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Is Online Education effective for the less privileged Indian students?

Updated: Oct 1, 2020

Kalyani Jagadhane

(The article mainly focuses on the Indian school students, from the lower strata of the economy, facing the problems of online education).

In a privileged world, where students face problems like the network bandwidth being occasionally low, or unmuting themselves to answer their professors, the fear of being asked to turn on the camera at any point during a lecture, the screen not loading, or the voice breaking, and whatnot, while these are also issues, does anyone wonder how do they fare against the difficulties that their contrasting world is facing every day?

You may wonder if there are any problems worse than these? I mean, they are online classes. Apart from this, hardly any other problem comes to the mind. Honestly, what more could be there?

Well...why not scroll down to know what problems the online education is inflicting, perhaps yet unknown to you?

According to UNESCO's estimation, due to the nationwide lockdown imposed in India, about 32 crores of students are affected, including those in schools and colleges, even though online classes had long ago become a norm for the Indian students.

Whoa, 32 crore? Surely, it can’t be this bad… right? Unfortunately, it is.

Ignorant of the fact that we’re still a developing country, online classes have been declared as a medium to continue the educational process as if everyone is capable enough to comply. Considering how weak our basic infrastructure is and how there is a pre-existent divide between the education provided by the premier and private schools in India and the government-owned schools, the commencement of online classes has only widened the gap.

But to really understand just how deep and serious this “digital divide” is, let’s fasten our seatbelts and begin the ride.

  1. Infrastructural problems

The devastating blow of COVID-19 has had an unfortunate impact on people’s livelihoods. For the people who form the lower strata of the economy and for whom a single meal for the entire family has become a matter of grave concern and uncertainty, expecting them to have a smartphone is not just impossible but cruel too. And if they do happen to own a smartphone already, it still isn't a relief. Because to be able to attend the online classes, one obviously needs the internet, however, in these financially challenging times, affording internet data really is out of the question.

Statistics also speak the same. According to a nationwide survey of college students conducted by Dr. Aditi Sawant, Head of the Economics department at St. Xavier’s College, there are 36 percent of students who do not own laptops while 44 percent of them do not have Wi-Fi at home.

A similar reality is reflected in school students as well. Taking Maharashtra, one of the most progressive states in India as an example, we get a peek into precisely how many students in the state will be detached from education irrespective of the online classes.

A recent report from the School Education Department to the Maharashtra State Board exposes a dark and disappointing reality. The report says that the economic capital of our booming nation, Mumbai, harbours 70.33% of students who own a smartphone while 17.16% have feature phones and, in a world where communication is a key for almost everything: 12.51% don’t own a cell phone at all.

As compared with its capital, the Maharashtra state's picture turns out to be worse. Here, 46.63% own smartphones, 30.74% own feature phones while the ones who don’t own a phone amount up to 26.11% Along with this there are 65.03% pupils who do own a TV and 10.78%, a radio. The latter categories are bound to be baffling for you as in today’s world, something like a television and radio is still included in such surveys, even that in such less share. And therefore we can fathom how big of a deal a smartphone is for the less privileged. And that's not the end of it. Because there are still 15.6% who own no smartphone, no television, no feature phones, no radio. NOTHING.

Actually, you know what? Forget owning all of these or buying data packs. Let's talk about the ones who do have a phone. For them, if one suggests having small study sessions through at least phone calls to avoid the aforesaid hindrances there is still a big issue to be addressed here which is that and here's another surprise for you that even today, in the early 21st century, when humans regularly establish contact with our satellites in space that are almost 36,000 km away, the inhabitants of nearly 28,000 villages in India are completely cut off from the world because of insufficient mobile network, the most basic form of connectivity. In order to make a mere call, people have to go through an insufferable struggle, and even that only results in an unstable single bar on their phones, and more often than not, no bars at all.

Only adding to this stupendous display of inept infrastructure and governance are the infamous and regular instances of electricity-cuts (Or, more generically referred to as “load shedding”) that go on for at least 3-4 hours each day in rural India.

People gather for a meeting at the headman’s house lit by the brake lights of a tractor in Fateh Nagla. (Prashanth Vishwanathan/Bloomberg)

With only the flame as a source of the light, the woman sits in an otherwise dark room

Therefore, when you live in a subtropical region and have to escape the heat but no ceiling fans work because of the electricity cuts, when you are in the constant state of hurrying every task that might require electricity because you want to get over with them as once the lights go out you possibly can't do anything especially after the nightfall, when perhaps studying in the dark with a dim-lit lamp as a companion is a course of your life- charging your phones for your online lectures certainly don't remain a priority.

2. Frustration

COVID-19 has instigated many mental insecurities amongst all of us, ways in which we couldn’t have even imagined to be impacted by. The same goes for our today’s subjects'. The lesser privileged students, especially the ones currently studying in important educational years (10th and 12th grade) have their dreams, willpower and courage being cruelly slashed upon with each passing day. Due to the COVID-19, not only are they deprived of any access to the online classes but also can’t have their study books as the government is not being able to distribute them due to safety concerns.

