Why ‘Online’ Is Not the Way Forward in Education: A Reading List

Online education is inimical to inclusivity and access. While bridging the digital divide is imperative, a move towards online education is likely to dismantle the transformational potential of university spaces, and usher in a commodification of learning.

Schools and colleges across the country had been shut since the end of March 2020 with the imposition of the strict nationwide lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19. While the union government has allowed states to open educational institutions depending on the local situation since mid-October, many schools and colleges are yet to reopen completely. Meanwhile, online classes and examinations have become increasingly common. 

The push towards online classes and use of digital technology in primary, secondary and higher education predates the pandemic, but it has garnered greater public attention due to pandemic-induced curbs on physical meetings and spaces. The new National Education Policy announced by the government in July 2020 has, inter alia, evangelised “online” tools as a game-changer in education and has encouraged their adoption.

At first glance, online education seems innocuous enough—an easy method of carrying on with teaching–learning when physical classrooms are not viable. However, a thrust for online education hides not only access disparities, caused by the digital divide, but also fundamental pedagogical concerns—online education fails to provide a space for active teacher–student and student–student socialisation. With online education, teaching is conflated into a “product” and learning becomes about acquiring marketable skills in a neo-liberal context, rather than about personal or political growth.

This reading list highlights the various issues surrounding online education.

Digital Divide and Access to Education

The first most obvious concern regarding a widespread switch to online learning is the problem of access. In a country where a majority of students, at any given level of education, lack access to either digital devices such as smartphones or laptops, or to internet connectivity or to both, online education becomes unviable.

Bheemeshwar Reddy A et al (2020) wrote:

Analysis of the National Sample Survey Office (NSldata on social consumption of education (2017–18) informs that only about 9% of students who are currently enrolled in any course have access to essential digital infrastructure, and such measly access is enmeshed with huge socio-economic and spatial disparities. Hence, the attempt to make online education an opportunity out of the Covid-19 crisis poses a serious risk of leaving many students, especially the socio-economically disadvantaged, further behind (UNESCO 2020).

Moreover, they added:

Higher the socio-economic disadvantage, much lesser the access. Only 2% of students from the poorest income groups have access to computer with internet, only 3% have access to computer at home and 10% have access to internet through any of the digital devices. Students from Scheduled Tribes (STs) and Scheduled Castes (SCs) also have an equally measly access. 

The disparities in access are visible not only socio-economic but also regional—digital infrastructure and connectivity varies from state to state as well as between urban and rural.  

Rajagopal Devara (2020) highlighted the gender disparity in access to online education:

India has among the world’s highest gender gap in access to technology. Only 21% of women in India are mobile internet users, according to Global System for Mobile Communications Association’s 2020 mobile gender gap report, while 42% of men have internet access (Civilsdaily 2020). The report says that while 79% of men own a mobile phone in the country, the number for women is 63% (Civilsdaily 2020). While there do exist economic barriers to girls owning a mobile phone or laptop, cultural and social norms also play a major part. The male–female gap in mobile use often exacerbates other inequalities for women, including access to information, economic opportunities, and networking. (Civilsdaily 2020)

Therefore, Reddy A et al (2020) conclude that “the double whammy of low access and deep digital divide will possibly exclude a large majority of students from actively participating in and benefitting from online education.”

Ketan K Shah (2020) echoed this sentiment:

The fundamental requirement for the success of online teaching is the availability of strong internet connectivity and modern-day electronic gadgets. It is well-known that we rank very low with respect to digital infrastructure. It is also not a hidden fact that India suffers from a digital divide. Children in urban areas have better, but not the best, access to these prerequisites compared to children in rural areas. Not all in urban areas have this privilege. Only the well-to-do families can afford costly equipment. In this way, online education becomes a tool to further exacerbate the knowledge divide and thereby widen economic inequalities. 

Further, Saumyajit Bhattacharya (2020) emphasised that “access does not merely imply the availability of internet.” He wrote: 

In a lockdown condition, stuck within home, there are many corners of one’s living space where data signal is weak. Further, many students do not have unlimited Wi-Fi plans, and have limited size data packs. Several classes in a day can be a substantial cost for many students in the low income bracket. 

Pointing out one example of the gendered dimensions of internet access, he observed:

Given, the grossly unequal burden of domestic work that women share at home, often the female student has to take up these additional domestic responsibilities during the lockdown; she may not have the flexibility to attend an online class when she is supposed to carry on some inflexible domestic task. 

