Education as Substantial Public Interest and the Inherent Inequalities of Online Education

With online education becoming a new trend amid the coronavirus pandemic, its ability to become democratic and egalitarian in terms of its dissemination is highly debatable.

Photo - Meena Kadri/ Flickr CC

The Kerala High Court passed an interim order on June 3, 2020, which restrained a private school from charging an additional fee for online classes from  students of third standard and LKG by observing that the ‘Right to Education is sacrosanct in the Constitution of India’. The High Court made special references to the fact that education shall not be denied under any circumstance to any child in the recent context of the suicide by a Dalit student named Devika who couldn’t attend online classes which commenced on June 1. The court referred to the incident as ‘heart burning’. The Court hence asked the State to make adequate arrangements for learning which are inclusive of all.  

Two important implications emerge strikingly out of the June 3  Kerala High Court order. One that emerges from the Court’s references to what it called  education as a ‘substantial public interest’ and, the second, pertains to the structural inequalities in access to education and how these inequalities lead to the anxiety and psychological stress to the socially and economically disadvantaged. This also raises serious concerns on whether the Right to Free and Compulsory Education (RTE 2009) means anything when there is a mad rush for online classes even for the elementary level of education as both Devika’s instance and the Court’s order clearly demonstrate stark inequalities in the society.

The judgement also have some important implications for the broader context of privatization and the state’s role in exacerbating ‘inequalities’ in the field of education by withdrawing itself from the ‘publicness’ of the Right to Education. . The case further manifests that the digital divide is deep rooted in terms of various kinds of social, economic and cultural inequalities. 

Privatisation and Virtual (Dis)advantage

Privatisation of education is not something new in India, but had been a product of the global neo-liberal policies practiced by of IMF (International Monetary Fund) and the World Bank. The withdrawal of the State from the provision of public education was evident since then. The role of private education steadily grew while government schools crippled in the absence of supervision and negligence from the state.

The findings of Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAGI 2017) on the implementation of RTE 2009 substantiate further this negligence of government schools by the State. The CAGI Report draws attention to various kinds of discrepancies which include inconsistency of household surveys to estimate and understand the student drop-outs, inconsistency in Pupil Teacher Ratios, lack of basic infrastructural facilities, issues in fund utilization, poor execution levels, hoarding of computers, textbooks and uniforms, excess of teachers employed in non-academic activities, negligence of the local authorities, delay in settling the court cases pertaining to RTE, etc. Apart from these there are rural-urban divides which makes it even more complex. 

All these factors lead to the construction of a poor image for the government schools and parents, including the lower class parents, are forced to send their children to the private schools with the hope that they provide quality education to their children. By attributing an image of ‘dysfunctional public schools’, the state itself has been advocating and promoting private players. This however does not mean that the private schools are any different from the government schools in terms of quality.

 The learning standards of both private and government schools do not vary to a great extent, it is only that private schools are at an advantage in the educational market since they are free from regulations of the state . It’s just that the parents do get carried away by the overarching emphasis on infrastructure and so called ‘quality’  in terms of claims of ‘smart classes’, ‘smart kid’, smart hubs, air conditioned classes and the parents especially from the lower social classes to depend upon the private schools . Considering the lack of basic infrastructural facilities and adequate resources private lobbies have already been in the game of marketing and fetishizing ‘smart classrooms’. It is therefore high time to reflect upon the quality of our education system and to understand the agendas pushed by the pro-market think tanks making education into ‘business’.

In fact, Michael Apple argues that the neo-liberal principles creates and legitimizes ‘intensively competitive structures of mobility’ both inside and outside schools with an objective of creating an ‘enterprising individual’. It is in this light we need to understand the Kerala High Court’s ruling on the PIL against charging of additional fees for facilitating virtual classrooms in view of the Covid 19 pandemic. As Right to Education is sacrosanct in the Constitution of India, the students shall not be denied access to learning and education for want of payment of fees. 

