Online Teaching exposes the Inequality between the Rich and the Poor

While moving lessons online may appear to offer the advantage of greater accessibility, that only applies to the people who can get online and COVID-19 has highlighted the depth of the digital divide and how complex and multi-layered that is. Online education may not be the most inclusive solution. Lack of supervision in on-line learning means the results for those relying on online lessons will vary depending on the home environment.

It is not just the divide between those who do and do not have access to the internet, but those who are and are not digitally-literate.

This might not seem to be such a big issue for the urban areas but it is a gigantic problem in the less urban and more rural areas of India.  School as an institution is more than just a site for formal education for the most vulnerable. It is a place where they can get health and food. The impact of COVID-19 on primary and secondary education has not only exposed the existing gap between the richer and poorer learners but has shown that this gap is likely to increase with every passing day.

In the case of higher education, colleges and universities have persistently relied on a classical Campus-Centric-Model. Simply put students and the faculty must converge to a central location where they engage with each other in classroom-based learning activities with libraries and related support services. The hosting campus may also provide housing, food, health and other support services. In recent decades, an increasing range of non-teaching services designed to attract and retain students has been introduced through big investments. Institutions have attempted to deliver a combined package which has included – instruction, support services and experience – in exchange for tuition and fees.

Over the years, remote learning platforms, correspondence courses, instructional television and, more recently, the move to online education have tended to be minor appendages at most institutions of higher education. Only handfuls have operated both in-person and significant online platforms targeting different market segments. Such a model has been remarkably resilient in responding to external challenges.

However, the onset of COVID-19 in early 2020 has put this Campus-Centric-Model under stress as never before. Campus classes were moved to online platforms as institutions closed abruptly in March. Courses and faculty conferences, career counselling and related support services were fully delivered online. Rather than serving a few non-residents with under-scaled remote formats, online learning courses were hastily cobbled together by ill-prepared faculty and staff. Despite the good intentions in responding to the pandemic’s assaults, the response did not go well.

As of date, the primary and secondary school-education has commenced entirely in the on-line mode. Very many government schools have not been able to offer online lessons in the absence of both hard and soft infrastructure. In case of higher education, most universities have deferred the start of the new academic year. In case of higher technical education, the on-going lessons have been fully moved to on-line model. With the exception of some premier management institutes the fresh students entering technical higher education have yet to start their lessons and the new academic year in any mode.

For the academic year 2020-21, it is uncertain, as to what proportions of institutions of higher education are committed to – entirely and primarily in-person instruction; entirely and primarily online instruction, mixed models of in-person and online instruction and those which remain undecided to their ‘open or close’ dilemma. Full online instruction will minimise or eliminate revenue streams, including room and board, plus all other non-instruction activities that comprise the campus experience. Full online instruction is a poor substitute for a rich residential experience. Students will be the first to demand refunds.

Lack of connectivity is going to be a critical question facing the post-COVID-19 India. Estimates show that more than 50% of students in India, from childhood to university, don’t have access to the internet at all. Teachers also need supporting as they need to move from traditional classrooms to virtual ones. The quality of education delivered digitally is being questioned in a number of countries.

Post-COVID India can expect the inequality in education to widen between different social classes.

(First published 21 Sept 2020)

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Published by

Mukul Gupta

*Educator, researcher, author and a friendly contrarian* Professor@MDIGurgaon

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