What Is So Wrong with Online Teaching? – Economic and Political Weekly - Freelance Rack

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Saturday, June 6, 2020

What Is So Wrong with Online Teaching? – Economic and Political Weekly

Ever since classes were suspended in the universities of India due to the COVID-19 pandemic, online teaching using various platforms like Zoom is the new buzzword. Initially, the directives that came from my university were both more vaguely and cautiously worded. Providing e-resources and staying available online during class timings was advised. Gradually, the discourse shifted, without any explicit directive, to online teaching using various platforms. The university and college admini­strators as well as many motivated teachers were all suddenly full of the Zoom experience, and, at last, it seemed as if a solution to this extraordinary standstill had been found. Though the Government of India’s cautionary against the use of Zoom seemed to be a spanner in the wheel of this new-found marvel, it did not dent the faith in this marvel at all—neither for the government nor the initiators—and it merely meant a shift from one platform to another, as if such threats to data privacy cannot be present on the other platforms.

Mode and Access

However, data or information threat is not the real issue at all. The crux of the problem is the mode of online teaching itself and the access to it. First, let us come to the issue of access. Access does not merely imply the availability of internet. The mobile phone on which most students access the internet is not the most suitable medium to conduct a class; a laptop is the more suitable device. It is difficult to concentrate on a lecture on the phone, to stare at a small screen for over an hour or two with a reasonable degree of concentration. A recent survey done by the University of Hyderabad in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis shows that only 50% students had access to ­laptops and about 45% could, at best, access internet infrequently and further about 18% did not have internet access at all (UoH Herald 2020). This is the state of reality in a central university. ­Indeed, the speed of the internet and its fluctuations have seen major problems in many metro cities, let alone rural or small-town India, where many of our students are under the lockdown.

In a lockdown condition, stuck within home, there are many corners of one’s living space where data signal is weak. Further, many students do not have unlimited Wi-Fi plans, and have limited size data packs. Several classes in a day can be a substantial cost for many students in the low income bracket. We know of several instances where students go out of their home in open street corners to access the internet or free Wi-Fi in normal times; even such ironical possibilities are, of course, closed during a lockdown.

Thus, however keen they may be, many students are simply not enabled with the infrastructure to take part in an online teaching and learning process. A related point, perhaps less discussed, is the issue of enablement in a broader sense. To mimic a class situation, a student does not only need a gadget and internet connectivity, the sheer physical space around them is also so crucial. The minimum one needs is a quiet and isolated space, where one is not disturbed by ­others’ presence. We know for sure that many of our students, even in the University of Delhi, do not have such conditions at home. They may be cramped for space in a small apartment or dwelling, where carving out a silent private space may be physically impossible. The issue is not only about their own private space; it is as much about their family members’ privacy. Further, if there are two students at home, then space has to be created, often simultaneously, for both of them! This may be a handicap even in an urban middle-class apartment, let alone for an economically weaker family. In a small dwelling, an hour-long class may imply all other members of the household ­adjust all their work and maintain a hushed silence.

This has a particularly iniquitous effect for women, both the female students and the female family members. Given, the grossly unequal burden of domestic work that women share at home, often the female student has to take up these additional domestic responsibilities during the lockdown; she may not have the flexibility to attend an online class when she is supposed to carry on some inflexible domestic task. In a different situation, the enforced carving out of silence and privacy in the cramped domestic space may imply that the mother adjusts her own work-time and domestic schedule silently.

The fact that our education administrators and many well-meaning, eager teachers can totally ignore the domestic space, is a deeper sign of our most gendered behaviour. The home is always secondary; it can, of course, be a great refuge, metaphorically or really (as the flood of migrants in their bid to return home shows). However, primacy must be given to the productive spheres—of work and productivity. When the sphere of work is disturbed, the “residual” domestic sphere has to mimic it and turn productive. The feminine world of domestic work must always adjust to the supposed “impersonal” masculinity of the world of “productive” work. That world of work will not adjust to the needs of domesticity; it is almost a sin to think the other way round, whatever stress you may be under.

One connected point here is that we have almost forgotten why this lockdown and social distancing is there in the first place. It is a time of an unprecedented pandemic. For many, stress and anxiety levels shoot up in such situations; staying home does not imply that people are necessarily having a vacation. Somebody in the family may have got the infection; you may yourself be in quarantine. Apart from that, family members suffering from other illnesses are more stressed; in the event of an emergency, the normal access to a doctor or a hospital is now jeopardised. To expect that all students will attend online classes smoothly under these circumstances is to assume away the very situation that created the context itself.

Qualitative Difference

I have been told by well-meaning friends that these concerns are overstretched. Yes, some students will miss the classes, but do students not miss classes otherwise, the argument goes, do you ever get full attendance? Well, the difference ­between the two situations is immense, and furthermore, it is a qualitative difference. First, to miss a class in normal times is an act largely of the student’s own volition; second, to miss an online class due to lack of access is not an exercise of choice. One who is not at all keen to miss may be forced to do so. There is a qualitative aspect too, apart from the issue of choice and rights. The university space gives access to all students to come from their very different particularities of domestic space to a common homogenised space of a class-room. Without romanticising that space and being fully aware of its inherent inequalities, it still brings the students to a space of formal equality and away from the particularised domestic constraints.

