In Malappuram district of Kerala, father of a Class X student could not manage to get the TV repaired or buy a smartphone for online classes for his daughter. The girl died by suicide because of her inability to attend her online classes. A father of class X student in a village in Tripura’s Sepahijala district ended his life because he failed to buy a smartphone for his daughter’s online classes. In Mansa district of Punjab, a class Xl student hung herself because her father, a farm labourer, could not afford to buy a smartphone for her online classes.
These are not isolated incidents of suicide but closely interlinked with transformation of Education system amidst the Corona pandemic where “Online Classes” have been proposed as the viable alternative. In the past few months ever since the outbreak of COVID-19, almost every aspect of human life has been severely affected. We are exposed to the worst health crisis in decades, which has caused catastrophic changes in socio-economic development of nations.
The novel coronavirus-2019 cases in India is close to seven lakh cases with around 20,000 deaths and the numbers are getting worse with each passing day. We are now the third-worst hit country globally in terms of total Corona cases. In other countries where situation has still not normalised, universities have adopted “Online Classes” as the mode of imparting knowledge. However, Western countries and India are not on the same plane; any comparision or imitation is therefore unjust.
The student community in India has also not been left untouched from the wrath of this health crisis. Schools, colleges and universities were shut down with immediate effect to contain the spread of the virus and the alternative to face-to-face offline classes came as online classes. Are online classes an inclusive alternative, is a question we all need to ponder upon. The experience of past few months suggest otherwise.
According to a survey by student body AISA (All India Students’ Association), 72.2% students of DU could not access online classes because of poor connectivity. Of 1500 students surveyed by AISA, almost 75% of students of Delhi University said they will not be able to sit for online examinations. In an another survey conducted by two professors of Jawaharlal Nehru University among teachers of JNU, it has come out that more than 40% of students have not been able to attend online classes.
More than 70% of teachers believe that online education does not seem to be a better alternative to offline in-person classroom education in terms of students’ needs and attainments or create the conditions for a particularly smooth or fair exercise for the instructor.
“Teachers do not feel that the means by which they have been teaching online allows them to successfully determine whether students have grasped the topics being taught, correct their mistakes, allow for a free discussion with peers, or provide a fair basis for evaluation of students’ performance. They were also overwhelmingly of the opinion that such an online education deepens social and economic inequities between students, and that is unlikely to be beneficial to the student’s future progress in the field, improve their oral communication, or foster their exploration of novel research ideas,” the report said.
The survey was done among 131 teachers from nine schools of JNU who were involved in imparting online education. These two surveys broadly reflects the realities of online classes in two of the top-ranked universities in the country. Now, if this is the situation in central universities in the National Capital, one can imagine how other institutions must be functioning! The ongoing controversy in University of Delhi regarding online exams where students are complaining of technical glitches, multiple discrepancies and lack of high-speed internet is only a reflection of the same bigger problem associated with Online Mode of Education, that is its “exclusionary” nature.
To treat students as a homogeneous community is a mistake, and this is the basic premise on which “online classes” function. In a country like India, where we have horizontal as well as vertical stratifications in the society, Online Education puts privileged group at an advantage position. It’s no rocket science to figure out that smartphones, laptops, and high-speed internet are still a luxury due to economic and social inequalities. Among all, women students, students with disabilities, Kashmiri students and students who hail from rural areas which lack high-speed internet are worst hit.
Public-funded universities in particular offer level playing field, atleast claim to, without making any distinction based on socio-economic status of the students. Students from marginalised and oppressed section of the society can access quality and affordable education in these universities; many first generation learners could come here and study. Online classes don’t do justice to this very idea of a public university. The decision of Delhi University Administration to conduct Online Open Book Exams has invited ire from the final-year undergraduate and postgraduate students who are crying foul over the exclusive and discriminatory nature of online exams.
In another central university in the National Capital, the Jamia Millia Islamia Administration has issued a Notice stating that University would reopen on August 1, 2020, and academic activities including teaching shall continue in the “Online mode”. As far the End-Semester Exams are concerned for university-going students, the latest revised UGC Guidelines which came on July 6 read, “The terminal semester will be conducted by the universities by the end of September, 2020 in offline (pen and paper) or online or blended (online + offline) mode.” Even UGC/MHRD is unsure of the mechanism via which exams would be conducted for final year!
While we all have been concerned with the post-pandemic world and how much different it would be from the earlier or current one, the fact remains our future depends on the choices we make today. The unwarranted obsession with online classes and imposing the same on students won’t do good to anyone, including the student community. The uneven distribution of resources among the masses and social capital an individual enjoys will determine the ability to access education. This is already happening with rapid privatisation and commercialization of Education.
Moving to online classes would lead to status-quoist education in these public universities too. Public universities in particular are supposed to entertain the idea of dissemination of knowledge via inclusive-democratic pedagogy; the “Online Classes” has turned out to be a failure at this front. It’s high time we review and find out merits and limitations of online classes, instead of blind acceptance of the same. Let no student and their guardian die because of this exclusionary practice of online classes.