For large numbers of Indian students, attending classes on the Internet is both exasperating and exclusionary, due to connectivity issues
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 explains.
“Also, many of us don’t have laptops as some of us are economically backward…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.
In India, some 500 million people, less than 40% 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 Telecom Regulatory Authority of India 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 estimated to be about 31%. And according to the Speedtest Global Index, 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. His parents 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, there are 10 new cases of Coronavirus in his neighborhood. “Education is necessary, but so is the mental health of students,” he says.” Lack of internet, traumatised surroundings, economic crisis…are we expected to act as robots?”
In Kashmir, schools and colleges had only just opened in March when the pandemic again forced their closure. Nine months after a communication blackout in Kashmir on the eve of abrogation of Article 370, services are yet to be fully restored. Most have slow-speed 2G, and even that is frequently snapped, for some reason or the other.
“We have been trying to talk to the department to put a halt to online classes, but to no avail,” says 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.”
Kasiar Malik, a master’s student of literature at Kashmir University, expressed a similar concern. “I joined 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. 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 Milia Islamia 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, “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.
She also complains about interference by parents, which makes it 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. 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, says, “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.