This difference will obviously be much greater for economically and socially disadvantaged students, who do not have access to the privacy of well-endowed domestic spaces, and these are precisely the students who also have the most difficulty in accessing online lectures. So it is a double whammy for them. The students who need the physical university space much more for studying (often long hours in the library) are the ones who are deprived of it in a double sense when the alternative online access is also so shaky for them. That many well-meaning teachers and administrators refuse to acknowledge the deep inequality in online teaching is baffling to say the least, but may signal how deep our class and caste biases are in the arena of the teaching–learning process.

Now, let us come back to the issue of online teaching itself. Can it be a surrogate for or surpass real time physical teaching in class? The issue may be of crucial importance, even though many may agree that it is merely a temporary stopgap measure and such anxieties are misplaced. That is because, for quite a few years now, online teaching is being advocated as the future of higher education in India by our education planners. Various documents and statements of the high functionaries of the Ministry of ­Human Resources Development (MHRD), University Grants Commission (UGC) and NITI Aayog have advocated the greater use of online teaching and committing resources for that (Businessworld 2020). There is also an explicit idea, reiterated often, to advance online teaching as a means to increase India’s gross enrolment ratio in higher education (MHRD 2019). The pandemic, like in many other fields, is a perfect opportunity to introduce measures that are otherwise difficult to introduce in normal times (UGC 2020). The UGC chairman, in a recent statement on promotion of online education, has been quoted to have said,

We are seeing at this time of Covid-19 and even later when all of this over, to give a push to online education. It is important for improvement in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in the country. (News18 India 2020)

Thus, once introduced in this manner, online teaching may become a permanent feature of the university education structure in the future.

The issue of the efficacy of online teaching should be discussed independently, quite apart from the issues of general accessibility and particular, suitability in this unprecedented conjuncture.

Does the virtual space have completeness to be a teaching–learning space? Sure, there are many online courses, which are interesting and of great value. Students or the public in general can access those or learn from those. However, to confuse and conflate such online courses and curricula with teaching in the physical space does the greatest disservice to any meaningful discourse on education, particularly in the context of the immense transformatory potential that university education has for the deprived sections of India. The physical space of the university, in general, and the classroom, in particular, are not merely a space for the transaction of knowledge that can be surrogated in other transactional forms.

A large number of our educational “experts” seem to have a view like that. There are obvious issues, such as laboratory-based courses. We hear about the possibilities of virtual labs. These are fancy ideas without any base, often proposed by people who have no idea about what goes on in a lab. Are the chemistry experiments going to be virtual, without handling the chemicals at all? This is like learning driving on a simulator without ever touching the actual steering wheel of a car. However, much more fundamental to such serious logistical issues is the fact that the classroom by itself is a radical and transformatory space for many. It creates an alternative sociality; it is often a space for lasting friendship; it has the potential to break the bonds of the social givens, particularly if nurtured consciously in that direction by the teachers. It is also a space, if nurtured with care, which encourages one to speak out and question.

The gains are not only for the less-enabled; those from endowed classes also get exposed to a larger sociality of their co-students from varied backgrounds. It is, thus, the space of the class that ­enables one not only to learn but also to share, question, laugh and develop deep intersubjective relations. All this is terribly lacking in the virtual space of online teaching. Even if the jokes are mimicked and question–answers incorporated in the virtual space, the relationships are largely ephemeral, lacking the concreteness and durability of relationships in a physical space.

It is, thus, when all the strands of argument developed above are brought together that one comprehends what is so wrong in visualising the online space as a place for regular education. In the context of the pandemic, the situation is even worse, not better, for the suitability of the surrogacy of online teaching.


Businessworld (2020): “We in the Government Are a Facilitator of Online Learning in India: NITI Aayog CEO,” 10 September, http://bweducation.businessworld.in/article/We-In-The-Government-Are-A-Facilitator-Of-Online-Learning-In-India-NITI-Aayog-CEO-/10-09-2019-175873/.

MHRD (2019): “Draft National Education Policy 2019,” https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/Draft_NEP_2019_EN_Revised.pdf.

News18 India (2020): “Online Education a Contingency Measure during Covid-19 Lockdown and Not Long-term Strategy, Say Experts,” 17 April, https://www.news18.com/news/india/online-education-a-contingency-measure-during-covid-19-lockdown-and-not-long-term-strategy-say-experts-2581297.html.

UGC (2020): “Let Covid Not Stop You from Learning,” University Grants Commission, https://www.ugc.ac.in/pdfnews/1573010_On-Line-Learning—ICT-initiatives-of-MHRD-and-UGC.pdf.

UoH Herald (2020): “Proposal for Online Classes Elicits Mixed Responses from UoH Students: Survey,” http://herald.uohyd.ac.in/proposal-for-online-classes-elicits-mixed-responses-from-uoh-students-survey.

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