We find ourselves amid the coronavirus pandemic and as schools assert the need for resorting to online classes to keep up with the regular academic calendar and ensure that children don’t lose out, let us understand the myriad implications of such a proposition on children from diverse socio-economic backgrounds.
Surbhi (12) remains busy these days like ‘normal’ days as she needs to attend online classes every day and complete her homework. She gets some time in the evening to play on the terrace with her dog. Surbhi’s parents are doing well in their respective fields. Her father owns a readymade garments showroom whereas her mother runs a boutique. Surbhi’s father says that he likes the online mode of teaching, he argues that the parents have all the information about what is being taught to their children and their homework. Also, online classes force children to be sincere in doing their lessons as they are constantly being watched by their parents and also teachers keep an eye on the performance of the students. For a well to do family online classes for their children has become an important means to maintain some kind of normalcy in these absurd times. “Education should continue even during these time” Surbhi’s father asserts while hailing the importance of technology in our lives in Corona times. Moreover, families like these have the necessary ability to own technology (smartphone and laptop in this case) and also the conditions that enable the use of technology (good internet connection). They also have sufficient and decent space in their house where children could attend their online classes without much disturbance. Educated parents could help their children with their lessons and improve their understanding. All in all, online classes are tailor-made for middle-class families, they would have no reasons to complain about such a medium of teaching.
The Story of Nilesh
Let’s contrast Surbhi’s story with Nilesh (13) who is also a student of the same school. However, Nilesh and his family have starkly distinct experience and opinion of online classes from Surbhi’s family. Nilesh’s father works in a local gas delivery agency, his income is not much but he somehow manages to send his only child Nilesh to one of the best schools in the town.
Nilesh’s mother apart from looking after the household chores, works in a tailoring shop to supplement her husband’s income. Nilesh’s online classes have become a problem in his family as they have only one smartphone at home, which is now needed by Nilesh to access his online classes. Nilesh’s father who comes under the category of ‘essential worker’ during the lockdown has been forced to take his wife’s phone to work so that Nilesh could access his online classes. However, it’s not easy for Nilesh to attend his online classes as their one-room house is too congested to allow him attend his classes without disturbance. The other day I observed a commotion at Nilesh’s house as his classes were to start in the morning but he was not finding a proper location from where his dingy and overstuffed house could not be rendered visible. I remembered my days in school when I tried to dissuade any of my friends from coming to my house because it was old and small- not up to the middle-class standard. Apart from the above-mentioned hurdles for Nilesh in attending online classes, his parents could not help him with his homework and lessons as they are not well educated themselves. The extra help and motivation that students coming from the marginalised sections of the society need is completely absent in the online medium. He sometimes comes to my home seeking help for his homework. At one instance, his mother told me that she is praying that the schools reopen soon so that this menace of online classes gets over.
The Story of Alex
There is another story of Alex (12), an Adivasi boy who goes to a government school which has no provision for online classes and rightly so because the majority of students could not access online classes. His father used to work as a waiter in a local restaurant and since the lockdown, he is out of work. His education is least of his family’s concern when they are struggling to arrange food and pay their rent. Unlike Nilesh and Surbhi, Alex’s daily routine has completely changed, one could always see him playing outside his house or running after the kites. His cheerful face and energetic activities could give an impression that he is unaware of the problem facing his family in particular and the world in general. However, he is a very sensitive and perceptive young boy. He tells me that he could not celebrate his birthday this year because his father has lost his job and they are running short of money. In his typical style, he says “Bimari fail gaya hai isliye aisa ho raha hai lekin kuch din mein sab theek ho jayega” (it is happening because of the contagion but things would become fine soon). He and his family are facing serious problems since the lockdown, he could feel this moment very intimately, perhaps this time would remain etched in his memory. His family’s location at the bottom of the class pyramid does not allow him to access the privilege of online education during the pandemic at the same time he is closely experiencing this rupture which has completely shattered their lives.
The story of three young children belonging to different class location and with differential experience of lockdown and education during the pandemic raises important questions regarding the valorisation of technology as a medium of social transformation. These stories also make me question not only our fixation with online classes during the present period but also the very logic of education which negates the socio-cultural context in which it takes place. If we don’t expose the young students to what is happening around them and try to feed them ‘neutral’ education how could we expect that they become sensitive, empathetic and caring citizens at the end of their school education. The pedagogic task for society becomes much more important in times of crisis like the one we are facing.
Most of us have hailed technology as the greatest boon which has allowed all of us to remain connected and maintain a semblance of normalcy in this period of lockdown when the physical movement has been severely curtailed. It has allowed many professionals to ‘work from home’. Similarly, online education with the aid of apps such as Zoom has become a new normal during the lockdown. Digital technology has allowed many of us to overcome the most severe curtailment to human mobility ever. Technology seems to contain in it the possibility of overcoming social, economic, political and geographical barriers and radically transforming the forms of human engagement. However, we often fail to take into account that technology does not operate in a vacuum. The capabilities to access technology and the conditions for its smooth operation are unequally distributed among the members of the society. The societal inequalities in terms of class, caste, gender, race does impinge on the unequal ownership and control of technology. There is a sense of inequality in-built in terms of access and control of technology, rather than a medium of social transformation technology often acts as a medium to perpetuate already existing inequalities.
The middle-class obsession with online education is myopic in its vision as it doesn’t acknowledge the basic fact that a large section of our population is unable to access such education. The capabilities to access such education is privilege in a hierarchical society like ours. The three stories I narrated are testimony to the socio-economic perpetuation of inequality through the means of technology in these times.
Educational institutions are not just physical spaces built of brick and mortar but spaces where hopes and possibility of a better world are conceived by social groups who have hitherto been denied education. They are one of the few places which contain possibilities of social change for a more humane world. Sociologist Satish Deshpande in his recent article rightly argues that online classes should supplement not replace face to face teaching. The proclamation of online education as the new mode of teaching and learning should be resisted as it negates the socio-economic reality of our society. The lure of the technology and absurdity imposed by the lockdown should not be allowed to push through a seemingly revolutionary but utterly status-quoist idea of online education.
Kunal Nath Shahdeo is pursuing his Ph.D. in Sociology from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Bombay,