Digital Inequalities and Unequal Learning Opportunities 

 The Technocratic approach to learning is in fact a neoliberal ploy to turn the site of education into an enterprise and profit making venture, which then facilitates differential distribution of basic educational resources within the society. Educationists and researchers may argue that resources like internet have become indispensable like any other basic resources such as food and water, and that it further enhances and expands life chances of individuals by providing them access to good education, better jobs, health and also civic engagement through e-governance . However, at the same time, unequal access to internet resources may reinforce inequalities in ‘economic mobility’ and social participation which results in ‘digital inequality’. 

According to Telecom and Regulatory Authority of India (2020), total internet subscribers per 100 population in the country is 52.08, where the urban subscribers per 100 population is 104.25 and the rural subscribers are just 27.57 per 100 people. Income, occupation, social class location, education, Age, Gender, etc. are major factors which determine the usage and access of the internet and other technological resources across population. There are variations with regard to types of connectivity such as broadband connectivity, speed, and internet penetration that would actually vary a great deal from region to region and in terms of social groups. Reports show that the reality of internet connectivity in India is poorly distributed and it seems that Digital India initiative of the Union government has also neglected the unequal digital literacy and awareness to harness the benefits of the internet. Hence, no access to the internet today means a complete blackout from the society in every respect. 

During the Covid induced online class saga, the media reports show how students climb onto the rooftops of their houses to attend and access the online classes due to issues of connectivity. Moreover, the latest survey by the Mission Antyodaya of the Union government reveals that the duration of electricity received in village households is as following: 4.78% receive electricity for 1-4 hours, 11.06%  for 5-8 hours, 32.56% for 9-12 hours, and 47.26% receive less than 12 hours of electricity. This is the reality of electricity in most of the rural areas in India which of course vary from state to state. We need to understand therefore the basic challenges of implementing online classes in the context of uneven distribution of the digital resources and supporting environments in order to understand the story of Devikas and their desire to learn.  The question that goes unanswered thus is: Why are the poor and disadvantaged children denied access to basic learning in the name of online classes when their families and home backgrounds can’t possess the required digital resources? Online class saga does not necessarily impact adversely just the poor and socially disadvantaged, but it does impact the middle classes too. 

The discourse in the case of middle and upper middle classes however is entirely different. Middle and upper middle class parents now advocate what is called the ‘blended learning’ which uses both formal and computer mediated techniques for instruction to their children. However, middle class criticisms of online classes lie in the low quality and impact of online learning and on how virtual learning fails to engage their children. Thus, the concerns of the poor and working class, disadvantaged children and that of the middle and upper middle class children vary in terms of their experiences in this new found zeal for online learning in Covid times. The Covid-19 times are an unprecedented moment for the State to tackle equal provisioning of education. However, we witness a steep rise in the application of ICTs for education. There has been demand for and emergence of ed-tech startups, smart apps and gadgets such as kindle, customized tablets, etc. in the tech market which pave the way for rethinking the way education is to be imparted in these times. We also witness from the two instances, namely, of Devika and the Kerala High Court interim order, as to how these technological interventions exacerbate social and educational disparities in the society. As such, technological tools are expensive and cater to the elite sections and their social networks, which is either unaffordable or alien to the lower strata which then lead them to face stigma and humiliation. Devika’s case can be one example of how lack of such facilities injects a kind of stigma and embarrassment among the marginalized children when they are not able to afford, in comparison to their peers who has the privilege of ‘techno capital’ or ‘digital capital’.  

Studies also show that the disadvantaged groups who are already deprived of the basic amenities would not be able to make use of the technological facilities. Drawing from Bourdieu’s theory of capital scholars has noted that the underprivileged are more likely to use technology only for necessary needs or leisure activities. In the case of the advantaged groups, engagement with the technology is deep which enables them to explore and achieve educational, informational and career oriented goals or of ‘personal enrichment’ or more into capital enhancing activities. 

The fundamental challenge to the ‘public education system’ is thus to ensure equal opportunities without compromising the quality to all children in the society. This may ensure that there are no more suicides by children or there are no heart-burns which the Court highlighted in its Interim Order on ensuring equal right to education for children from poorer families. 

Shehana is  a Research Scholar at the Zakir Husain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

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