Akash, a student of mass communication IIMC, is getting a reminder to submit his project, failing in which could even fail him in the assessment. He cannot do so as he doesn’t have a laptop and proper Internet available in his village to do the project. Ankita, pursuing her undergraduate in DU, finds a problem in connecting to the live streaming lectures and says that the video buffers after every minute disrupting her to engage. She lives in the Bundelkhand region, one of the least developed areas in India. Similarly, the engineering students are complaining about the lecture as they cannot understand the lectures without practical. These are some very general concerns of students during the lockdown.
In this lockdown, university students are actually under stress for their academic future as the semester exams are on halt. Different news with the possibility and impossibility of the usage of online means for taking the exam are coming in the news. Yet the pivotal question is not only an exam but the feasibility of any online means of institution-based education. Is it possible for India to have online learning given the unequal access to the internet?
This furthers aids us to peep into the current state of internet availability in India.
Western capitalists found post liberalized India as a cheap market of educated labour who could be a viable option for their customer handling and telecommunication. India came under internet connectivity in 1995, whose growth trajectory led the educational institutions to find a way out for Internet-based examination in 2020.
India in 2020 is the largest emerging market of mobile phones, accounting for more than 10% of the global smartphone market. As per the Statista Research Department Report published in March 2020, India has the second-largest internet users in the world, with 560 million, behind only to China.
But only 34% of the total population had access to the Internet in 2017. The figure also carries a vast gender disparity where the ratio of male and female users is approx. 70% and 30%, respectively. An analysis of the rural-urban division of internet usage complexes the internet penetration and shows the disparity. A whopping 66% of the total population lives in rural India. Still, it accounts for just 25.3% internet density compared to the 34% of the urban population having around 98% internet connectivity, as per the report of TRAI.
This internet division gets highly divisive when factors like geographic location, economic scale, age density, caste-based user ratio come into the analysis. Hence, India could be counted as a free country in the digital world carrying some in-depth social, material, economic, gender and geographical exclusion in the process of growth.
Internet performs based on speed. As per the March 2020 trends of the Speedtest Global Index, India ranks 130 out of 141 nations with a download speed of 10.15 Mbps compared to the global average of 30.47 Mbps. India lags behind other South Asian nations, including Pakistan. The disparity of internet speed exists in rural-urban basis where rural areas still have slow internet availability compared to urban.
The internet shutdown is also an important issue to be looked at as Kashmir, parts in Northeastern states have time to time government implemented internet shutdowns. The most prolonged shutdown of the Internet in Kashmir for 213 days was revoked on March 4, 2020, but with 2G mobile Internet and massive restriction of websites and social media usage, giving almost no freedom of its use.
Just after the lockdown was announced, there was a marked growth in online readership. People started to find alternative platforms for reading books, articles, journals. Private schools began taking online classes, and homework was provided on WhatsApp. Similarly, private universities streamed video lectures for their students showing knowledge sharing has no boundary. It is to be known that the UGC regulation Act 2016 allows higher education institutions to provide 20% of the total courses thought online platform SWAYAM. Various public universities, too, like DU, JNU, BHU, etc. approached their faculty for taking online classes to continue teaching during the lockdown.
This decision received a mixed response, and it was lauded as well as criticized. The issue of online examination proposal of end semesters also ran through desks during academic meetings. Universities are finding a way to take the exam through alternate means and evaluate their students. This is still to reach a consensus between authority and students.
As soon as the online classes and lectures started to take place, various concerns were raised about the online medium. Its feasibility was questioned and its usage was suspected. Many professors and students complained of harassment while conducting online lectures. Right from personal messages to abusive comments to visual nudity, the online platform held female professors hostage to online abuses. One of them said, “While we were taking a video class, the chatbox started being flooded with obscene messages, we could not continue the class afterwards. It was a traumatic experience”.
My personal experience of taking a live steaming YouTube lecture saw a troll attack by different anonymous accounts, which in no time filled the chatbox with numerous anti-Muslim hate messages. This turned all of us cold and even led to an abrupt end of the lecture making it an unpleasant experience.
Zoom app, which was highly promoted during the initial days of lockdown for video conferencing for having the capacity to add around 100 participants, was denounced for the grave privacy concerns. Many developed nations like Singapore has banned the usage of these apps. Another problem that’s being faced by the teachers is the lack of interactive sessions and classroom experience.
