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In these difficult times, the internet has played a major role in information diffusion, keeping the world together and determining our responses to the pandemic. In keeping with the requirements of physical distancing, teaching/learning activities in India are at a crossroads amidst the ongoing health crisis. In fact, the UGC has been actively encouraging the optimum use of remote-learning technologies. These are both on­line platforms for classroom teaching as well as mediums that enable resource-sharing to continue learning smoothly. With these efforts, India’s higher educational institutions would undoubtedly be better poised to complete their academic terms.

The major challenges to remote learning, however, are the existing disparities. Uninterrupted electricity supply and good internet connectivity, which are the prerequisites for online teaching/learning, are not uniformly available across the country. Again, while in some cases, the required devices are not available with the students, teachers often struggle to adapt to teaching/learning techniques so different from the conventional classroom. Thus, the digital divide in India in the context of teaching/learning is due to access, devices and proficiency.

Against this backdrop, these are our observations and experiences of online teaching for humanities and social sciences courses with undergraduate and postgraduate students in India. Despite the existing challenges, digital mediums are also uniquely suited to bridge certain gaps of the conventional classroom.  

PERSISTENCE OF DIGITAL DIVIDE

According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, in 2018, total internet density in the country stood at about 49 percent. Of that, 25 percent lived in rural areas and 98 percent in urban areas. Access to electricity is crucial for digital education, both for powering devices as well as for connecting to the internet. A nationwide survey of villages by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, showed that 16 percent of India’s households received one to eight hours of electricity daily, 33 percent got 9-12 hours and only 47 percent received more than 12 hours of power supply daily.

Erratic power supply only exacerbates the existing digital divide, which is evident across class, gender, region and place of residence. According to National Sample Survey Organisation (2018) estimates, among the poorest 20 percent households, only 2.7 percent have access to a computer and 8.9 percent to internet facilities. In the case of the top 20 percent households, the proportions are 27.6 percent and 50.5 percent, respectively. These figures make it clear that while moving classrooms online might ensure transferring information and guidance, they cannot be effective in ensuring social interaction in the truest sense of the term unless the existing inequities are addressed.

In a physical classroom, these barriers cease to matter and technology remains a mere teaching aid. However, when it becomes the primary medium, those without the right gadgets are radically at a disadvantage. At times, this holds true even for urban areas. For example, many of our students could comfortably use their smartphones, especially to listen/read during classroom sessions, but found it inconvenient to type out lengthy assignments or research on them. This is reflective of a trend. In the same NSSO survey, it was observed that while 24 percent of Indians own a smartphone, only 11 percent households possess any type of computer. This could include desktop computers, laptops, note­books, net books, palmtops or tablets. This shows how unequal access to devices can impair online learning.

DISCUSSION-CENTRIC CLASSROOMS

As teachers of humanities and social sciences subjects, ensuring interactive classrooms is the mainstay of our work. Discussions and debates are integral to help students better relate with texts written by authors whose names they might have come across for the first time. The themes of justice, human vulnerability and individual and collective responses to crises that we explore make classroom dialogue essential.

As our texts often document deeply personal experiences of the characters, it becomes imperative to build a community of readers involving each and every student. It is important that they actively exchange their views on the text and ground it within a frame of reference that accommodates three worldviews: that of the text, their individual ones and that of peers formed in response to reading the text. More than a neatly pre-packaged commodity, knowledge in this sort of a classroom is meant to emerge in steps of a staccato, back and forth movement of questions and answers while putting the teacher too on a learning curve.

However, in the urban, metropolitan campuses where we teach, classroom dynamics are unavoidably skewed. While we have a sizable number of students from relatively well-off backgrounds with an English medium education, there are others who are first-generation learners in their families with a vernacular educational background. This leads to a disproportionate gap between those who actually participate in the classroom discussions and those who do not.

As teachers, we have observed certain identifiable pockets within the physical classroom from which most of the responses tend to come, while the quieter parts steadily fade out as the semester rolls on. Due to lack of exposure to the English language at the school level and the inability to speak in this language, these students are afraid to express themselves. Upon reaching out to some of the quieter students outside the classroom, we discovered that much of their silence had to do with feeling sidelined and belittled in an environment overwhelmingly distant from the small-town, rural milieu they come from. They do not feel they “fit in” and remain plagued by a constant fear of blurting out something entirely out of place in this environment.

