Issues facing online education
The Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the education sector globally. Classes have been suspended to enforce social distancing and educational institutions, from schools to universities, have shifted to online methods of teaching and evaluation. As the number of cases continues to rise, there is no certainty about when normalcy will be restored. This has encouraged some sort of a permanent tilt, if not a complete shift, to online education. The new National Education Policy (NEP) approved last month also talks about being ready for digital and online education, although it adds a rider that the digital divide must be eliminated to fully benefit from such methods.
An HT analysis based on unit-level data from a 2017-18 National Statistical Office (NSO) survey has highlighted caution against a sudden push towards online education in India.
Any such policy will run the risk of excluding a significant section of students. A number of students, who, in theory, have access to online teaching will have to depend on inconvenient methods such as using mobile phones instead of computers.
A wholesale shift to online education is not just dependent on access to devices and the internet. It is also about nuances. For instance, shifting to online methods can be far more difficult in humanities than engineering, or in government institutions than in private ones.
Three-fourths of students in India did not have access to the internet at home, according to a 2017-18 all-India NSO survey. The share of those who did not have computers, including devices such as palm-tops and tablets, was much greater--89%. Access to these facilities was higher among students at higher levels of education. But even at the highest levels, a large share of students did not have access to these facilities. As expected, access to the internet and computers is directly related to household incomes.
To be sure, internet access must have increased since the 2017-18. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), the number of internet subscribers increased from 446 million to 719 million between 2017 and 2019. The bulk of this growth has come from wireless connections (272 million out of 273 million). While mobiles can be useful in listening to online lectures, they are not the ideal medium when it comes to writing exams or even assignments.
Lack of access to the internet and devices has also created a gap in digital literacy. As many as 76% of students in India in the 5-35 age group did not know how to use a computer. The share of those who did not know how to use the internet was 74.5%. Once again, this gap rises with a fall in income levels. 55% of students among the top 20% of households by monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) knew how to use a computer and internet while these proportions were only 9% and 10% among the bottom 20%.
Given the interrelationship between class background and choice of courses, professional courses are better suited for a shift to online methods. 54% of humanities students (at the graduate level or higher, including diplomas) did not have access to the internet and 81% did not have access to computers.
These shares were just 30% and 44% for engineering. At the same level of enrolment, the share of students in private unaided and aided institutions with computer at home (36% and 30% respectively) was higher than in government institutions (25%).
To be sure, even these numbers are likely to overestimate the number of students who may benefit from online education. This is because having a computer or internet facility at home is not a guarantee of uninterrupted access to it. In May, an HT report highlighted how most Delhi University (DU) students lacked resources to take online exams. It showed how two siblings, whose father is a daily wager, were worried about their final-year exams as the keypad of the phone they shared was not working and the internet was slow.
The NSO survey will show their household as having access to the internet, although this access was hardly helpful for them.
For such families, a sudden shift to online education can also strain their spending capacity. Rough estimates suggest pursuing online education can be very costly for the poorest households. For example,they show that playing a 480p video (or a video with a resolution of 854x480 pixels) on YouTube can consume about 264 MB of data per hour. Five hour online lectures for five days a week on the platform would then mean consuming 26.4 GB data a month.
According to TRAI, the average revenue realisation per subscriber per GB for wireless data in the December quarter was Rs 8.45. This translates to a monthly cost of Rs 204.9 at July 2017-June 2018 prices when the education survey was conducted. This cost is almost a quarter of the bottom 20% of households’ average MPCE according to the survey, Rs 900, and only 4.4% of the top 20% of households’ MPCE, Rs 4641.
NEP emphasises on preventing drop-outs.If India has to focus on online learning, it would do well to ensure students have access to devices and internet connections.