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The divide in digital education

Amid the COVID-19 chaos, the university system got transformed into virtual substitutes. As part of professional responsibilities, the educators were instructed to conduct online classes to keep up with the course programme. This turned out to be an insurmountable task for teachers. It was due to not just a lack of awareness of online teaching software but also a limited access to academic resources at home. This was further exacerbated by the need to manage the work-life balance amid growing chaos to arrange the paraphernalia needed to meet the needs of students in times of social distancing.

Though the teaching community rose up to the occasion, it led us to closely examine the multiple facets of online education in a diverse country like ours.

Drawing from my teaching experience at Aligarh Muslim University, which is a Central university providing higher education to students belonging to diverse socio-economic sections of society, I observed that about 30% of the total class was in attendance during the online lectures. While this got me worried about the majority of the class being left out of the ambit of online education, I began reaching out to the students on their mobile phones and e-mails. That threw open a Pandora’s box of socio-economic problems before me, ranging from intermittent Internet connectivity and frequent power cuts to financial constraints in procuring a high-speed Internet connection and limited access to digital literacy and devices among college goers in the country.

While the painstaking efforts of teachers did benefit those hailing from privileged backgrounds, it left behind the vulnerable — sadly, the majority. For students who had to opt out because they were forced to partake in agricultural livelihoods to sustain their economically weaker families, the virtual world with the promise of a brighter future looks dimmer and their chances of being pulled out of poverty slimmer than before. Students from poverty-stricken families now have a much widened gap to bridge before them — between the "essentials" and the luxury of accomplishing academic goals. It would be even more challenging for the underprivileged to crack competitive examinations in the absence of a level playing field in terms of equal access to learning opportunities and resources.

This is not to say the we protest against technology adaptation, digital literacy, and online learning platforms, but can we as a nation afford to overlook the underprivileged and march ahead with a sense of accomplishment with the just privileged urban sections? Obviously not. This will not only dampen the spirit and dreams of the current lot, but also the aspirations of the future generations to come. It is incumbent upon us to urgently imbibe the lessons from the pandemic. Some measures that could be taken to bridge the learning gap include extra tutorials in the successive semesters and special teaching assistance in the form of student mentors for every student who missed out during the lockdown. It would become more challenging for the students as well as faculty.

We need urgent policy interventions advancing diversity and inclusion in higher education to be implemented at the national level. To begin with, we need to promote and ensure digital literacy among the masses, primarily uninterrupted Internet connectivity and mobile network signals in rural areas. Additionally, universities must fully fund digital access to user-friendly online teaching platforms to benefit a majority of the students in Central universities. These primary steps will not only bridge the learning gap but also help us realise our potential as a nation to evolve beyond the "essentials".

a.chaudhary.cm@amu.ac.in

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Printable version | Jan 20, 2021 3:22:37 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/the-divide-in-digital-education/article31710304.ece

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