Highlighting the logistical semantics of access, Devara (2020) noted:

The earning member of the family has to carry the phone while going out to work in a family with only one phone (Pandey 2020). In a family that has, say, three children, how does one decide who gets to attend classes, assuming the phone is accessible (Pandey 2020). The major challenge of homeschooling is the disparity in access —from electricity and internet connections to devices like computers or smartphones.

Government measures to make digital education technology more accessible to the socio-economically disadvantaged sections, such as the introduction of the low-cost “Aakash” tablet, have not been successful in bridging the digital divide in the past, as analysed by researchers including Sumandro Chattapadhyay and Jahnavi Phalkey (2016) and Ashu Bapna et al (2020). 

Analysing the difficulties in addressing the disparities in online education from the supply side, Bapna et al (2020) asked:

In a fast-moving market, where prices drop rapidly and technology changes even faster, are state agencies really equipped to move quickly when they are constrained by various accounting and procurement rules as well as a dependence on external technical/education experts? 

Qualitative Differences in Online Education

A sudden shift to online classes, predicated by the pandemic and lockdowns, laid bare not only the logistical challenges of students’ access but also pedagogical challenges of the teaching–learning method when applied to the online context. The inherent difficulties of teaching online to “screens” containing students rather than to physically present students, was exacerbated by the lack of exposure of both teachers and students to the online medium. Unlike in physical classrooms, teachers struggled with holding the collective attention of students with access to stimuli in their own spaces and were also unable to provide individual attention to students who could not understand the course material.

An online survey of teachers by Ajay K Singh et al (2020) revealed:

Many teachers (urban and rural) assessed their own professional preparedness saying that they are “not technically sound” and “have very little knowledge with regard to digital technology.” They wanted to learn more on “managing classrooms virtually [and] creating content to replace classroom teaching learning interaction.” They shared the concern that there was “no proper and systematic training (thus far).” They felt it is critical since “this (ICT-enabled teaching) is entirely a new concept for teachers as well.
… in addition to lack of know-how, they also expressed concern over a dearth of suitable teaching–learning materials, or at least their own knowledge of where to find suitable resources. Teachers across primary, secondary and senior secondary education found it difficult to find resources that are in line with their respective syllabus and medium of teaching. 

Further, they observed:

The most critical concern for teachers was that their students are “not able to understand the topic.” While the digital divide (such as access limitations) could limit those who can participate in online classes, the question of “how to cater to the needs of students with different learning abilities?” also goes unanswered. There is a need for “resources to manage the diversity of learners” for students who “want to learn at their own pace.”

Another challenge with online learning is the degree and nature of interaction. Saumen Chattopadhyay (2020) wrote:

The opportunity for dialogue which shapes the way classroom discussions evolve, and often, it takes a new direction opening up a new vista in understanding will now get somewhat restricted by the options that are available in the popular platforms, like raising hand or by typing in questions without inhibition in the chat box marked Q and A. Though the present trend for webinars indicate active participation, having dialogue in classroom is a different ball game altogether. However, the teachers will now be more prepared for the classroom as transactions become formal and transparent.

Saumyajit Bhattacharya (2020) also pointed out the obvious logistical challenges of “online” for hands-on learning:

There are obvious issues, such as laboratory-based courses. We hear about the possibilities of virtual labs. These are fancy ideas without any base, often proposed by people who have no idea about what goes on in a lab. Are the chemistry experiments going to be virtual, without handling the chemicals at all? This is like learning driving on a simulator without ever touching the actual steering wheel of a car.

Fundamental Shift in the Nature of Education

Technology-based online distance learning is touted as low cost and flexible, with the promise of, as Debashis Biswas (2020) put it, ensuring “individual freedom in the sense that students will learn whenever they wish to and shall be evaluated when they feel they are reasonably ready to be evaluated.” 

