India: Problems of digital divide in education during pandemic

Representational Image

Arunesh Babu

On 7 April 2020, students of the Pondicherry Central University took to twitter the issue of online classes and assignments, which created a divide amongst the students. They trended the hashtags #StopDigitalDivide and #SuspendOnlineClasses which were retweeted by hundreds of twitter handles include students, faculties and activists.

Due to the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, universities and colleges across the globe were shut down. There emerged a phenomenon of delivering lectures online from universities belonging to the first world nations. Having brought up in such pedagogic space, facilitated with educational tools, the online classroom method was productive and the students are comfortable. The problem arises when the third world nations started mimicking this phenomenon, to push their students towards productivity.

In a third world country with 269 million citizens below the poverty line, having students unprepared for the digital classrooms, it is highly inefficient to pass circulars during a lockdown scenario to implement online classes. Stuck in red alert zones, students suffer without proper Wi-Fi network or 4G internet.

Vice-Chancellor of Jadavpur University, Suranjan Das in his article, cautions these dangers of the digital divide in an Indian context: “I am opposed to creating any digital divide among my students in the name of teaching through digital platforms. Teachers must keep in mind that our university has a heterogeneous composition in terms of students with many coming from villages, having limited or no Internet access. We should not be doing anything to make those students feel they have been left out.”

This gives an average scoring middle or upper-class student an unfair advantage over even a top-scoring BPL student. It must also be noted that students might not have a proper learning atmosphere due to various domestic reasons, which can’t be spoken about. The faculty expecting a ‘genuine’ reason to provide relaxation is not happening as students are not comfortable in discussing their internal affairs.

Students with special needs are the most affected in this setup, and it is two-fold when they are first-generation graduates from a working-class background. Their constant dependence on someone gaslights them to deny the exclusive discounts the faculty has to offer them. According to a recent report, nearly 13 crore Indians suffer from a mental health crisis (in the record). Although helpline numbers are circulated by universities, lack of mental health awareness renders them useless. With fast-approaching deadlines and workloads repeatedly assigned by the faculty, students’ mental health is affected, when they couldn’t access their full potential.

Looking at these inequalities, students of Pondicherry Universityvoiced these problems through their school representatives. As it showed no progress, they took to Twitter their problems using the hashtags “Stop Digital Divide” and “Suspend Online Classes”, which the vice-chancellor acknowledged with his ‘likes’. Various departments in the university listened to their representatives and revoked the deadlines for assignments, yet many still continue to follow their protocol as the administration did not pass an official order.

On 11th April 2020, EFLU (English and Foreign Languages University), Hyderabad announced that their semester exams will happen online. This further aggravated the angst of the student community as this would set a wrong model for other universities and colleges. To add to this, the University Grants Commission of India issued an official statement urging the vice-chancellors and college principals to conduct online classes. It is appreciable that the UGC wants students to be productive, but during an epidemic where global nations collective experience existential anxiety, marks, and assignments can not be one’s top priority.

Pushing the students to be busy by giving them mental exercise when they are physically drained without proper food and suffocated in claustrophobic homes is unjust. With faith in the constitution of India which promises equal access to education for every last student irrespective of their backgrounds, the students continue their protest, hoping for an affirmative reaction.

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