Deepak Kumar Gupta is a visually impaired student at Delhi University. Of late, he has been busy petitioning the vice chancellor against online classes and examinations. Why? He believes they are discriminatory to large segments of India’s student population.
“Visually challenged students require certain assistive devices as well as certain modes of accessible features. The website must be structured in the way that we ask through assistive devices like screen readers,” he explained. “Also, many of us don’t have laptops as some of us are economically backward. There is a deep connection between disability and poverty. Most of us don’t have access to the internet and among those who do very few know how to operate it. Other than that, the material on the internet is often in an inaccessible format. We are not trained to use Skype, Zoom, or any of these apps used by the teachers. And different teachers use different platforms making it difficult for us to navigate online learning.”
Deepak isn’t alone. Since the coronavirus crisis hit India earlier this year, students across the country have been struggling to carry on with their studies.
When the virus began spreading in India, schools, colleges, universities, even tuition centres were closed, exams were postponed, and the entire education system moved online overnight. Today, in this time of lockdown, online teaching may seem to be the only feasible option to keep the nation’s education system going, but in an unequal society it is highly exclusionary. If anything, it has laid bare the inequalities that shape the Indian society.
In India, some , less than 40 percent of the population, are estimated to have smartphones. This number doesn’t account for vast regional and class disparities. For example, data compiled by the shows Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Assam together have fewer broadband connections than Maharashtra. And naturally, smartphone ownership is far higher among people with higher incomes.
The share of the population with a working 4G connection, according to the latest data from 2018, is to be about 31 percent. And according to the , India ranked 130th in the world for mobile internet speeds and 71st for fixed broadband speeds during March 2020.
Given such disparities in access to the internet, how viable are online classes?
Haseem studies in a government school in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. He was promoted to class 11 in March, but isn’t aware if he has been allotted the subjects of his choice. His school is taking online classes but he hasn’t attended any so far. “We don’t have a smartphone at home, so I do not know what’s going on there. I study from a teacher in our vicinity.”
Brijesh Chowdhary, a student at the Delhi School of Journalism, lives in Guhna village, Haryana. Attending classes was hard for him even before the lockdown. He would walk or hitchhike from his home to the main road and take a bus to Sonepat. Since he could not afford the bus fare from there, Chowdhary said, he would take a passenger train to Azadpur, Delhi. From there, he would walk about a kilometre to board a Delhi Transport Corporation bus to Vishwavidyalaya, and then walk to his college.
Chowdhary’s family are farmers. “This year our harvest was late so we couldn’t earn much. Farmers do not have enough savings and we sometimes have to struggle to get food in our village. Internet connectivity is poor, so I have been unable to attend most classes. If they go ahead with online exams, I will have to drop a year.”
Ayantika Pal, also at the Delhi School of Journalism, lives in Hooghly district, Bengal. “In the last few weeks, pressure to submit assignments has grown. At first, I tried to attend the online classes, but the mobile internet speed is dropping by the day and there’s no wi-fi at home. Also, we have got 10 new cases of coronavirus in my neighborhood. That’s aggravating our trauma and panic. Education is necessary, but so is the mental health of students. Lack of internet, traumatised surroundings, economic crisis...are we expected to act as robots?”
Kashmir has been under lockdown practically since August 2019, when the Indian government dismantled the region’s autonomy. Schools and colleges had only just opened in March after months when the pandemic again forced their closure. On the eve of the abrogation of Article 370, the government had imposed a communication blackout in Kashmir, cutting off phone and internet services. Over nine months later, they are yet to be fully restored. The vast majority of the valley’s internet users only have access to slow-speed 2G mobile internet, and even that is frequently snapped, for some reason or the other. In this situation, even teachers and students who have access to the internet are having an incredibly hard time making use of online classes.
“We have been trying to talk to the department to put a halt to online classes, but to no avail,” said Khan, a student of law at Kashmir University. “We have 130 students in our class but due to the connectivity issues, only 30-40 show up for online lectures.”
He added, “A lot of students don’t have internet connections, and those who do can only access 2G, which doesn’t allow for video lectures. We told the department that even if they wanted to take online classes, they should cover only 25 percent of the syllabus, so the students didn’t miss out on a lot. But they didn’t listen to us.”
Kasiar Malik, a master’s student of literature at Kashmir University, expressed a similar concern. “Since the abrogation of Article 370, universities have been closed. I joined the university in October 2018 and since then I have only taken one semester’s exams. When universities reopened this year, they tried teaching us the second semester through crash courses,” he said. “Then, the university had to be closed again because of coronavirus. We had already suffered a loss that students from elsewhere cannot understand. Now, it’s online courses. First of all, what can we do on the 2G network? Every five minutes, the meeting disconnects. The students are from various districts and, sooner or later, the internet is shut down somewhere.”
He added, “We made a proposal to be graded on take-home assignments. The UGC keeps on sending notifications about finishing the third semester by June 15. How will we do that? And even if we do that, what good will it do to us?”
In fact, even students with access to decent internet are not supportive of online classes. A media student at Jamia Millia Islamia University, Delhi, has been stuck alone in his rented apartment since the lockdown was imposed. “I find it awfully boring to look at a screen for three-four hours with barely a break,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “I have many chores to do which take up a lot of time and the classes are exhausting.”
He continued, “It is just very draining. At some point I thought if I had the choice to not attend these classes, I would rather not. I think online classes can be fun but most teachers insist on it being exactly like the usual classroom. We present our papers, read long essays, just read out our synopsis in class.”
Not only students, teachers are also facing problems with online classes.
“In a way, the online classes have reduced our pressure with the amount of time we spend in a classroom. But I teach the first grade and it’s difficult to keep them engaged online. I have to constantly think of new ways to grasp their attention. I can’t know if a kid is engaged elsewhere while being virtually present,” complained Charu Bansal, a primary teacher in a private school in Delhi. “The involvement and interference of parents makes it impeccably difficult to exercise any freedom in class. I have students with learning disabilities. It’s hard to observe them so I have to constantly be on the lookout. The syllabus is moving at turtle’s pace.”
Neha, a guest teacher of software design at Indraprastha University, Delhi, is facing different problems, “There are connectivity issues all the time. I have also noticed that my students aren’t as motivated as earlier. It’s also difficult to explain concepts online.”
Still, some institutions want to conduct online exams. The All India Institute of Medical Sciences, National Institute of Technology, Tirchy, IIM Sambalpur, Galgotia University, National Institute of Industrial Engineering, and Delhi University have proposed taking online exams, triggering immediate backlash from large sections of their students.
At Delhi University, some students have written to the vice chancellor and the human resource development ministry to rethink such “exclusionary measures”. The teachers’ association has also criticised the proposal and said they were not consulted before it was drafted as required.
Asked what he made of such proposals, Deepak Kumar said, “They are especially exclusionary for the students with disabilities. Most of us don’t have an internet connection or a laptop, and even if we did, we wouldn't know how to operate it. The Delhi University website is very inaccessible.”
He continued, “The image format for question papers as proposed by the administration wouldn't be compatible with our screen reader. We also need volunteer assistance to write our exams but how will that be possible in this time of social distancing? Also, a big problem with open book tests is that a major part of the reading material is either online or printed, and most of it is inaccessible to us.”
Priyadarshini, a student of Hindu College, Delhi, said, “Students facing limitations due to their financial status are struggling. This binary in society cannot be ignored when students aren't able to access the resources due to poor internet facilities. Many don't even have their books or notes to prepare for the exams since they didn’t think their mid-semester holiday would extend to a three-month break. Many are managing with limited or borrowed internet. This only adds to their stress."
Some names have been changed to protect identities on request.