Out of class: Online courses exclude many
Government authorities seem to believe that teaching online is a smooth solution to the disruption of classes caused by Covid-19. The University Grants Commission, which is expected to be attuned to the difficulties of educational institutions and of students, has proposed that all universities complete up to 40 per cent of their courses online during this break in the academic session. Its peculiar myopia overlooks, in the first place, the problems of internet connectivity in remote areas, and even that Kashmir has lacked access to the 4G network since last August. It is not just internet connectivity though. A national survey has found that a pitifully small fraction of families have computers at all. Teachers all over the country have objected to online classes, because that would create a ‘digital divide’ among students. It is not as though the UGC is unaware of this. The awareness informs its suggestion that the 40 per cent cap would not apply to institutions with an accreditation of 3.01, those considered by the government among the 100 best educational institutions, and all government-run open universities. Does this imply that the students in the 100 best institutions all come from households with computers and good connectivity? If so, then the UGC’s understanding of merit in learning is unnervingly skewed.
It does not need the Unesco to warn Indian policymakers that online courses will exclude numerous students — which it has done; the common sense of teachers is quite enough. The Delhi government’s decision to begin online lessons in government schools in April, for example, created enormous difficulties, ranging from the students’ lack of wherewithal to increasing the teachers’ workload. The teachers become responsible for communicating with every student and make online teaching possible. But without the immediate, face-to-face communication between teacher and pupil in school, the learning experience suffers immeasurably. Many private schools in the country have reportedly begun online classes anyway. That, again, calls for the engagement of the parents, either to help their children navigate online resources or simply to ensure that the child is paying attention. Surely the government and its agencies need to think harder about what is best for students of all ages in this huge country at this difficult time? There can be no shortcuts to either learning or inclusivity.