Online education in India: fault lines of enduring inequality

Online education necessitated by COVID-19 is aggravating educational inequalities in India, with the potential for dire and long-term consequences for students. Prasham Kothari examines the fault lines. An MSc graduate of the London School of Economics in Social and Public Policy and currently an economics tutor, he also works at the grassroots level with various NGOs in the field of education for the underprivileged.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing lockdown has disrupted the lives of many, and the effect on young students has been massive. The pandemic has exposed the large fault lines that exist in the digital infrastructure of India. The shift to online classes has not been smooth for all as there is massive inequality in access to electricity, the internet and laptops/mobiles between rural and urban India and rich and poor families.

This period is going to have a massive effect on the academic progress of multiple students due to the lack of resources and access to platforms that can enable online education.

Distant dreams

Various schools and governments have informed the school administrators and teachers to continue learning through virtual classes. However, this is a distant dream for many students, as the digital infrastructure in the country is weak at best and the challenges are unprecedented.

The government has identified that only 10% of the country is digitally literate and over 55,000 villages do not have access to basic mobile coverage. In such an environment it seems evident that students who face these challenges are destined to suffer for no fault of theirs.

The challenges for remote learning in villages start at a very rudimentary level: even though 99.9% of homes in India have access to electricity, only 47% of these receive electricity for more than 12 hours and 16% receive it for just 1 hour.

Without this basic facility, it is impossible to connect to the internet and many students will not be able to join their classes at the stipulated time. They will also face difficulties in completing assignments and other class work.

Ideally one would need a computer/laptop to effectively participate in classes and complete long assignments; however, only 11% of households possess any type of computer, laptop, notebooks, or tablets.

Even in the houses that do have this facility, it is possible that there is great competition for a laptop. Parents who are working from home and other siblings who are students will all want access to a laptop and this will limit the use of it for each individual.

It is also possible that there is only one laptop in the house and two students who have online classes to attend. In such a case only one of them will be able to attend the lectures and complete their assignments.

Additionally, if parents are working from home it will be harder for them to supervise younger students as these students are less likely to sit and study through an online platform if left unattended. Given this, it is predicted that there will be a surge in drop-out rates at levels of schooling, and girls will be more adversely affected than boys.

Deficiencies in connectivity and skills

The fact that laptops are hard to come by is further accentuated by the lack of internet services. Only 24% of Indian households have access to an internet facility and this drops to as low as 15% in rural India where 66% of the population lives. These factors mean that in a lot of rural areas it is impossible to even set up an online class for the school and teachers, never mind whether the students will be able to access it or not.

The other problem is that teachers are unequipped to teach through a digital platform, as they lack the requisite skills – especially teachers in rural India and government schools as they don’t even have access to a stable internet connection.

This means that primary and secondary education in these areas will not be available and students will be cut off completely. In such a scenario their learning will be stalled for a long period of time and they might be forced into child labour or marriage.

For primary school children and parents another problem will surface: the lack of physical schooling will deprive them of the mid-day meal they would otherwise receive. This will have a great impact on their nutritional intake. On the cost side too the families would be affected adversely as they have to allocate more funds towards food expenses.

Rich vs poor

Out of the poorest 20% of households only 2.7% have access to a computer and 8.9% have access to internet facilities; this is 27.6% and 50.5% respectively for the richest 20% of the families.

Such a vast divide will mean that, during the COVID-19 crisis, rich students at schools and universities will be able to continue their daily education without much hindrance, but the poorer students will fall back even further.

For poor families, who may have lost their source of income because of the lockdown and have little by the way of savings there will be additional costs of regular online classes, such as the internet and electricity bill. These costs may be overbearing and education will seem to be less and less favourable as the fight to put food on the table begins.

Such circumstances will not only affect their children’s grades but will also have a detrimental impact on their confidence and self-esteem. Being cut-off from their teachers and peers in such a way means that their mental health will suffer too and this will have a negative impact on their motivation to study.

The key feature of distance education is that it requires incredible amounts of discipline and dedication from the student. However, it also demands a conducive environment for study and this is a luxury for many. In poorer families there is a lack of a quiet learning space at home. Often large families live in a single-room house with shared toilets, and these characteristics are not ideal for learning.

To add to this it is also possible that families have an abusive (physically or sexually) parent, an alcoholic parent or merely an unsupportive one; in such an environment the student will have many other concerns rather than simply their academic ones. Students who are usually at boarding schools or universities away from home will be forced to live in such a nightmarish environment once again.

Cumulatively these factors will have long-lasting effects on young (primary and early secondary) students who are unable to escape the reality of their own homes. For older students it will act as a hurdle to study and perform effectively. 

Two UN agencies had warned against a large-scale shift towards online education even before the pandemic started. They argued that the socio-economic divide would deepen and virtual classes will leave students deprived of an education. Additionally, they warned that students will also be vulnerable to sexual exploitation. These fears seem to be becoming a reality for many students.

Graduating to what?

While the hurdles to education seem aplenty in the current scenario for all students, another burden looms large for the students in their final year. Irrespective of their social standing or financial background, these students will enter a highly uncertain job market and will have limited opportunities.

Many firms across India have initiated a hiring freeze and are also actively firing existing employees. Even if they do find employment they will be forced to adapt to a very different job market – a market that they are not necessarily prepared for.

Additionally, they will also be limited to seek employment near their residence and it is possible that their set of skills is not in demand there or the infrastructure does not support it.

It is obvious that students with lower economic and social capital will be more widely affected as they have little to fall back on.

Educational deprivation

The fault lines in the digital infrastructure are apparent and the pandemic has highlighted them. It is a great cause of concern that so many students living in rural India and from poor families will be deprived of a quality education for a long period of time.

Not only will their academic progress be stalled momentarily but they will face long-term mental and emotional stresses. For some dropping out will also become a harsh reality.

This divide in access to education runs much deeper if we are to consider how students with learning and physical disabilities will cope with virtual classes. This is a critical issue and requires urgent attention.

The pandemic is threatening to change the lives of so many young minds forever and yet it’s shocking that among all the economic packages education gets little to no mention.

Photo by Timon Studler on Unsplash: