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The Rapid Move to Online Learning in HE: Equity Lessons from India

‘We have decided that from Monday 16 March all face-to-face teaching on our campuses in Glasgow and Dumfries will end and that course materials will be placed online.’

– Internal Communications, University of Glasgow (March 14, 2020)

This announcement from the University of Glasgow is by no means a single event located in a specific Higher Education Institute (HEI). Schools and HEIs worldwide are being shut down indefinitely since the WHO declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. As a result, many university students and teachers have returned to their home countries and regions, sometimes to remote areas. In the UK, Education Secretary Gavin Williamson confirmed that assessments and examinations will not take place this academic year, resulting in a seemingly unconditional urge to use online learning to ensure continuity in learners’ academic engagement. The rapid transmission of novel coronavirus has fundamentally disrupted the traditional teaching and learning environment. Virtual curriculum delivery is becoming the new norm with an increasing number of HEIs making use of online classes and resources for continued teaching and learning. As a student at the University of Glasgow, which has extensive and well-established digital resources and support systems, I have been fortunate in being able to comfortably sustain my coursework online. However as an experienced practitioner specialising in integrating technology into education in India, I am aware that this will not be the case for students the world over, and I am concerned about the implications. Though this might look like an ideal scenario for the development of remote learning through technology, are universities across both developed and developing contexts equally prepared for such change? In this post, I reflect on the equity impacts of rapid transfer to digital HE delivery, drawing on my knowledge of the Indian context.

Rapid (and Uneven) Digitisation

HEIs in the UK, including the University of Glasgow, have made extensive use of digital learning platforms and resources to maintain teaching and learning. Course management systems such as Moodle are being customised and developed beyond traditional use, while video conferencing platforms such as Zoom, Skype and WebEx, and learning management systems such as Instructure, Canvas, Blackboard and Google Classroom are becoming the predominant tool for teaching and learning. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's announcement of a nation-wide lockdown until 14th April has resulted in Indian universities and other HEIs deferring all classes until 31st March and hostels and halls of residence have been vacated. Although initial reports were of total class suspension, a few HEIs such as Delhi University, the Indian Institute of Technology and Jamia Millia Islamia have appealed to continue with online classes. “The teachers will make study material available online to students. Internal assessment will also be done online until the pandemic is contained” stated AP Siddiqui, Registrar of Jamia Millia Islamia. Later, Jagadesh Kumar, Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University urged faculty members to engage with students through online methods in the wake of the 21-day lockdown. Universities and HEIs are working in collaboration with each other to create open source modules and e-learning and encouraging self-paced learning through online resources. Credit transfer systems are also being introduced for seamless offline and online education, though the details of how this will function have yet to be outlined. Nevertheless, extensive efforts are being made by HEIs to establish continuity in the country’s teaching and learning milieu.

Implications for Equity

At this time, when the accepted way of addressing disruption to teaching and learning is to move to online education, the (under)preparedness of many Indian HEIs risks going under the radar. Many questions related to pedagogy, curriculum, learning as well as resources have revealed the nation’s vulnerability and inability to adapt to the educational changes provoked by COVID-19. Broadly in India, online education is considered as a welcome challenge to conventional methods, which are deemed repetitive, costly, limited to the classroom context, and characterised by fixed timings and a fixed concept of learning.

However, what happens when the distribution of basic requirements for technology integration in education is imbalanced? Here, I am talking about equitable access. The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) lists ‘equitable access’ as an essential condition for use of technology in education; more precisely “robust and reliable access to current and emerging technologies and digital resources, with connectivity for all students, including those with special needs, teachers, staff and school leaders”. India, on the contrary, not only has an existing digital divide in terms of affordability and access, but has larger geo-social factors widening this digital gap. For example, according to data released by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, while 66% of the country's population lives in rural areas, rural internet density in these regions is just 25.3%. In comparison, the 34% living in urban areas have a significantly higher internet density of 97.9%. In addition to this rural-urban divide, factors such as gender, geographical location and socio-economic status add to this digital divide. Under such circumstances, how can online education be equitable? Teachers and students from mountainous areas, desert locations, flood-prone regions and dense forest already struggle with digital infrastructure and resources, connectivity and access within their existing HEIs. Now with the lockdown, the situation is worsening.

One of the suggested solutions to these limitations is the creation of short videos by teachers, which students can access via mobile phones. But is this not still passive consumption of education, simply reproduced in digital form? Moreover, are teachers ready for online teaching using e-resources? What kind of support do they need to transform their pedagogy while integrating technology? Despite the pressing evidence of a digital divide, the main concern in India has been maintaining learning through technology with little reflection on wider impacts, leaving space for troubling inequalities to grow without scrutiny.

What next?

Since the beginning of the 21st Century, HEIs in India have invested heavily in educational technologies. Now, as students return to their homes and attempt to engage with online learning formats using personal resources, the inadequacy of these preparations is being revealed as the pre-existing digital divide becomes more pronounced. In a context where equitable digital access is still a distant dream and personal ownership and significant use of technology is a privilege, online teaching has – practically overnight - become the standard, not the alternative and owning a device has become not just a matter of choice, but a requirement for educational access.

It was already acknowledged that equitable digital access among teachers and students and extensive professional development for teachers are two vital conditions (among many) for supporting meaningful integration of technology in education. The rapid transformations brought about by the current pandemic have exposed a crisis that is long-term; we need systemic transformation through regional and national collaborations and cross-sectoral conglomerates. HEIs along with other education institutions such as schools, publishing houses and tech companies must establish smart partnerships for collaborative engagement across a larger spectrum of education. I would argue that it is worth exploring and understanding the role of the commercial sector, especially telecommunication enterprises who dictate connectivity pathways and thereby determine digital access. When online learning is the new standard, facilities such as improved connectivity and digital affordability could be considered as public goods. Correspondingly, policies and programmes related to economic inequality, telecoms regulation and digitisation of educational resources must be revised at regional and national level. At the institutional level, it is a clearly essential to review existing curricula and pedagogical approaches to ensure they are optimised for online learning.

Vitally, we must create an enabling and inclusive digital learning environment and ensure equitable access to online education for all. The unprecedented context of the COVID-19 pandemic has revealed that India must wake up to the need of the hour and ensure the evolution of contextual tech-based solutions that can support continued education across the country.


Many thanks to our contributor, Panchalee Tamulee, who can be contacted via her member profile page.

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