The Resurgence of Ed-Tech Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic: Implications for an Altered Educational Landscape

With e-learning becoming the overarching norm amid the pandemic, here is a thorough look at its implications, challenges and dilemmas for our times.

In the last twelve weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out many stark fissures that currently exist in our system. The tragic death toll from COVID-19 has been accompanied by the overturning of millions of livelihoods as governments across the world take necessary steps to limit the spread of the virus. Amidst the many disruptions brought to the forefront, COVID-19 has thrown education all over the world in a loop. Schools have been shut, children have been left with limited contact with friends, there is an increased trauma with decreased access to public spaces and institutions, and a challenge to access learning. All the recognized boards including CBSE, ICSE, IB, A-levels and state boards have postponed or cancelled examinations. While CBSE has laid down the new guidelines for the examinations, the implementation challenges remain obvious. There is panic all around and educators and students alike are confused as to the next steps and continuity concerning educational objectives.

School Closures and Transition to Online Education

The country-wide closures of schools have provided little or no time for them to prepare a strategy and transition to distance learning. This along with the existing structural and social inequity has once again raised serious concern for access to education for many. Within this climate, the pandemic has resulted in leaving learners, particularly from vulnerable backgrounds, at a higher risk of dropping out from schools and at an increased risk of abuse. It has cut off access to mid-day meals and welfare measures provided by public education, resulting in mental health turmoil for the students and educators, and a decline in quality teaching and learning. During my interaction with students from across age groups, the uncertainty in school reopening dates and increased restrictions on going out to play has resulted in them becoming more anxious and stressed. While children from urban, upper-middle-class houses have supplemented their lack of social meetings by having online birthday parties and accessing online learning, the ruptures in the life of children from marginalised communities are high. With the crisis in livelihood in these uncertain times, the children from the economically exploited backgrounds face a looming threat of dropping out from schools, with girls going to be worst hit

On March 26, 2020, in the light of the announcement of the lockdown, CBSE released a notice, “Lockdown”-A Golden Opportunity for Education. The notice issued by the secretary of CBSE, Anurag Tripathi, claims that the gap between school education and practical life is constantly increasing. It states, ‘Most of the children are trying their luck in jobs in which they never had any interest. This situation hinders the development of both society and the nation.’ The notice goes on to further anchor the reason for this gap in the quality of teaching. It states, ‘In fact, the real game here is about the methods of teaching and learning. It is about the teaching-learning process. It is about the Curriculum. It is about pedagogy.’ It positions ‘a qualified, trained, passionate, affectionate and a teacher who loves his/her profession’ as a game-changer who can shift the paradigm of the entire Indian education system, conveniently letting the structural constraints in education to slide through. With the aim to share what can be done by children, teachers and parents during the lockdown to be ‘productive’, the CBSE secretary emphasises on developing 21st-century skills in children stating that the whole world remembers the 21st century as the digital revolution. ‘To succeed in this world and stay on top, you have to keep yourself updated with changing technology every moment. This time of “lockdown” can be best utilised by using digital means.’, he mentions. Offering the digital platform as the solution, the secretary says that we should take advantage of this opportunity and rise from the physical classroom and promote digital classroom instantaneously, making every home a ‘learning and skill centre’ by involving e-classes, games, video shoots, and a lot of other activities in their daily routine.

The Digital Divide and Educational Inequity

According to data from Statista (2018), only 27% of the Indian population have smartphones and according to the National Survey Sample Office, 75th round  Key Indicators of Household Social digital Consumption on Education in India (2018), only 23.8% of the household have an internet facility. With an apparent digital divide in India, CBSE secretary’s notice encouraging children to go for online platforms like Khan Academy and Byju’s learning exposes the misplaced and misinformed urban middle-class gaze on education. It also shows a clear aim towards promoting market-based solutions to socio-cultural and educational problems. 

Can the problems of educational access and quality amidst the pandemic be reduced to the ‘internet penetration’ and ‘digital divide’ alone? To understand how technology can serve a democratising purpose in bridging educational inequity, it is important to take into consideration the unequal distribution of the knowledge capital in urban-rural spaces, the socio-political conditions of various geographical regions, and the underlying structural inequity experienced within the nexus of class-caste-gender. The statement as laid in the government document gives implicit directions for the private intervention in providing educational solutions, which has been time and again challenged and questioned by civil society. 

On Sunday, 24th May 2020, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced the launch of ‘PM eVIDYA’ programme while sharing the breakup of the fifth and last instalment of the government’s Rs 20 lakh crore Covid-19 package to boost the Indian economy. The plan with its call towards providing digital education is likely to boost already high interest in the ed-tech startups, given the extended at-home learning requirements that the industry is catering to.