Ankit, an assistant professor in Allahabad, shares his experience saying that an online platform somewhere hinders teacher-student interaction. “Because of the digital divide existing between students where some cannot join and use these mediums, we find that it is not justified. I am responsible for reaching out to every student, which isn’t possible by digital means. It can’t be a viable alternative.”
Prof Kamal Nayan teaching Political Science in Dyal Singh College, DU says that “while something is better than nothing in the time of the pandemic, still the worrisome part is it’s not accessible to a group of students. A bunch of students cannot participate, and it is not an alternative for classroom interaction”. He finds the online examination idea absurd and non-feasible.
The problem faced in online teaching is its feasibility. However, there are other concerns also which pose a serious question to the governing authorities of university and commission who are adhering to the online medium for examination and classes.
Firstly, the sudden announcement of pan-India lockdown left people at unrest as many could not reach their homes. Some are stuck midways with no resources and environment that could support the study and interaction. Many of them took shelter with the nearest available relative but have to continue being there in the absence of any transportation. It is not possible to go for any study and examination when one isn’t in a proper place. Anything like this would stress the students.
Secondly, knowing the inequality of the Internet available, various areas are cut short of availing this option. High terrains of states like Himachal Pradesh, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Laddakh still don’t have proper internet connectivity. Many villages, contrary to the government claims, still have scarce or no electricity supply, majorly in Bihar, UP, Chhattisgarh, etc.; think of having Internet to stream high-quality live video lectures when you can’t even charge your phone correctly. The accessibility becomes more problematic with the low speed and highly interrupted internet supply in rural India. Majority of the students in public universities come from a rural background, and in this scenario, the idea of online learning is neglecting their concerns.
Thirdly, owing to the caste-based hierarchical system of Hindu social order, and feudal economic system which led to property accumulation into few hands, a large part of the community particularly belonging to OBC, SC, ST, are highly underprivileged to have and these high-end gadget resources like a good smartphone or laptop which could help them learn and be a part of online teaching this.
Many of them study in public universities due to lesser fewer fees and hence can not compete and own these valuable technical resources. A student in universities like the University of Allahabad, BHU, etc. have an impoverished economic background, and some don’t even have smartphones and laptops. Any move of online examination would be casteist and further classist in its nature, showing urban-centric elite bias and mitigating genuine concerns.
Fourthly, this pandemic has also led to massive emotional unrest. A large number of people are showing signs of depression, insecurity, future dilemma, etc. Students in cities facing higher cases are severely scared too. This severely affects the learning capacity in multiple ways, and hence even with resources available, one could not get the best out of it. The fiscal problem is also on the road with the prolonged lockdown.
Lastly, many courses in academics cannot proceed via online means as they have to complement them with practicals, projects, field works, etc. Courses mainly related to the medical and engineering field have parts of practicals, and hence they cannot do any proper course completion without practicals. Rishabh, a student of MBBS, mentioned that reading PDFs and taking lectures have the least impact without practicals and anatomical studies. We cannot proceed with our course in this way.
There is a constitutional aspect of this decision too, that was also discussed during the lockdown announcement too. Any choice of taking online exams and mandatory classes knowing the division and inequality persistent in society could go on to possibly breach Article 14 of the constitution, which guarantees equality before the law. Any decision of online examination would have a disproportionate impact on the students who, due to any of the reasons mentioned above, can not participate in the online examination and learning and would have to face the discrimination. This argument was put forward by noted legal scholar Gautam Bhatia while discussing the lockdown decision and breach of Article 14 concerning the underprivileged.
This time when around half of the world is under partial or complete lockdown, when the most advanced nations have failed in battling the virus at its peak, knowledge is the only way out. A collective, inclusive, anti-hierarchical, non-classist, gender-equal form of knowledge sharing and building which could encapsulate everyone and become a basis for making the last possible person strengthened should be the model we aim for. Online learning and examination can never be a feasible option under the moral guidance of collective and inclusive knowledge sharing that the universities adhere to, owing to its practical problems.
Universities are one of the rare spaces in the world which are supposed to cut down prevalent divisions and inequality and foster the spirit of inclusivity on all basis. Universities should promote the filling of these divisions structured in society rather than taking any biased decisions which would capitalize and strengthen the existing gaps. They should set the trend of standing together, firm, holding hands of each other so that no one could lag in the pursuit of knowledge, exactly the way the world demand togetherness and solidarity in the current crisis of pandemic. The way it is written in the constitution, the guide of our social goals.