Wide angle Education

Online or offline?

In this Catch-22 situation, many are weighing the pros and cons of online classes for children

To go online or offline is the question that has been raised and discussed ever since the Government of Karnataka (GoK) banned online teaching for students up to class V. Reacting to the ban, a well-known Bengaluru-based teacher-educator, tweeted: #TweetStorm #righttolearn Tune in folks and respond. How can a responsible government ban any form of learning whether online or offline? Instead focus on teacher preparedness, access to digital connectivity and cyber safety issues.

In order to find a clear answer, we need to seek answers to these questions: Has GoK given valid reasons for banning online classes for students at the primary level? Do children really benefit from online teaching? Does online education affect the mental health of children as stated by some experts? Are teachers and students prepared for online teaching? Is ‘digital divide’ an issue? Why do some schools insist on online teaching? Is online teaching inevitable during this lockdown?

Mental health

The main reason stated by GoK’s Education Minister Suresh Kumar was that online classes “might affect the students’ mental well-being”. It is in line with a report submitted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) ,which states that virtual classes are not ideal for students below the age of six and the recommended screen time for the age group is just an hour. Does this reason hold water? Yes, to a certain extent. There are reports that Internet exposure is harmful to children and puts them at the risk of ‘online grooming’. Children who get addicted to the Internet and gadgets may not be able to develop interpersonal skills and may not have the inclination to develop essential people skills. Excessive Internet use may also affect children’s emotional quotient (EQ) and social quotient (SQ).

An OECD report titled ‘Children & Young People’s Mental Health in the Digital Age’ quotes from a UNICEF document: “It appears a little bit of Internet use can have a small positive impact on children and young people’s well being, while the two extremes of not being online at all and excessive use can have a small negative impact on mental well being”.

Digital divide

Another reason stated by the minister was the digital gap between the haves and the have nots. I use the terms #DigitalHaves and #DigitalHaveNots. The digital divide, a major issue in India, seems to be a valid reason to ban online education. We may say it is a digital age, but the disturbing fact is that most students, especially in rural areas, do not have access to the Internet and digital devices. Though we call the present generation ‘digital natives’, most of our students do not know what the term really means because they do not have the experience of being familiar with digital systems. Education should promote equality and foster unity among citizens. Unfortunately, online education in India causes inequality, creates a divide among students and alienates the disadvantaged.

Teacher preparedness

Most school teachers do not know how to use technology or to integrate technology into teaching, as classroom teaching is quite different. Even an excellent classroom teacher may fail to connect with students while teaching online. Facing students physically and interacting with them is different from facing a camera and interacting with a virtual class. Without preparing teachers for online teaching, it is not possible to make online education effective.

Price over quality

Why are education institutions keen on online teaching? Many private education institutions say that they can push ahead with the academic calender. Is that the only reason? No, some schools see it as an opportunity to collect a huge amount of money from students in the name of online classes but do not seem to be concerned about the quality of online education.

We live in the digital age. Digital technology is a powerful tool and, if used wisely by educators, parents and students, it can have positive impact on the user. Sadly, online classes at the primary level do not have the desired positive impact on all students. I think the Government of Karnataka has weighed the pros and cons of online classes and taken a wise decision by banning it for classes up to 5.

All State governments should issue clear and detailed guidelines about online classes specifying the screen time to be spent by students of different age groups and other resources that can be used to enhance their knowledge. The day digital-have-nots in India become digital-haves, online education will flourish.

The writer is an academic, columnist and freelance trainer. rayanal@yahoo.co.uk

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Printable version | Jul 11, 2020 6:27:16 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/online-or-offline/article31878377.ece

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