Online education comes in shades of grey. In this article, educators, Prashanthi Karyala and Sarita Kamat, bring the voices of teachers, students and parents from across the country to the fore, as they highlight the good, the bad and the ugly faces of online education in India, and the need for inclusive education policies.
With educational institutes closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the government has been encouraging online education to achieve academic continuity. Most high-end private and public institutions have made the switch smoothly using online platforms such as Zoom, Google classrooms, Microsoft teams, etc., while many still find it a herculean task. The challenges of online education are multifaceted. It is time that we Indians, as a society, understand the realms of online education – in India, for India.
Online education allows for learning something beyond the norm. A learner has access to unlimited topics and global experts in niche subjects – something otherwise not affordable or imaginable for many. Online programs allow people of a wide age group to learn at their own pace, without inhibitions, and without compromising on their other responsibilities.
With the emergence and spread of COVID-19 in India, online education has trickled down to the most basic level — schools and colleges! When asked about their experience with online teaching, a student from a college in Bengaluru said, “The online option is a need in this pandemic situation. It has brought education to us without us going anywhere, and it is more flexible”. Probably, students are finding it a welcome change from strict schedules and long-distance commutes to attend classes. For some others, who find learning in large classes intimidating, this may be a less stressful option. Many teachers are making the best of this situation by exploring new methods of teaching and assessment.
This is encouraging. But the moment online education moves from an optional to the only form of learning, and that too long term, the bad and the ugly slowly become evident. India is beginning to get a taste of this now.
Using the internet for entertainment is common, but for online lessons is a big challenge. Teachers may not be well-versed in creating digital content and conveying it effectively online. A sudden expectation from them to upgrade, and from students to adapt, is unfair.
Body language and eye contact, which are important cues for the teacher, are difficult to perceive in an online class. “I do not receive continual feedback in the form of students’ reactions during online sessions, which reduces the effectiveness of teaching”, says a college teacher in suburban Mumbai. How many students have paid attention in a class? Of those, how many understood the lesson? Is the teaching pace alright? Are some students getting left behind? These questions arise even in traditional classrooms, but they are harder to address in online classes. A parent of an 8‑year-old attending a private school in Gurgaon says, “There shouldn’t be online classes for such young kids. Their concentration span is small and they do not pay attention after a while.” The 8‑year-old added, “I hate them (online classes)!”
Even college students seem to value the in-class physical learning experience much more than a virtual one. Many acknowledge that phones can be very distracting. In addition, science and technology programs often include hands-on laboratory sessions, dissertation projects and field trips to complement theoretical studies. This aspect of learning is severely limited in online education.
Finally, education is not just about subject knowledge but also about developing social skills and sportsmanship among the students, which is built over years. Relying solely on online education may hinder the holistic development of children, and many may underperform later in their professional and personal lives.
While India enjoys a wide geographic and cultural diversity, it also suffers from a huge socio-economic divide. Only a small part of the Indian population has access to online education right now. Interrupted power supply, weak or non-existent internet connectivity, and unaffordability to buy necessary devices are major concerns. “In a Class of 40 students, after two months of online classes, around 20 students regularly attend class with whatever device and connection they have. Around 5 – 8 students are completely absent to date and the rest are fluctuating”, says a school teacher in Ratnagiri in Maharashtra. A teacher in a government-aided school from the small town of Chamba in Himachal Pradesh says, “It is a frustrating experience to engage students of lower classes in online mode. There are network issues on both teachers’ and students’ ends”.
To deal with internet connectivity and device availability issues, ‘classes’ in many places are happening via sharing of videos by teachers over WhatsApp or YouTube so that students can watch them at their convenience. This too, however, comes with difficulties in understanding the lessons and promotes rote learning. The same is true of pre-recorded sessions aired on the television (e.g., Swayam Prabha DTH channels) and radio (audio lessons, through All India Radio), although they do cater to a wider student population that cannot avail live online classes.
That is not all. With limitations of livelihood in a family, the first ones to receive a blow are often girls. In a recent survey of 733 students studying in government schools in Bihar, only 28% of the girls had smartphones in their homes, in contrast to 36% of the boys. These smartphones almost always belonged to male adults, often being lesser accessible to girls than boys, and half of these families could not afford internet data packages. Therefore, lessons aired on television were the main option for a majority of the students participating in this survey. However, girls were found to spend a disproportionately longer time on household chores than boys, which often overlapped with the time of telecast of these lessons. Such gaps in education could worsen the already wide gender gap in employment in India.
Students with disabilities are among the most dependent on in-person education and hence least likely to benefit from distance learning. A survey by Swabhiman (an NGO working mainly in Odisha), in association with the National Centre for Promotion of Employment for Disabled People, indicated that 73% of the students with disabilities had concerns regarding the availability of study material in appropriate formats. Also, 79% of their teachers were apprehensive about teaching effectively without the use of touch to students with learning disorders, autism and low vision. The lack of effective education may further aggravate the high dropout rates of these children from schools (nearly 50% pre-COVID) in developing countries.
Uniform and effective online education in India — what is being done and what more is possible?
There is a global recognition of the need for inclusive education policies during the pandemic. To make online education more effective, accessible and safer, various online resources (links listed below), training programs and schemes have been developed by the Government of India for students, teachers and educational institutions. The teaching community has come together to form a nationwide informal and voluntary network of teachers, called the Discussion Forum of Online Teaching (DFOT), to discuss different aspects of online teaching, and create repositories of essential resources.
Cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) could open new possibilities for innovative and personalized approaches catering to different learning abilities. IIT Kharagpur has collaborated with Amazon Web Services to develop the National AI Resource Platform (NAIRP), the future possibilities of which include monitoring eye movement, motion and other parameters for better teaching and learning. Google has also indicated future support for AI-based education in India.
Online education opens up a lot of possibilities for students and teachers alike. Yet, it may also widen the inequalities in the socio-economic fabric of India. All our policies and interventions with regard to online education should strive to be inclusive. Good vision, sincere efforts and time will show India the way ahead.