Whether real or imagined, this sort of perceived peer pressure can have a debilitating impact on a learner in an interactive classroom. Philosopher Miranda Fricker in her scholarly work, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, identifies such a scenario as a classic instance of testimonial injustice where a set of systemic and structural (e.g. social, cultural etc.) prejudices in collective set-ups such as a classroom leads to a “credibility deficit” on the part of some of the speakers. They are seen as less than equal participants in such situations. What they think, opine or say does not appear to have quite the same standing in terms of classroom inputs or contributions. As she says, this leads to “preventing them, for instance, from conveying knowledge—in a way that depends upon collective conceptions of the social identities in play”.

In the Indian context, these social identities are inevitably anchored to caste, gender, language, economic standing and even region at times. Of course, most often, learners and teachers tend to enact these conceptions unawares. That makes the problem only more difficult to address. Despite the best of intentions then, interactive classrooms are not necessarily the most inclusive.

BRIDGING LEARNING GAPS?

In the past two months of the lockdown, we have been using real-time online text-based discussions during specific time slots for our classes to ensure equal access for those students with poor power/internet connectivity. In the process, we observed a shift in the classroom dynamics.

Increasingly, the quieter corners of the classroom have proved more vocal and articulate in conveying their thoughts over the online medium. Unsurprisingly, these observations emerged as the driving force of discussions in many a session and motivated more learners to participate. Quite possibly, this sort of a medium offers a degree of anonymity unavailable in the physical classroom. Even as the students remain identifiable by their names attached to their email ids, they are not bogged down in dealing with the burden of “appearing” credible enough before their peers or the teachers by virtue of fluency or pronunciation. Nor is there a pressure of feeling judged on account of their backgrounds, and at any rate, all such judgement feels rather distant across the online veil. This instils in them a sense of confidence in being able to get their responses evaluated by their peers and teachers and sets up a level playing field among all the participants. This helps them express their views and opinions uninhibited, and in turn, minimises the scope of testimonial injustice.

The online medium, then, offers a curious mix of anonymity and exposure. It allows for a sense of refuge without it restricting one’s voice, a trade-off that we often take for granted. If campuses are meant to be sanctuaries of unfettered thought and expression, a fertile, nurturing ground for ideas to grow and mature, online platforms too can play a decisive role in this regard. One’s virtual self, after all, is a prosthetic that can navigate and explore across the terrain of learning and take the first steps towards building a sense of self-worth.

However, all of this would be possible only if the basic requirements of accessibility, proper gadgets and proficiency in using them are fulfilled. Without these, the promises of online learning would remain a distant dream and irreparably deepen the fissures in our society. Digital classrooms in such a scenario would cease to be an equalising medium and reinforce the existing prejudices manifold. Ominous though it might sound, this is one prospect we cannot afford to overlook or ignore.    

THE WAY FORWARD

Surely, online teaching/learning activities are likely to remain and become integral components of higher education in India. Incorporating the changes they bring in their wake would require careful and well-balanced interventions in what might be called the “learnscape” of the country. The following measures might serve as a roadmap:

First, ensure ease of access and proficiency for all. At every step, our policymakers, administrators, teachers and even learners need to be acutely aware of making the transition inclusive. Online education cannot become an excuse to further, or worse still, mindlessly widen the disparities in our societies. Second, acknowledge that online education cannot replace physical classrooms entirely. They can play a major role as accessories to classroom teaching and complement that space. They can set the stage for making classrooms more equitable and fairer. Their capacity for enhancing the sense of community in classrooms is tremendous and needs to be explored further. Third, measures for smooth transition from one mode of teaching to another in times of crises need to be worked out. Operational and procedural delays need to be minimised and all participants in the learning process should have the capacity to switch across modes seamlessly. Finally, the gross investment in primary and secondary education is abysmally low as compared to other developing countries. Moreover, publically funded education institutions receive policy attention relative to private educational institutions. Any policy encouragement for remote platform learning would be effective if the access to infrastructure is adequately provided at the school level with enhanced capacity building measures for teachers so that any further divide in higher education institutions can be averted.

In the short run, online teaching modules could be seen as a close substitute for classroom teaching. In the long run, it could complement and promote socially inclusive spaces for learning.

—Rahul Sapkal is Assistant Professor, Centre for Labour Studies, School of Management and Labour Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, while Ashok Chikte and Upamanyu Sengupta are Assistant Professors, Maharashtra National Law University, Mumbai. The views expressed here are personal

Lead picture: myexam.allen.ac.in

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