E-learning and the digital divide

Online illusion

Print edition : June 19, 2020

Students of Bharathidasan College attending an e-learning program in Puducherry. Photo: M. SAMRAJ

E-learning, the buzzword in education, has been greatly amplified during COVID-19. But the hype papers over India’s digital divide even as the efficacy of the fundamental premises of online learning, as opposed to conventional classroom methods, are being questioned by teachers as well as students.

IT is now a daily ritual for most of my faculty colleagues to respond to emails from distressed students asking for a leave of absence or an extension of assignment deadlines. Emails from students who are unwell, students who cannot pay attention because of a lack of private space at home, students who cannot cope with the mental fatigue of listening to online lectures for several hours in a day, students in areas affected by natural disasters or those with poor network connectivity, students who are bereaving the death of a family member (not due to COVID), and in extreme cases, students living in a conflict zone with a life or death situation at their doorstep.

Our response to these emails is largely the same: “Be safe. It is a difficult time for you and all of us. Try and attend class whenever these issues are resolved. We will look into assessments at a later date.” I would wager a bet that most of us who have participated in online learning over the past month share similar experiences.

But how did we get here?

The imposition of the lockdown amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many educational institutions to adopt online learning platforms. Many of them have pronounced this as an opportunity to innovate and “reform” education, particularly higher education. On April 10, senior officials in the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) said “various e-learning platforms of the HRD Ministry have seen an unprecedented combined access of over 1.4 crore [users] since March 23”. On April 13, it was reported in the media that the University Grants Commission (UGC) had constituted separate committees to monitor the situation, including one to examine changes in the academic calendar and another to promote online learning. It seemed that despite the lockdown digital learning was taking place across schools, colleges and universities. This assessment was shared by the Union government. On May 17, the last day of a five-day series of announcements of a special economic package, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of the “PM eVIDYA programme” for multi-mode access to digital/online education. The country’s “top 100 universities” would be permitted to automatically start online courses by May 30. Also on the anvil was the proposal to launch a digital learning platform, DIKSHA (one digital platform for one nation goes its slogan), and the DTH channel Swayam Prabha as a platform for students who are unable to attend school. Of course, characteristic of the mood of the announcement, the niceties of how this would be done while being accessible to students learning in the different languages were left to the imagination.

From a temporary measure to deal with a public health crisis, digital learning had thus become a part of the economic package for recovery from COVID-19. The door to online learning, left ajar by the greater access to electricity (with bloated claims of 100 per cent electrification), to the Internet (estimated at 720 million in 2020) and to smart phones because of a drop in their prices, was finally kicked open by a pandemic.

However, it turns out that the PM eVIDYA programme is only a modified version of previously planned expenditure for 2020-21 announced in the Union Budget on February 1. A planned Budget expenditure of Rs.99,300 crore for the education sector was to be implemented in conjunction with a New Education Policy. In her budget speech, the Finance Minister also announced that the top 100 universities would be allowed to conduct online courses without having to get approvals form the UGC or the MHRD. Further, the government has also approved foreign direct investment (FDI) in higher education. It is likely that FDI would flow to the sector via investments in the edu-tech companies, which are eyeing opportunities in e-learning. The hype in e-learning would suit them well. In fact, the increased access to online learning under lockdown reported by the MHRD in February 2020 was based on viewership figures of Swayam Prabha channel (59,000 views a day). This was the very same DTH channel that was proposed to be launched as a result of Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement in May.

The Budget announcement and the COVID-19 package announcement on digital learning (and FDI in education in particular) were followed by reports in the pink press of an ecstatic e-learning industry. Media reports indicated that the ed-tech startups in India, which had drawn investment valued at $39 billion in 2018-19, were projected to grow rapidly. The industry is projected to reach $200-360 billion in the next eight years. It is no wonder that this industry, which had been waiting to make a foray into higher education, gleefully welcomed the new “opportunity” created by PM eVIDYA.

The current learning situation under COVID-19 and these announcements have evoked a range of responses. Many students and faculty members have pointed out that the emphasis on e-learning is happening in the context of the obvious digital divide in India that is based on socio-economic inequalities. Student organisations have protested against the differences that would be exacerbated by this new medium of learning. But just how stark is the digital divide or how unequal is access to digital learning in India?

Divided by inequality

Let us examine some of the infrastructure required for online learning—not merely Internet connectivity—in India and the socio-economic conditions of our population. This infrastructure would broadly consist of the presence of a secure physical space to learn, decent standards of electricity consumption, access to the Internet and the availability of devices such as a laptop or a mobile phone. Even here, one has to distinguish between what a phone, however smart, and a device such as a laptop can deliver to a student. Since learning is not merely a spectator sport in which the student is a passive object listening to words of wisdom thrown at her, but an activity that requires recollection, making connections with things learnt earlier and relating what is being delivered online to the study material that she already has, access to a smartphone alone would not do. A smartphone may be a convenient mode for making a connection, but learning effectively requires a bigger device, possibly at least a tablet.

According to the National Family Health Survey of 2015-16, only 56.5 per cent of the Indian population live in houses made of permanent materials (pucca houses). Even this figure hides the diversity across States. States that report more than 80 per cent of households having a pucca house include most of the States of south India (except Karnataka), and Goa, Punjab and Delhi. More than two-thirds of the Scheduled Caste households dwell in non-pucca houses. The average urban household size is 4.3; in rural India it is 4.7. More than half of all Indian households have at least three persons on an average sleeping in one room. Almost one in three women in the 15-49 age group has experienced some form of physical violence within the household since the age of 15; and 6 per cent have also experienced sexual violence. Incidentally, it has been found that the experience of violence reduces when they are present in an educational institution.

