The digital divide: Why Kerala is not ready for the online education plunge

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By Bijulal MV

The Union government and the states seem to have come to the conclusion that universalisation of online education is the only way to overcome the restrictions put in place to curb the spread of Covid-19, despite official data on internet accessibility, connectivity, and functional literacy among potential users pointing to the possible exclusion of a majority of students. The lack of access to the non-negotiables for participating in knowledge transaction in an equal and effective manner, accentuated by the chaotic economic conditions in the last few months, hasn’t deterred policy makers from telling students that they will have no option but to adopt this new normal.

Kerala also is going ahead with efforts to universalize online education. Though state education minister C Raveendranath says the move is born out of the Covid-induced emergency, several educators and policymakers are worried about the possible impact of the move on the society in terms of social justice goals. The Kerala government had, a few days ago, prescribed the terms to ensure comprehensive application of online education at the collegiate level. The government decreed that necessary arrangements should be in place to ensure attendance of students, without specifying how this could be done.

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Is Kerala ready for the universalisation of online learning? Here are some numbers from the Internet and Mobile Association of India that should have guided policy making. According to the latest IAMAI numbers, India has a total of 504 million active Internet users (April 2020). This makes it amply clear that a majority of the population is outside the requirements for online transactions of any kind. According to an earlier IAMAI report (November 2019), internet availability in Kerala (54%) is second only to Delhi NCR that topped in internet penetration (69%). The accuracy of the studies assessing the availability of internet enabled phones is not beyond doubt. Each student in a family might require a phone for effective learning, the present method seems to ignore this fact.

Last week, a newspaper reported that the availability of non-negotiables required for online education was poor among the Adivasis, Dalits and those who work in traditional sectors (such as the fisherfolk). If this is the situation in Kerala, one could imagine the overall Indian scenario where economic and social deprivation is much higher. A telephonic survey of college and university teachers in Kerala conducted by this author found that 30-40% of the students in different institutions are affected by economic and non-economic dimensions of digital divide. The institutions they represent have been holding online classes for the last two months. Of course, such standard data-oriented empirical studies do not reflect the micro aspects relating to the experience of students living in different types of distress situations, those in conflict ridden families, those who depend on friends for access, and many marginalized groups such as the physically challenged and trans people.

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Unmoderated and non-dialogical manner in which online education is rolled out as a comprehensive strategy for teaching is also challenging the teachers who also share the same environmental factors that stop students from participating on an equal basis. A majority of teachers are also not capable of managing the operations of online educational platforms at present – some are related to accessing data while some others are skill-related. A press release by the All Kerala Government College Teachers has dealt with this aspect in clear terms. The communication dated May 24, 2020 suggests that the bureaucracy should have waited for the report of a committee of experts established in April 2020. The note says the government did not follow the principles of participatory decision making and such situations reveal structural problems in decision making where the possibility of incorporating the suggestions of a professional body is ruled out. This is contrary to the inclusive public policy administration in Kerala, for which the state is getting accolades across the globe.

One has to see the adoption of online technologies in Kerala in connection with the fast track changes suggested in the 2019 national draft policy on higher education. This has two important social impact dimensions, raising questions about a disconnect between technology and social justice in the society. The most important aspect is the discrimination against the students from the marginalised groups who are bound to suffer from “natural dropping out situations”. Such dropping outs will be listed as caused by non-systemic factors as in the cases of dropouts from Dalits and other marginalised sections.

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Nuanced civil society assessments have time and again disputed the rationalization of dropouts as non-systemic. This is where the educated public needs to understand that the right to education as enshrined in the Constitution is the yardstick on which such scenarios should be assessed. Operation of a public policy should be wetted at different levels to ensure that social, cultural, economic and civil rights of people are protected. India is a member of several such international agreements on human rights where the right to education of the marginalized people is enshrined. However, the fast-tracking of technology driven education is dispossessing the marginalized people of the constitutionally guaranteed meaningful education, an essential human right.

A large number of intellectuals including those in the teaching profession seem to support fast-tracking online teaching arguing that technological changes are inevitable. Some even suggest that this is merely a stop gap choice to tide over the Covid-19 crisis, forgetting the fact that the UGC has already sent directives to universities to start online core courses on Swayam platform. Those who defend universalization of online education also believe that the trickling down of online education culture will result in all sections of the society embracing the method. However, an entire educational generation may lose out in the process. Such disruption in educational mobility might seriously impact the marginalised sections, losing out the gains from struggles of older generations, constitutional guarantees, rights-based policy implementations and constant social vigil. All such gains and values will be lost if the trickledown logic is liberally accepted. Such policies could only benefit those who sell gadgets and data, providing them a market opportunity.

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Sadly, the trickle-down enthusiasts fail to see that reforms like digitisation are descending on to the heads of families with absolutely no income in the last few months. The intellectuals who support the implementation of a socially divisive technology are helping the totalitarian tendencies in decision making. It should also be underlined here that protection of life and livelihoods (Article 21) is inextricably connected to right to meaningful education. With the starving poor are still flowing into the streets, one could only hope that the game of development will not ignore their survival.

Last year, Kerala witnessed situations where children of Adivasis were not able to get admission to higher education because of “digital divide” issues that are related to data ability. The issue was highlighted in an earlier article by this author, published on this platform. If our priority is to ensure equity and meaningful education to all sections, the statecraft needs to reorient itself on a rights-based approaches to development. It is also true that data ability is a problem even in developed economies. However, there are strong doubts about the viability of the centuries-old system of collective and shared knowledge sharing in universities. Considering the universities as social spaces for revolutionary action and democratic engagement, it may also be argued that the new versions of capitalism does not entertain the rebellious youth who question its command-driven social engineering. In other words, most undemocratic regimes seek to control or annul spaces of protest within their territories.

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It is understandable that the state is compelled by conflicting priorities that demand use of technology at the time of the coronavirus epidemic where usual modes of governance have collapsed. State planning board member K Raviraman says the state government has no option but to follow the global trend of transition towards online learning. He says the government should ensure that the policies do not help widen the already existing digital divide, denying a level playing field for the marginalised sections.

In this context, it is also important to hold education-oriented village congregations to discuss the impact of online education, where children under 18 could register their opinions on policy making. It needs to be seen if institutions including some central universities are adopting a wait a watch approach on appropriate learning and examination methods for the days of the Covid-19 pandemic. Public action agents from civil society are denied a role in the planning and implementation of policies in tribal areas. Many tribal hamlets that are socially and geographically alienated are under the mercy of the forest department. The intervention of the social welfare ministry is urgently required to implement governance measures from a social justice point of view.

(Dr Bijulal MV teaches at the school of international relations and politics at Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam.)