Rony Patra Online learning has a problem with “inclusivity” June 2, 2020

I hate logging in to Facebook nowadays. I loathe checking my WhatsApp messages. To keep my sanity intact, I try to stay away for an extended period of time, but somehow, time and tide ensure my dive back into the warmth and glow of my AMOLED screen. 

It’s not as if I have a choice. As an entry-level academic stuck with work from home (WFH), in between the boredom of the present and the anxieties of the future, my phone is my portal to the general murkiness and farcical realities of the world. And thus, every aspect of my professional and personal life somehow melts into a pastiche of chaotic news headlines, that increasingly reads like a bad listicle titled “OMG! You Have No Idea What 2020 Will Bring Next!”

Once I miraculously make my way past the dense overgrowth of memes and political propaganda of all hues, one phrase keeps jumping out at me: online education.

Everyone is at it—schools, colleges and universities are all extolling the virtues of online learning, with a sort of urgent, officially-sanctioned enthusiasm. Despite having been around for a few years now, Massive Online Open Courses, or MOOCs, have finally found takers for their brand of study-at-your-pace lectures.

From Arizona to Ambala, schools have asked parents to ensure their children attend classes online regularly. Colleges and universities have fleshed out class routines for online lectures, where attendance is supposed to be marked. The PhD viva, forever considered the zenith of academic excellence, has moved online. Examinations are increasingly moving onlineEven sports coaching, the one discipline that supposedly could not be taught online, is slowly making its leap into the digital realm, with the Sports Authority of India shortly launching a multi-discipline online coaching programme. In short, online learning has emerged as the lodestar of global education in the age of COVID-19. 

Every time someone starts a conversation about the virtues of online education, I run for cover. These conversations usually revolve around the concept of paperless education in an era coming to be defined by social distancing, and in case of India, the conversation veers towards how online education is set to be the “next big thing” with falling data prices and increasing sales of laptops and smartphones. And educational institutions at all levels keep pushing this agenda to parents, reminding them of their duties as parents, and exhorting them to accept “the new normal” for the benefit of their children.

But is online education so easy to implement all across the board? Simple answer, no.

In a recent webinar organized by the Indian Chamber of Commerce, Dr Ranadhir Chakraborty, Professor of Biotechnology at the University of North Bengal, spoke about how the future of online learning in North Bengal depended on the creation of “inclusive learning solutions, especially for the vulnerable and marginalized”. Inclusive, keyword noted.

In our country, there are numerous challenges plaguing online education. The biggest problem is something every rose-tinted commentator has apparently failed to observe: the lack of requisite digital infrastructure to facilitate online learning in a seamless manner. Even though not many institutions had invested in the idea of creating MOOCs of their own, they have had to resort to emergency remote teaching (ERT) in order to conduct classes, using a variety of video-conferencing tools from Zoom to Google Meet to Microsoft Teams.

But there are numerous problems with this approach. A 2019 report by Pew Research Center highlighted just some of them. Several students do not have regular, uninterrupted access to the Internet yet. And even if they do get access to a device, it might not be a smartphone, or it may have to be shared with someone else.

From a report published on The Print:

Nearly 16 lakh children from poor families studying in government and municipal schools in the national capital are staring at disruptions in their studies without access to mobiles, internet and laptops or desktops, even as privileged students from private schools are taking online classes amid the coronavirus lockdown.

In my limited stint in teaching so far, I have come across various students who suffer from what I like to call “digital shyness”. These students mostly come from disadvantaged backgrounds. They may have heard of Facebook and WhatsApp, but, true to the Pew report, the contact numbers and email addresses they provide for filling up forms or even correspondence regarding classes, usually belong to their parents. And it has to be kept in mind that some of them are postgraduate students.

Let us call it for what it is. At the moment, online education is still a privilege. Only families that have uninterrupted access to electricity and connectivity can enjoy its benefits.

Even if, for the sake of argument, it is assumed that students, ranging from secondary and senior secondary levels to postgraduate levels are comfortable digitally, and in possession of their own devices such as smartphones or tablets, it is seriously impractical to expect that students studying at the kindergarten and primary levels would be given devices. 

Since we are trying to survive in the middle of a pandemic, it is unreasonable to expect parents to centre their lives around the online learning needs of their children, considering their anxieties about survival and finding the next job. And this has led to a lot of psychological strife for parents.

Keeping aside the question of possession of devices, the myriad problems plaguing the online education sector need to be addressed, especially in our country. The chief amongst them is the lack of reliable digital infrastructure, or, to put it simply, the lack of uninterrupted power and connectivity.

For instance, Cyclone Amphan has already shown in the southern parts of the state of West Bengal, it does not take more than a few hours to completely demolish well-entrenched communication networks. Let it sink in that, if, hypothetically, there had been no lockdown at present, hundreds of college and university students in West Bengal would have been unable to appear for online examinations because of a communications blackout.

The big elephant in the room can’t go unacknowledged, and the muddled thinking can’t alone be blamed. It is not as if schools, colleges and universities are doing all of this on their own. The buck stops with the system that has been into shaping the education sector for decades.

Over the past few months, the Ministry of Human Resource Development and the various bodies under it—UGC, NCERT, CBSE, NAAC and so on—have been pushing instructions to all institutions in the manner of a standardized, “one-size-fits-all” approach. It is obvious that due to urgent instructions from these bodies, institutions have been scrambling to hold classes, and organize online conferences and webinars, and even conduct faculty development workshops (FDPs) virtually. These measures are welcome and certainly augur well for holding year-round academic programmes for the benefit of various young faculty members and researchers. But this could be viewed, at present, as a knee-jerk reaction to COVID-19—it would have been much more refined if such programmes had been conducted on a regular basis before the pandemic broke out.

For all the talk of online education replacing the classroom, there are two problems with that line of thinking.

Firstly, not many universities have the capability of delivering degree and diploma courses in online mode. For doing so, they have to apply to the Distance Education Bureau of the UGC under the terms of a set of regulations for online education, which many universities may not be able to do for the lack of reliable infrastructure.

Secondly, it is an exaggeration to think that the classroom will not survive as a physical space. As Satish Deshpande has pointed out in Indian Express, “the public educational institution is still the only space where people of all genders, classes, castes, and communities can meet without one group being forced to bow to others.” And it is this institution that students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be counting on for their progress in life.

At the end of the day, the education sector in the country is a rapidly-evolving conversation in a post-COVID-19 era. Multiple challenges and issues are disrupting the sector. Rather than keep pushing an online-only discourse concerning education, a wide cross-section of stakeholders across all levels of education need to be consulted to keep a check on everything.

A case of any student getting left behind is not affordable at all costs.

Rony Patra is an English Literature Professor based in West Bengal, India. The views expressed here are his own; not of his employer.

Cover Image from iStock by Getty Images.

When he’s not busy watching old cricket matches and reaction videos on Youtube, or marvelling at how bad screenplays in Hindi cinema can get, this guy teaches English literature at a university in West Bengal, besides taking an interest in Indian cinema, popular culture and global media industries. Rony also reviews movies and shows for LetsOTT. He can be reached at, on Twitter at @ronypatra, and on Instagram at @rony.writer.

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