The access to electricity in India paints a similar picture. The National Sample Survey Office report (2014) on energy and domestic expenditure are a damning indictment of the claims of electricity access in India. On an average, four out of five households in India consumed less than 100 units (kWh) a month. More tellingly, nine out of 10 rural households consumed less than 100 units a month. To get a sense of what this implies, according to the World Energy Council, electricity consumption in India is a third of the world average, or approximately three-fourths the average consumption in China. There is also great regional variation; Karnataka, West Bengal, Bihar and Jharkhand consume among the least, while consumption in Delhi (250-270 units) is close to developed world levels. Of course, the relatively higher average consumption of electricity in Delhi, like all averages, hides a picture of stark inequality.

The 2017-18 NSSO report on education provides data on Internet access and access to devices. A little over one-tenth of all households in India reported possessing a computer (desktop, laptop, notebook, netbook, palmtop, tablet or similar handheld devices). Only 4.4 per cent of rural households had any such device. Moreover, the survey revealed that only 16.5 per cent of the Indian population above the age of five had the ability to operate a computer; in rural India this was one-tenths of all households. Just under a quarter of Indian households reported they even had access to the Internet, including access via smartphones or mobile devices; only 15 out of 100 rural households had such access. Just about one-fifth of all Indians above the age of 5 had access to the Internet; among women this was less than 16 per cent.

The presence of the digital divide across urban-rural, gender, caste and region paints a grim picture. The claim that the online learning thrust offers a new pathway through a “technology-driven education with equity” method sits uncomfortably with the reality of the highly unequal access to basic amenities that are a prerequisite for any kind of learning, online or otherwise. And, the unequal access to online infrastructure has an impact on how education goes on, for both teachers and those being taught. It is not surprising that voices of protest against digital learning are already beginning to be heard. Critics speak of the push towards digital learning in an unequal world. Students have argued that this comes on the back of the ongoing assault on higher education. The improper implementation of reservation, rising fees and hostel expenses, reduced funding for public expenditure on education and privatisation of the sector have amplified the attack on higher education in recent years.

Perhaps the only solace is that we are not alone in this. Disparities and unequal access to online learning and difficulties in online teaching have also been reported in developed countries such as the United States and in developing countries such as China.

The conundrum of online learning

Those outside the field of education rarely appreciate the sheer logistical challenges of shifting to online learning. But the logistics are only a small part of the problem. Teachers in colleges and university departments have pointed to the sheer impracticality—bordering on impossibility—of digital teaching and learning in India. This is even if one ignores the impact of differential access to basic infrastructure that inhibits access. For institutions this includes the shortage of online platforms for easy access to teaching material, recorded videos and course content—syllabus and other media. It includes the threat of data theft that the usage of platforms such as Zoom entail. In fact, this actually hinders innovative content developed by teachers being placed on a public platform because the system provides them no credit nor does it protect their original content from being plagiarised by racketeers.

Other critics have argued that physical and social contact and interaction in a live classroom lie at the core of education. The physical space in a classroom represents a secure environment not just to learn, but also to form vital social, cultural, and political associations. These connections acquire greater importance when young people struggle to cope with difficult times, COVID or otherwise. As the lockdown in India proceeds, we will come to grips with some of the horrors and losses that people have faced. There will also be more accounts of online learning from students. Media reports have indicated widespread distress among students from across the country. Students, especially those from poor backgrounds, have been unable to participate in online classes because of lack of access to a network or a suitable device. The tragic report of a suicide by a student in Kerala confirms the extreme stress that children are being subjected to. This incident occurred despite the fact that households in Kerala—rural as well as urban—have among the best rates of access to the Internet and to devices in the country. For teachers this includes dealing with the sheer absence of any real feedback within an online lecture, as well as a drop in attendance in online classrooms. Across the world many faculty members have termed teaching experience amidst the coronavirus infection as “panic-gogy”—an attempt to put up a course online, whilst watching all other interactions—faculty meetings, webinars, mundane acts of speaking to family, friends, and partners—morph into a seamless online warp. Indeed, a sociology professor in Arkansas, U.S., titles her blog post on “panic-gogy” teaching: “Please Do A Bad Job Of Putting Your Courses Online.” The idea being that we need to do less in an online classroom and not more. This is especially useful advice as one learns of exasperating accounts of how online teaching is akin to spending too much effort just to address a void.

Somewhere at the 30-minute mark of a 90-minute lecture, the online class begins to feel distant. May be it is because you are feeling hungry as you forgot to cook in accordance with your online schedule. Or, maybe you were embarrassed by the unclean background of your home being shown to all on your video call. In any case, you cannot do much, as you are now well into your unending monologue delivered to an equally listless audience. You complete the lecture, only to find a flood of emails from students in your inbox.

And, finally, a sober realisation hits you that we are all under duress in a pandemic. But some face the double bind that comes from belonging to marginalised backgrounds/communities or because of the added burden of what is referred to euphemistically as “domestic circumstances”. Indeed, what the ongoing online experience tells us is this: This is not a time to achieve standards of learning that are difficult to achieve even in normal circumstances.

Perhaps, we need to simply get past the next few months without knee-jerk assessments of the way ahead for education. Perhaps our emails to students ought to emphasise the dangers of pressing on with digital learning in an unequal world.

Aravindhan Nagarajan teaches at Azim Premji University, Bengaluru.

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