According to the announcement by the Finance Minister, top 100 universities of the country will be allowed to start online courses by 30th May. The multi-mode access plan provided by the state aims to create opportunities for the private players from the technology companies and education sector to create, distribute, and monetize relevant digital content targeted at all sections of the society leading to a much wider reach and impact. One of the main components of the new In the last twelve weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out many stark fissures that currently exist in our system. The tragic death toll from COVID-19 has been accompanied by the overturning of millions of livelihoods as governments across the world take necessary steps to limit the spread of the virus. Amidst the many disruptions brought to the forefront, COVID-19 has thrown education all over the world in a loop. Schools have been shut, children have been left with limited contact with friends, there is an increased trauma with decreased access to public spaces and institutions, and a challenge to access learning. All the recognized boards including CBSE, ICSE, IB, A-levels and state boards have postponed or cancelled examinations. While CBSE has laid down the new guidelines for the examinations, the implementation challenges remain obvious. There is panic all around and educators and students alike are confused as to the next steps and continuity concerning educational objectives.

School Closures and Transition to Online Education

The country-wide closures of schools have provided little or no time for them to prepare a strategy and transition to distance learning. This along with the existing structural and social inequity has once again raised serious concern for access to education for many. Within this climate, the pandemic has resulted in leaving learners, particularly from vulnerable backgrounds, at a higher risk of dropping out from schools and at an increased risk of abuse. It has cut off access to mid-day meals and welfare measures provided by public education, resulting in mental health turmoil for the students and educators, and a decline in quality teaching and learning. During my interaction with students from across age groups, the uncertainty in school reopening dates and increased restrictions on going out to play has resulted in them becoming more anxious and stressed. While children from urban, upper-middle-class houses have supplemented their lack of social meetings by having online birthday parties and accessing online learning, the ruptures in the life of children from marginalised communities are high. With the crisis in livelihood in these uncertain times, the children from the economically exploited backgrounds face a looming threat of dropping out from schools, with girls going to be worst hit. On March 26, 2020, in the light of the announcement of the lockdown, CBSE released a notice, “Lockdown”-A Golden Opportunity for Education. The notice issued by the secretary of CBSE, Anurag Tripathi, claims that the gap between school education and practical life is constantly increasing. It states, ‘Most of the children are trying their luck in jobs in which they never had any interest. This situation hinders the development of both society and the nation.’ The notice goes on to further anchor the reason for this gap in the quality of teaching. It states, ‘In fact, the real game here is about the methods of teaching and learning. It is about the teaching-learning process. It is about the Curriculum. It is about pedagogy.’ It positions ‘a qualified, trained, passionate, affectionate and a teacher who loves his/her profession’ as a game-changer who can shift the paradigm of the entire Indian education system, conveniently letting the structural constraints in education to slide through. With the aim to share what can be done by children, teachers and parents during the lockdown to be ‘productive’, the CBSE secretary emphasises on developing 21st-century skills in children stating that the whole world remembers the 21st century as the digital revolution. ‘To succeed in this world and stay on top, you have to keep yourself updated with changing technology every moment. This time of “lockdown” can be best utilized by using digital means.’, he mentions. Offering the digital platform as the solution, the secretary says that we should take advantage of this opportunity and rise from the physical classroom and promote digital classroom instantaneously, making every home a ‘learning and skill centre’ by involving e-classes, games, video shoots, and a lot of other activities in their daily routine.

The Digital Divide and Educational Inequity

According to data from Statista (2018), only 27% of the Indian population have smartphones and according to the National Survey Sample Office, 75th round  Key Indicators of Household Social digital Consumption on Education in India (2018), only 23.8% of the household have an internet facility. With an apparent digital divide in India, CBSE secretary’s notice encouraging children to go for online platforms like Khan Academy and Byju’s learning exposes the misplaced and misinformed urban middle-class gaze on education. It also shows a clear aim towards promoting market-based solutions to socio-cultural and educational problems. 

Can the problems of educational access and quality amidst the pandemic be reduced to the ‘internet penetration’ and ‘digital divide’ alone? To understand how technology can serve a democratising purpose in bridging educational inequity, it is important to take into consideration the unequal distribution of the knowledge capital in urban-rural spaces, the socio-political conditions of various geographical regions, and the underlying structural inequity experienced within the nexus of class-caste-gender. The statement as laid in the government document gives implicit directions for the private intervention in providing educational solutions, which has been time and again challenged and questioned by civil society. 

On Sunday, 24th May 2020, the Finance Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, announced the launch of ‘PM eVIDYA’ programme while sharing the breakup of the fifth and last instalment of the government’s Rs 20 lakh crore Covid-19 package to boost the Indian economy. The plan with its call towards providing digital education is likely to boost already high interest in the ed-tech startups, given the extended at-home learning requirements that the industry is catering to.

