When I started taking online classes in April, the thought of many teachers being reduced to memes did cross my mind. The familiar classroom experience was now missing. The excuse of no internet connectivity had gained legitimacy for seeking attendance. The sound of crockery banging in the kitchen sinks and household discussions of students were privy to the whole class when mikes were unmuted accidentally.
Online education was initially not taken seriously and the question of conducting an exam was just a laugh away. Slowly but steadily, the pandemic changed the scenario completely. Questions on how long this online exercise would linger gained momentum and I shrugged it off. I didn’t have an answer to that as I was merely an educator.
On July 29, the Union Cabinet had approved the New Education Policy (NEP) 2020, which gave a major reboot to online education. In the new scheme of things, learning would witness a revamp with the introduction of technology and major reforms in school and higher education in India. This framework places special emphasis on digitally equipped students, parents and teachers, with minimum human interface, along with the introduction of virtual labs.
Technology will now be a major aid in educational planning and assessment, including increased access for disadvantaged groups. The plan is also to come up with an ‘Academic Bank of Credit’ that will be established to digitally store the academic credits earned by students. Most importantly, the GDP would finally see an increase of 6% in the education sector. With the NEP putting the spotlight on digital literacy, it now becomes all the more crucial for the system to be well-equipped and inclusive.
Online education in India was never about replacing traditional learning at educational institutions but a bid to bridge the gap between no education and learning to an extent. The Karnataka Government did away with online education for students from class one to five and reversed the order later. On the other hand, the Maharashtra Government, where the schools had reopened on July 15, issued a directive that there should be no online classes for students till class II, and those from class III to XII would not be allowed to have more than three hours of screen time.
We expect online education, which has come in full vigour only post the pandemic, to compete with the traditional education setup which has been large-heartedly accepted since Independence. While we now unfairly point our fingers at online education as the cause of student suicides and non-accessibility of technology, the penetration of traditional learning itself cuts a sorry figure in India.
Our education system has placed sole focus on facts over ideas, closed over open book assessments and prevention of unfair means in exams. The preservation of our ‘educational heritage’ has led to irreparable damage as we cling to the familiar even during a pandemic. Our problems are always in the grey area and yet we complacently find solutions in black and white.
When Tik Tok could reach remote India, why not online education?
There are two main arguments against online classes— the very nature that it is not offline, and the other being lack of access. Ironically, even this online versus offline war is being waged digitally. Entertainment sources like the now-banned video-sharing app TikTok had found their way to remote belts of rural India. According to estimates by Sensor Tower, TikTok had been downloaded more than 1.65 billion times and been a major attraction for teenagers from rural areas and tier 2 and 3 cities, overtaking Facebook.
According to a report by the Indian Equity Foundation in June 2020, the education industry here is valued at more than 100 billion US dollars. The fear of online education replacing the traditional institutional setup also looms in the minds of stakeholders in the education sector, as the amount of expenditure incurred over the physical infrastructure might just drown if the digital learning system in place now becomes the norm, beyond the pandemic.
True, most of India cannot afford digital access—only 24% of Indian families have smartphones, 11% have a computer, 24% have internet facility and only 8% of all households with those in the age group of 5-24 have both a computer and internet connection, as per the National Sample Survey Report on Education (2017-18).
Instead of breathlessly reciting the poor statistics and vilifying online education, why not bridge the gap by making an attempt to provide access? Banning online education is like using a band-aid for cancer. Efficient implementation of the NEP without falling for the rhetorics of obstacles is our best alternative now.
A recent report based on a survey of nine states in May by Swabhiman, a community-based organisation working for the rights of the differently-abled, had revealed that 43% of children with disabilities were planning to drop out of studies due to difficulties faced by them in online education. The consistent inequality faced by the differently-abled on a day-to-day basis due to accessibility and travel issues along with a pinch of apathy was present in the pre-pandemic era too.
Policy changes have to be effectively implemented to adapt to the ‘new normal’ like the creation of curriculum which is suitable for different forms of disability in alternate formats. The circumstances presented by the pandemic coupled with NEP directives could provide the right opportunity to incentivise online learning.
Teachers should be trained for online classes and this might equalise the resource distribution between rural and urban areas. Digital education during this pandemic is an unexpected trial, and while it cannot be achieved at a go we must adopt policies that continue to remain inclusive post the pandemic.
We should enhance the online education system with teaching aids instead of just letting it be a poor substitute. With Google, Apple and IBM all set to capitalise on the Indian online education system, hopes can be vested on the novel course of action. We still need to capitalise on other alternative mediums like community radio and television for education. It’s a long haul but if we are resilient and adapt, we can very well do it and this unprecedented something might just become everything.
About the Author: Vighnesh Balaji is currently Assistant Professor (Law) at JIMS, GGSIP University. He is an alumnus of National Law University Delhi (LLM) and Dr RML National Law University, Lucknow BA LLB (Hons.)