Today is the first day of the rest of your life.” – Charles Dederich

The above quote, used to describe a child’s first day at school, has been prolifically used in the past to impress upon its reader, the value attached to the act of ‘going to school’. It is associated with a certain sentiment, rooted in substantial individual experiences of anyone who has ever taken this journey from their houses to schools. Sociologically, schools have been studied as socialising agents, as sites of social, cultural and political indoctrination (McLarren, Giroux, Thappan et al.) In common lore; schools are viewed as near ‘sacred spaces’, that dispense knowledge and culture, attending which is an essential rite of passage for children born in the modern, democratic world. It is believed to emancipate and liberate masses, which for ages have languished under tyranny of societal evils. In totality, schools have historically been deemed as one of the key institutions of society, essential to the perpetuation of the ‘social-collective conscience’.

Enter COVID-19; a pandemic that has caused countless casualties. The social institution of Schooling is one of the greatest. According to the report of UNESCO, COVID-19 had affected more than 90% of the world’s student population by mid April 2020. In India alone, more than 320 million students have been affected by COVID-19 school closures, and though the government quickly recommended shifting to “online teaching,” ignoring India’s immense digital divide—with enmeshed gender, caste and class divides.

As the situation worsened due to COVID-19, the government suggested online schooling. Many private educational-technology firms have tried to leverage the occasion by offering free online classes or attractive discounts on e-learning modules. It is believed, these measures have been met with overwhelming response by students. Remote seems a viable solution to students during this time as they offer convenient, on -the- go and affordable access to lessons. E-learning also comes as an interesting and interactive alternative as compared to classroom teaching. While these seemed to be the obvious quick fix for the pandemic, the pressing question, that we as citizens of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society must ask are; whether this model of online education is a sustainable one? The ambient excitement and anticipation around this novel shift in method of teaching and learning has now lifted and has exposed associated lacunae. Deep structural concerns regarding accessibility, quality of education, sustainability and affectivity of online schooling have emerged to the front.

Given the context, I would like to highlight two parallel concerns that would bust the myth of online schooling in India:

  1. Inequitable access to resources required for successful and effective online learning
  2. A-scientific relegation of schooling (a specialised social, cultural and political act) from active interactive spaces (classrooms) to mobile and laptop screens.

INEQUITABLE ACCESS

India is multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-lingual country, nations within nation. It is further stratified on the basis of caste, class, gender and tribe. Educational outcomes of students have varied over these categories. Sociological works by the likes of Geetha Nambisan, Virginius Kaka etc have highlighted issues of exclusion, cultural alienation, unequal access to capital while studying low educational achievement amongst Linguistic minorities and tribal communities respectively. Sociologists like Ranu Jain, Arshad Alam, Tanveer Fazal have highlighted the same for religious minorities. In the light of scientific evidence it seems that a blanket shift to online, digital education is probably the last item in the long list of amends our government has to implement, in order to evenly and justly educate its masses. It is quite likely; the rapid, unplanned and sudden digitalisation of schooling in India has only reproduced pre existing inequalities.

The 2017-18 National Sample Survey states that only 23.8 percent of Indian households had internet access. In rural households (66 percent of the population of India), only 14.9 percent had access, and in the remaining urban households only 42 percent had access. male heads of households are the primary users, while only 16 percent of women had access to mobile internet, compared to 36 percent of men. Young adults’ access is even less: A recent news report stated only 12.5 percent of students had access to smart-phones. Furthermore, most teachers are ill-equipped for online teaching.  The facts lie before us and the questions associated with them are plain and simple, yet loud and clear: What is the purpose of implementing a system of education which calls for utilisation of hyper-digitised and sophisticated modes of communication, when in the first place the masses are not equipped with the capital (social, cultural or economic) to engage with it? What were the State’s mechanisms to ensure a certain degree of ease in this transformation? Would a migrant labour class family (the most vehemently effected social category in the time of COVID-19), driven out of their work places, prioritise education over the more pressing issues like survival, access to food, water and a safe passage home? How would they gear up for this transition? Do government schools of all rungs have the required infrastructure to execute this digitalisation? The implicit support of the State, in simply ‘letting’ these developments take place and simultaneously assuming the role of a mute spectator, reeks of a premeditated conspiracy at the behest of a capitalist, fascist forces.

The result of this forced transformation to e-learning has been near disastrous. According to recent findings in an five-state interview by Oxfam India, more than 80% of parents with children studying in government schools reported that education was ‘not delivered’ during the lockdown. In Bihar, 100% of the parents interviewed voiced this view. Only 15% of India’s rural households have access to internet and these numbers are fewer among marginalised groups social groups such as Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims, as per government data.

TRANSITION TO E-LEARNING

Furthermore, there is the issue of ‘apathy’. Apathy of state towards the differing cultures that students of an average Indian school belong to, adding to the circus that e-schooling has become. The practise of e-learning makes a blanket assumption regarding the culture of families students belong to and the nature social-economic resources they have access to.  The assumption that students will be ‘able’ to ensure a successful transition to e-schooling, from the ‘safety’ of their homes is pre-mature and ignorant. Upper middle households might be able to secure separate systems (laptops, smartphones) for their wards, whether that translates into effective learning and socialisation is another debate altogether! However, it is the working class families, blue collared labour (majority of which belong to marginal groups, socially and economically backwards castes) that are caught in doldrums. There are two possibilities here: If such a family has one smartphone within themselves, they will have to ensure a careful division of the single screen amongst four to five family members. In another possibility (which is equally common place), they may not have access to a smart phone or laptop or internet to begin with. The chain of access gets nipped in the bud. These students struggle to network with teachers and other students, gradually falling off the grid. In cases where they do secure access, comes the issue of ‘space’. An average working class family lives in a 10 by 10ft tenement (in locations like Mumbai suburbs). Where is the scope for separation of space so as to engage in the act of learning? One of the biggest and most underrated consequences of ‘school’ as a separate entity from family (and home) has been the luxury it provides in terms of movement into a separate social, physical, cultural and psycho-social space. A space which is more suited for academic learning, socialisation, interactions etc. I call it a luxury, particularly from the point of view of children who belong to working class families and attend municipal schools or aided private schools. Since, their time outside of school is mired with the burdens and responsibilities like taking care of younger sibling, adding to family income, domestic violence, parental abuse etc. in such a situation one could probably just aspire to continue their education, but would they be capable of operationalising this aspiration in lieu of the mentioned handicaps?

Truth be told, the major casualty in the times of COVID-19 should be measured less in terms of lives lost and more in terms of the death of hopes and aspirations of the millions of school going children. For, it takes generations to get families to send their children to school and then to ensure that their children somehow gain the courage to dream and to aspire to ‘achieve’. In my opinion the insidious silence of the government with respect to school education, regarding the supposed backlog caused due to COVID-19 and their mechanisms to tackle the same are disturbing. The act of online-schooling can at best be treated as a temporary substitute and a viable vision for the future but not a permanent change in current times.

Bhavya Kumar hails from Lucknow. She is a doctoral research scholar at the Centre for Studies in Sociology of Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She is currently working on her doctoral thesis; Self & Multiple Others: Social Interactions in a Classroom Situation. She has eight years of training as a social scientist, having done a B.A (H) in Economics from the University of Delhi and a subsequent Masters in Sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University.


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