According to the announcement by the Finance Minister, top 100 universities of the country will be allowed to start online courses by 30th May. The multi-mode access plan provided by the state aims to create opportunities for the private players from the technology companies and education sector to create, distribute, and monetize relevant digital content targeted at all sections of the society leading to a much wider reach and impact. One of the main components of the new programme is the ‘One Class One Channel’ initiative where classes will be conducted on twelve dedicated DTH channels on the television. ‘The government has launched Swayam Prabha DTH channels to support and reach those who do not have access to the internet, now 12 more channels will be added,” Sitharaman said. Apart from the channels, the DIKSHA portal (One Nation, One Digital Platform) will also provide quality educational content to researchers and students. This announcement has been welcomed by the booming edtech industry in India, who see these initiatives as a possibility for public-private partnership in educational interventions. In a challenging socio-economic environment that the pandemic has put us in, the Edtech platforms are taking huge funds from their investors.

The Rise of Ed-Tech in the Pandemic Market: Implications for Future

Similarly, worldwide, the mass closures of schools and universities plus the rapid switches to online teaching and learning have resulted in the technology vendors and promoters positioning themselves as frontline emergency response providers catering to the educational emergency resulting from the ‘pandemic markets’. Big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, international organizations including the OECD and UNESCO, as well as the vast global education industry consisting of Edu-businesses, consultancies, investors and technology providers, are coming together to define how education systems should respond to the crisis and generate newer market avenues for profit.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which has positioned itself as the world authority on the educational disruption caused by the global coronavirus outbreak released a ‘snapshot of policy measures’ as part of its Global Education Monitoring project on 24th March, stating all countries are introducing or scaling up existing distance education modalities based on different mixes of technology. It also raised the concerns about inequity in ICT-based learning and the concerns over distance education within the existing digital divide. 

Ben Williamson, a researcher on digital data in educational governance in schools and Higher Education from Edinburg University in his paper, “New power networks in educational technology” claims that these coalitions and networks of big technology companies and edtech organisations are not only setting their objectives for the short term but also suggest long-term policy agendas for how education systems globally should be organised. 

This raises important questions regarding the intervention of these coalitions in education long after the emergency ends. Their claims about the palliative benefits of digital technologies and online teaching during the pandemic can also be transforming educational objectives and policy measures in the post-COVID times and can pose a threat to education as a public good.With the venture capital investment increase in edtech companies globally and not just in India, it is to be seen what impact these transnational power networks are going to create in the policy discourses in education nationally. The issue with these ed-tech interventions needs further questions as the technology companies in these networks are also known for being data-hungry. Key figures such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt formerly of Google, and Bill Gates of Microsoft are highly influential advocates of personalized education based on data and learning analytics. Also, the fact that some of these companies and organizations have been called out for their blotched data collection and privacy in their platforms, like Zoom with the numerous incidents of ‘zoombombing’ during the last few months, the participation of these tech giants in education needs critical scrutiny. 

Surveillance Concerns and Shrinking Public Spaces During the Pandemic

The coalitions of these power networks immediately raise alarms about the commercial exploitation of student data, increasing normalization of surveillance in education, and the imposition of these norms without active consent from the users. The pandemic and the lockdown measures in the country have already raised concerns about the increased surveillance by the state. Amidst this environment, shift to online platforms has further concerns about increased monitoring of teachers in the online platform. The teachers of many high-income private schools have recently been overwhelmed with adapting to the digital platform for teaching. A piece of recent news in Bangalore about teachers being interfered and bullied by parents confirms the anxieties and questions raised by teaching community to create autonomous and supportive teaching-learning environments. However, the performative pressure of the online sessions is not borne by teachers alone. Mahashweta Bhattacharya, a research scholar, in her article, Walls That Speak, raises important points about the visual politics of these online platforms which reaffirm the educational inequalities and anxieties surrounding it. 

She states that the video conferencing aspect of the online classrooms shifts ubiquitous equity of an educational campus, which is dismantled and replaced by the utter vulnerabilities of home. While the underlying tagline for many of the ed-tech companies has been that ‘learning can happen at the home’, one can question whose comfort is it? Is home a repository of comfort and conducive learning environment for many students, especially for students from the marginalised backgrounds, is an uncomfortable question to be confronted. The shrinking of public spaces and its reconstitution has been at the forefront of the neoliberal agenda, and the pandemic times are being appropriated by it for forwarding its goal in education. 

