The COVID-19 pandemic has brought all academic activities in India almost to a standstill since March. In this situation the government and private players are pushing pupils towards online education. For instance the recent UGC directive has asked all universities to conduct final year/semester examinations by end-September via online/offline/blended mode. This is a double-edged sword as online education is not universally accessible and offline examination can jeopardize many lives. Additionally, successive governments have gradually reduced the education budget as part of the ploy to privatize and commercialize education. The current push towards online education, taking advantage of the COVID-19 situation, should be seen as an integral part of this ploy.
Since the last decade, online education has secured a growing market in India. The New Education Policy also focuses on online education as a means of better enrolment and cost reduction. The USA has already made it possible for students to earn degrees from colleges by paying for multiple online courses. In India too an initiative by MHRD called “Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds” or SWAYAM is already in effect since 2017. Regarding SWAYAM, MHRD stated in a press statement that, “This covers all higher education subjects and skill sector courses. The objective is to ensure that every student in our country has access to the best quality higher education at an affordable cost”.
Moreover, the chairman of UGC also made it clear that not only in the present situation of COVID-19 but also when the situation is normal, online education would be emphasized. He also said that such emphasis would increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of our country. Thus, the main aim of the government is to increase the GER and not to improve the accessibility and affordability of education for the vast majority of India. However, even if we make a “nationalist” move of believing all these claims just because our esteemed government is saying it, a fundamental question should be asked by all rational citizens; can the “Digital India” scheme really bring online education to the majority of the masses? The following are some facts which possibly answer this question loud and clear.
a) On 29th April, 2018, PM Modi made an unfounded claim of 100% electrification of all 6,00,000-plus Indian villages. In 2017 the Antyodaya mission of the Ministry of Rural Development found that only 47% households received more than 12 hrs of electricity everyday.
b) The September 2019 data from TRAI mentions that about 52% Indians are internet users. In terms of internet speed India ranks quite low. According to a report by Quacquarelli Symonds, nuisances like poor connectivity, frequent power cuts, weak signal etc., are common. Despite all these the MHRD reduced the spending on digital infrastructure from Rs. 604 crores in 2019-20 to Rs. 469 crores in 2020-21.
c) Only 24% Indians own a smartphone and only 11% own a computer or tablet. Only 8.9% of the poorest 20% households have access to internet. 35% households in Delhi own computers while in Bihar this number is 4.6%. For families crammed in single rooms (37% of the total population), students cannot be expected to learn uninterruptedly.
d) According to a survey by University of Hyderabad, the lack of devices, poor connectivity, data costs, etc., bar students from attending online classes. From a survey conducted by DUTA, problems like inability to access classes via platforms like Zoom/Google Meet and study materials sent online are common. As per a 2017 survey among DU students, 40% were found to be first generation college-goers and 75% of the students had family income less than Rs. 5 lakh per annum.
Students and teachers are already speaking up against this digital divide. In many higher educational institutes like Delhi University, Pondicherry University, Amity University, Christ University, Central University of Kashmir, the students have raised demands for scrapping online exams though their demands remain largely unheeded. The suicide of a 15-year-old Dalit girl from Kerala due to inability to attend online classes is a recent instance of such tragic incidents that continue to be reported from other states as well.
Setting aside the problems of accessibility and affordability, a completely online education system is also putting the students of marginalized communities and less proficient students into oblivion. Online education, for the lower strata of our country, is nothing but a luxury. This becomes quite obvious once we accept the inequality that we live in. Even if online classes increase the GER in the record for the government to flaunt around, in reality, it is taking education further away from the majority of our people.