A teacher at one of the colleges in Delhi University had been told to take online classes during the lockdown. Since he was stuck in his native village which has no broadband connection, he was forced to rely on a mobile hotspot to connect to Zoom for his lectures. The problem was that there was only one location in the house, a spot in the backyard next to the cattle shed, where there was reasonable mobile connectivity. So he would conduct his classes from his backyard, until the day the transformer in his village conked off and there was no electricity for three days.
In these unusual times, when nouns like “Zoom” have morphed into verbs and “online teaching and assessment” seems to be the flavour with education bureaucrats, it is important to realise the implications of this radical shift. There are significant issues — technological, social and pedagogical — which need to be thought through before we jump onto this bandwagon.
First, the technological issue. The University of Hyderabad carried out an in-house survey with about 2,500 students on issues related to online teaching. Though 90 per cent of the respondents have a mobile phone, about 63 per cent of them could only access online classes infrequently or not at all. Interestingly, among the concerns raised about online instruction, 40 per cent reported unreliable connectivity as being a major deterrent while 30 per cent cited the cost of data. Significantly, 10 per cent reported uncertain electricity supply as a concern.
These numbers are not specific to a particular institution. Our students at the University of Delhi (DU) have shared similar concerns. And these are students from two of the premier institutions in the country — the situation of students in hundreds of state universities and thousands of colleges could at best be similar, or worse. The Niti Aayog, in its “Strategy for New India@75” report, highlighted quality and reliability of the internet as a major bottleneck. It went on to point out that 55,000 villages in the country are without mobile network coverage.
The technological issues are, of course, interrelated with social issues. In the last two decades, there has been a conscious effort on the part of the state to improve access to education at all levels. From the Right to Education Act to OBC reservation to the more recent EWS reservation, we have seen a concerted effort to bring marginalised sections of our society into the ambit of state-funded education. And this is reflected in the student demographics.
In a survey of 400 students at DU in 2017, we found that 35 per cent lived in villages. The economic and educational backgrounds of the students was significant — more than 75 per cent of them reported a family income of less than Rs 5 lakh per annum while more than 40 per cent of them had parents with less than high school education, making them the first-generation of college-goers. Our experience is that the numbers in recent years are similar or even worse. It is important to note that these figures are for DU — not some moffusil college or state university.
Given the socio-economic milieu from which students are coming into higher education, these challenges are important to factor into policies. And they segue into pedagogical issues — a large number of students are not comfortable with spoken or written English. This makes online pedagogical material that much inaccessible. In face-to-face teaching, these factors are mitigated to an extent by the use of the bilingual communication which, incidentally, we have been using for several years now. Further, the students come with different levels of prior training, which makes it difficult to have a one-size-fits-all approach which online teaching assumes.
The current situation is, of course, an unprecedented one. However, we should be careful of advocating inappropriate, inegalitarian, and discriminatory strategies to deal with it. The issue is not of a few weeks of online teaching and online exams. The real question is whether we are letting in the proverbial nose of the camel into the tent. Once it is there, there is no stopping the beast from taking over. Reduced commitment of the state to invest in public education and promotion of the online model instead might just be the logical result. Or maybe, that is what our education planners really want!
This article was first published in print by the title ‘Some Online Questions’ on April 29. Mahajan teaches physics at University of Delhi