Posing the digital divide as the sole challenge for disruption in education in India conveniently allows the state and the private players to providing market-based solutions to address the ruptures that have been made visible by the pandemic. It lets the human rights violation in Kashmir, the caste-based violence and exploitation in urban-rural areas, the migrant labour crisis, the gender disparity, and the increasing surveillance by the state using digital platform fade from the state’s and public’s consciousness for decision making. Such measures by the state undermine the democratic control of public education. Moreover, the professional autonomy and rights of teachers, as well as the local control of communities over their schools, may be undercut by the shift in authority to private, corporate, and global actors sanctioned by the state. 

The Rise of Edtech in the Pandemic Markets: Implications for Future

Similarly, worldwide, the mass closures of schools and universities plus the rapid switches to online teaching and learning have resulted in the technology vendors and promoters positioning themselves as frontline emergency response providers catering to the educational emergency resulting from the ‘pandemic markets’. Big tech companies such as Google, Microsoft, and Facebook, international organizations including the OECD and UNESCO, as well as the vast global education industry consisting of Edu-businesses, consultancies, investors and technology providers, are coming together to define how education systems should respond to the crisis and generate newer market avenues for profit. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) which has positioned itself as the world authority on the educational disruption caused by the global coronavirus outbreak released a ‘snapshot of policy measures’ as part of its Global Education Monitoring project on 24th March, stating all countries are introducing or scaling up existing distance education modalities based on different mixes of technology. It also raised the concerns about inequity in ICT-based learning and the concerns over distance education within the existing digital divide. 

Ben Williamson, a researcher on digital data in educational governance in schools and Higher Education from Edinburg University in his paper, “New power networks in educational technology” claims that these coalitions and networks of big technology companies and edtech organisations are not only setting their objectives for the short term but also suggest long-term policy agendas for how education systems globally should be organized. This raises important questions regarding the intervention of these coalitions in education long after the emergency ends. Their claims about the palliative benefits of digital technologies and online teaching during the pandemic can also be transforming educational objectives and policy measures in the post-COVID times and can pose a threat to education as a public good.

With the venture capital investment increase in edtech companies globally and not just in India, it is to be seen what impact these transnational power networks are going to create in the policy discourses in education nationally. The issue with these edtech interventions needs further questions as the technology companies in these networks are also known for being data-hungry. Key figures such as Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Eric Schmidt formerly of Google, and Bill Gates of Microsoft are highly influential advocates of personalized education based on data and learning analytics. Also, the fact that some of these companies and organizations have been called out for their blotched data collection and privacy in their platforms, like Zoom with the numerous incidents of ‘zoombombing’ during the last few months, the participation of these tech giants in education needs critical scrutiny. 

Surveillance Concerns and Shrinking Public Spaces during Pandemic Times

The coalitions of these power networks immediately raise alarms about the commercial exploitation of student data, increasing normalization of surveillance in education, and the imposition of these norms without active consent from the users. The pandemic and the lockdown measures in the country have already raised concerns about the increased surveillance by the state. Amidst this environment, shift to online platforms has further concerns about increased monitoring of teachers in the online platform. The teachers of many high-income private schools have recently been overwhelmed with adapting to the digital platform for teaching. A piece of recent news in Bangalore about teachers being interfered and bullied by parents confirms the anxieties and questions raised by teaching community to create autonomous and supportive teaching-learning environments. However, the performative pressure of the online sessions is not borne by teachers alone. Mahashweta Bhattacharya, a research scholar from JNU, Delhi, in her article, Walls That Speak, raises important points about the visual politics of these online platforms which reaffirm the educational inequalities and anxieties surrounding it. She states that the video conferencing aspect of the online classrooms shifts ubiquitous equity of an educational campus, which is dismantled and replaced by the utter vulnerabilities of home. While the underlying tagline for many of the edtech companies has been that ‘learning can happen at the home’, one can question whose comfort is it? Is home a repository of comfort and conducive learning environment for many students, especially for students from the marginalised backgrounds, is an uncomfortable question to be confronted. The shrinking of public spaces and its reconstitution has been at the forefront of the neoliberal agenda, and the pandemic times are being appropriated by it for forwarding its goal in education. 

Posing the digital divide as the sole challenge for disruption in education in India conveniently allows the state and the private players to providing market-based solutions to address the ruptures that have been made visible by the pandemic. It lets the human rights violation in Kashmir, the caste-based violence and exploitation in urban-rural areas, the migrant labour crisis, the gender disparity, and the increasing surveillance by the state using digital platform fade from the state’s and public’s consciousness for decision making. Such measures by the state undermine the democratic control of public education. Moreover, the professional autonomy and rights of teachers, as well as the local control of communities over their schools, may be undercut by the shift in authority to private, corporate, and global actors sanctioned by the state.