But the same individuation has a flip-side. Analysing the “freedom” of students to choose their preferred massive open online courses (MOOCs) as part of their graduate coursework under the new National Education Policy, 2020, Chattopadhyay (2020) argued that “making students sovereign is neo-liberal in its approach” and “would recast the teacher–student relationship.” He observed:

While classroom teaching is a typical example of a service, online teaching, if digitised and recorded, transforms “in-class” teaching into a digital product, which has the potential to become eternally available and to anybody in the world … 

He added:

This phenomenon of the growing dominance of massive open online courses (MOOCs) has led to the unbundling of the education delivery (McCowan 2016). Over time, short-term micro courses will be offered with a clear focus on the learning outcomes as desired and demanded by the changing requirements for skill in the job market. Unbundling is the phenomenon of MOOCs, which is essentially a fall out technology. McCowan (2016) argues that commodification and unbundling are linked. It destroys the idea of a university as a space. It limits socialisation of the students so desirable in a country like India to appreciate the diversity and make students sensitive and responsible, which are supposed to be inculcated not only in the classroom and from reading books, but also outside the classroom, in the campus in the course of interaction with the students and the faculty. The idea of a university as a space suffers a gradual erosion. (McCowan 2016)

In a similar vein, Biswas (2020) contended that the “freedom” provided by online education is only a narrow version of freedom:

… the ongoing reforms in higher education actually curb freedom in thinking and thereby freedom in development of knowledge along the route propounded by the liberal idea of education. These reforms actually create a feeling of achievement of a different kind of freedom that is popular under the existing socio-economic circumstances marked, principally, by lack of employment. A whole myth of freedom is built around a specific neo-liberal idea of freedom. Society is made to believe that it is the only possible freedom and the reforms would enable society to achieve that freedom. In fact, there would be little freedom to teach, to learn and to think differently. The basic purpose of acquiring knowledge is redefined and linked to suitably chosen targets and the society is induced to believe that achievement of these targets actually guarantee the highest possible individual freedom. This entails customising the education system to the needs of industry and governance instead of using it to develop knowledge through critical thinking.

Emphasising the importance of university spaces, Saumyajit Bhattacharya (2020) wrote:

Sure, there are many online courses, which are interesting and of great value. Students or the public in general can access those or learn from those. However, to confuse and conflate such online courses and curricula with teaching in the physical space does the greatest disservice to any meaningful discourse on education, particularly in the context of the immense transformatory potential that university education has for the deprived sections of India. The physical space of the university, in general, and the classroom, in particular, are not merely a space for the transaction of knowledge that can be surrogated in other transactional forms.
… the classroom by itself is a radical and transformatory space for many. It creates an alternative sociality; it is often a space for lasting friendship; it has the potential to break the bonds of the social givens, particularly if nurtured consciously in that direction by the teachers. It is also a space, if nurtured with care, which encourages one to speak out and question.
The gains are not only for the less-enabled; those from endowed classes also get exposed to a larger sociality of their co-students from varied backgrounds. It is, thus, the space of the class that ­enables one not only to learn but also to share, question, laugh and develop deep intersubjective relations. All this is terribly lacking in the virtual space of online teaching.

Not only can the university be envisaged as a transformational space, the online system can be understood to be a restrictive one. According to Biswas (2020):

… the online system generates resistance to social integration and prevents HEIs from functioning as centres for growth of new social thoughts reducing criticality. Campus activities in the HEIs are not necessarily restricted to academic monologues. Rather, the process involves active teacher–student and student–student dialogues encompassing sociopolitical tensions, which influence the thought process of the participating individuals and lead to synthesis of thoughts and emergence of new ideas. The teaching–learning process, instead of being restricted to classrooms only, takes place throughout the campus, even in the canteens. The virtual classrooms of an online system will reduce the space of higher education. This will serve governance by eliminating thoughts not desired by the state.

Mahashewta Bhattacharya (2020) situated the problem in the very nature of a digital virtual space, as compared to the physical space of a university campus. She wrote:

The visual politics of the university changes drastically when the physical space is dismantled and forcefully packed into the few inches of screen space. The ubiquitous equity of campus is replaced by the utter vulnerability of home. While the online mode of lear­ning comes with the catchphrase of “learning from the comforts of one’s home,” it unfairly assumes the home to be the repository of comfort that is conducive to learning. It presupposes an ­atmosphere of calm and quiet where an individual is likely to be able to absorb all subjects with equal ease. Even if one gets across the technological hurdles of device and internet service, they are thrown open to the inescapable torture of the visual medium, the compulsion to make visible the markers of one’s ­background.
The visual background appears as a reflection of one’s habitus. This at once displaces a humongous section of the ­society from the visual equity that a campus space upholds. 

Read More

Can Online Learning Be the Future of Higher Education in India? | EPW Engage, 2020

Indian Higher Education in the Digital Age | Ramakrishna Ramaswamy, 2014

Digitised Learning in North East India | Lahama Mazumdar, 2020

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