Online mode of education, which was initially incorporated as a temporary alternative to deal with social distancing, is here to stay. We’re privileged to have it in our lives, it has helped us function for months now, helped us continue with our studies, our work and kept us connected at large but now, it has been more than 12 months of living with it, will perhaps stay longer and it is high time we delve deeper into the nuances of it.
The disparity of access to resources is, unfortunately, an age-old conversation in India. The online mode of education reflected the facade of a digital India.
A silent peril seems to have crept up into our conscience so seamlessly that it now is an internalized conception, affecting only the ones on the other side of the track.
A physical classroom would have provided for an amiable environment of communication, where students would be exposed physically, getting to know each other better, interacting and expressing themselves more fruitfully.
This social distance might have worked brilliantly for the ones who enjoy staying socially aloof, comfortable being on mute, almost like they don’t even exist. But the question is, how do the people who are forced to feel left out perceive this entire situation?
Mariya Tudu, a postgraduate student in the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, belongs to the Santhal community and is based in Bihar. She felt painfully left out not just because she lacked technological resources but because of the lack of confidence that her institution and classmates could provide, to make her feel more at home.
Education is meant to enrich our souls, ignite the fire of knowledge within us but if that same education becomes a tug of war, between representation and consciousness, participation and cognizance, it becomes grossly suffocating for students to continue with their studies.
Mariya states “My father never heard of IIMC, studying here is a huge milestone for me but I think I had much more to give, much for to take had this been in an offline mode especially in terms of practical education.” When asked if she ever felt conscious of her background or language, or feared judgements from peers, she said, “Of course I fear judgements. In online classes, you are just a voice and what you say, nobody knows what lies beyond- your backstory or baggage. Students don’t see each other.”
Her statement, “Students don’t see each other” stayed back with me.
The online form of communication indeed allows people from across the country to come together and become a part of something collectively but that togetherness, that participation per se, is mostly restricted to people who are confident, comfortable and with the best resources available at their disposal. As much as students who actively participate should feel good about themselves for doing so, students who ‘cannot’ must be embraced and seen.
It is a cardinal responsibility for every institution to institutionally promote an atmosphere that promises students equality in recognition of their identities, strengths, and talents.
One might fairly argue that how can such active participation be expected from all students virtually? Maybe that is technically impossible, but it is possible to advocate for an inclusive space that embraces every student to feel like they belong.
Nandini Pandit, another student at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication, hails from Jharkhand and is aware of her strengths and weaknesses. As much as she is confident interacting in class, she feels her language becomes a barrier when she tries to participate in longer conversations. Nandini adds, “I wish I had met more people earlier, during my undergrad days who would speak English so fluently so that I could have worked on myself better.” A person’s past experiences, cultural background, holistically form them as one personality and it is so important to acknowledge individuals for their little growths and intimate battles that no one knows about.
Mariya’s words are universal; every individual from minority communities don’t just enrol themselves to institutions but become a beacon of hope to their entire community that looks forward to her success, which will amplify their daily struggles.
What Maria experiences, is an example of an acute digital divide. The digital divide refers to the gap between demographics and regions that have access to modern information and technology and those that don’t or have limited access.
The digital divide is backed by socio-economic inequality and is a grave reality of our country.
Students from remote areas have constantly faced network issues, got disconnected from not just their classes but from an unforgivingly ruthless rat race. Presently, with board exams getting postponed and online exams becoming a funny joke, students might be occasionally having a good laugh but a couple of years down the line, the incompetence to produce certain skills that are being taught presently, like usage of integrated software or internet-based websites, will have a direct impact on their careers.
A Times Of India report dated January 6, 2021, says, “The lockdown will lead to an increase in dropout rates amongst students residing in the rural and semi-urban areas. Despite the rise in wireless users in recent years, semi-urban and predominantly rural India are miles apart in their online presence (27 subscribers to 100 people in rural areas, according to the 75th National Sample Survey of India). “
In a time of technological advancements, more and more corporations should join hands to establish machinery in remote areas that will increase connectivity.
In the current situation in India, online classes are only possible for a privileged few.
Digital literacy needs subsequent attention. It is evaluated by an individual’s grammar, composition, typing skills and ability to produce text, images, audio and designs using technology.
Digital literacy is also hugely impacted by a person’s societal cognizance, cultural exposure, and accessibility of resources. Inability and technical trouble to seamlessly connect with peers, companions, students, colleagues via digital methods can cause huge digital anxiety. This anxiety cannot be overlooked especially now that young students and aged professionals are using it. They can easily find it baffling which will, in turn, cause huge mental stress.
It can be simply tackled if institutions and organizations conducted a plethora of preparatory sessions to intimate the people associated with them about the functionality of applications that would be in regular use.
When different national or regional institutes began their online classes, very few, almost countable organizations took the effort to educate the faculty and students collectively about how to use technology conveniently and easily. The pandemic did throw us into a pool of unusual situations but by simply helping each other, educating each other without an ounce of condescension in our tone, we could have created a much better and kinder environment. As people, who are a part of the system, it is our responsibility to unlearn our arrogance and begin active advocacy for more inclusive spaces especially amidst the pandemic that has caused so much distress to individuals already. Everyone who unlearns exclusiveness and learns compassion, kindness contributes to making the world an empathetic place to live in.
The resolutions are many, the solutions are also available. The question however is, how many more Mariya(s) will have to struggle before institutions can finally see us?