropping out.
Online classes also pose a serious challenge for differently-abled students. While educational experts have stressed the importance of mainstreaming the differently-abled students with other students, it is difficult to do that in online classes.
Teachers will have to devise specific lectures and utilise dedicated platforms for them, and this will undo the years of mainstreaming efforts by the educationists across the country.
Moreover, the entire system of online classes leaves little scope for the teachers to address student individually, and can push the already stressed students to the verge of a mental collapse.
Wider Coverage, Leave No-Child Behind
India has more than 25 crore school going students. Providing a one-size-fit-all solution is a mammoth task. Localised solutions based on the specific needs of the students need to be generated.
States like Kerala have launched their television channels for students and is arranging projectors and digital classes for students lacking access to devices and internet. Meanwhile, Ladakh is making use of All-India radio.
A school in rural Jharkhand is using loudspeakers to teach students in their villages. Delhi has used a combination of SMS and IVRS technology to send activities to students.
Delhi also runs online classes for secondary and higher secondary classes. The education minister of the state, Manish Sisodia, has claimed that 9 lakh students have benefitted by this move, yet Delhi has more than 16 lakh students in government schools.
While some argue in favour of being able to reach at least half of the student population, but the repercussions for those who are excluded from this ill-planned and biased system of online classes are incomparable, and definitely cannot be ignored.
The problem of exclusion is a pertinent one, and persistent local solutions need to be developed to ensure inclusive learning. Governments must develop a mix of different methods, but essentially make sure that each child has access to knowledge.
Judiciary, too, has an indispensable role in ensuring the maintenance of equity across such government initiatives. The courts must ensure that a child's right to education is not violated.
The governments across the states, if they continue with online classes, must provide subsidised internet plans and gadgets for the students who cannot afford it, and make learning available through different mediums like YouTube, radio channels, Doordarshan amongst others.
And, under no circumstance, should the school resume its normal schedule post-lockdown without a detailed in-class revision of the content covered during these online classes.
(The authors are students of doctoral programme in Innovation and Management in Education at IIM Ahmedabad. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)