Knowing they can’t afford a smartphone, seeing some of their other friends attending the online classes but can’t join even them as to avoid the risk of the virus, the bleak emotion of falling back in this era of competition while their peers march on ahead, the constant realization of perhaps a year of their life being wasted though due to no fault of their own, sometimes having to share the phone with their siblings for their own classes even though your classes haven't been done yet or if they go before you, the phone's power or the internet will burn out, hence no lectures- worries like these are bound to have some serious repercussions. After all, they’re just a couple of 15 or 16-year-olds dealing with problems that shouldn’t even be theirs. But they are, and that has set off a series of disturbing student suicide cases in India.

Suicide cases arising from all-over India

(Courtesy of the news sites mentioned at the end)

Whether it’s the 14-year-old who burnt herself, or athe 16-year-old student, or another 10th grader who feared she may fail her exams because she won't understand much without attending online classes and hence hanged herself, or the 11th grader who couldn’t disappoint his parents by scoring less due to no access to online education, the nursing student who grew frustrated of having to share their single smartphone with her sisters who study in equally important educational years and was unable to handle the pressure of not being able to properly continuing her studies and ended her life, all of them had the same problem- no smartphones. All of them being the children of the ones with low earnings: a daily wage labourer, cashew farmer, a driver, a tailor, an assistant mid-day meal cook at a local school- certainly not the professions where one could get those devices in such a short period, especially during these financially challenging times.

It’s not that only the students are the ones carrying the weight of this depressed state. There are parents, who felt as if they were being eaten alive from inside when they couldn’t provide their children with a smartphone, and so, have ended their own lives as a result of the horrible realization of being an incapable parent. One such case being of a 50-year-old farmer from the state of Tripura who had an argument with his daughter over buying a smartphone ended up taking his own life.

The deaths of their loved ones, the unbearable and never-healing grief of the left-behind ones who feel that perhaps they “caused” that death either because of their own incapability or their demands, the depressed states of their minds perhaps cursing their own lives for these misfortunes, the nauseating feeling of helplessness, the explicit impact on their mental health and whatnot, families have their emotional fabrics being torn and tossed with as they face problems caused by something like a lack of a smartphone.

3. Comprehension

For the ones who do have a smartphone or could afford one, another query arose. Whether the subjects being taught in the online classes are understood or not. Of course, one could say that any additional doubts need not be asked to only their teachers but can also be looked up in the vast ocean of the internet, by reading thorough explanations, informative videos, and so on. However, it poses the danger of losing the diligently accumulated phone power as well as the internet data, especially worrisome when you have another kid in the house studying.

4. Disturbances

It’s most likely that a child will study when they’re at school because it is true that schools offer an inducing environment for consuming knowledge along with a powerful sense of concentration. And having a place of its own for studying truly makes a difference when most of the poorer sections in India spend their lives with five or six other members being cramped up in a single room, as their home usually measures up to barely 10 x 10 feet. And that is when you understand that here- ‘the more the people, the merrier’ principle definitely doesn't apply.

An average 10x10 feet home in India

(Image via The Indian Express)

As if being confined in such a small room (where grown-ups easily find it difficult to stretch even their feet) for consecutive weeks and months isn't maddening enough and almost ‘prison-like’, there are still a greater number of challenges the students have to face when at home.

With their mothers making food in one corner of the room on the stove, their father perhaps watching the blaring TV or making a horrible nuisance after drinking (which, sometimes includes beating up of the kids or their mothers), their siblings doing something else of their own, the everyday instance of the neighbourhood women fighting at the communal water site to get even one more cauldron or a Handa for their everyday necessities, and so on- it’s extremely difficult to achieve any concentration and focus on their studies. Especially for girls, who, since at home, are expected to lend more help in the household chores or look after their younger siblings and hence, studies are sidelined furthermore. When there were schools, at least for a few hours these students breathed in an environment that encouraged them to focus and study but now with being stuck at home, that’s not possible.

This doesn't stop here. Perhaps if inspected with even further microscopic attention, we will find even more subtle disadvantages that these students with lesser access, face every day. And will, till the lockdown opens up for all the students.

Nobody, more often than not, chooses to be poor. Do you think someone takes pride in not being able to provide their family with the most essential needs? Have you seen someone bragging about their day-long empty stomachs which probably have never been full? Do they love living in what can only be called a horrible excuse for home?

Really, when the Indian government, taking cues from the private educational institutions, decided to implement the new norm of online classes for the entire country, did those severe and clearly visible infrastructural gaps not come to their attention? Even without the COVID-19, how competent is India in providing the very essential needs of a human being? When something as primal as hunger, clothing, reasonable living, sanitation, and health matters aren't being resolved, would people really go out of their way and strive for education, which may only seem like a superfluous luxury at that point?

Yes, it is true that there are students who fight all odds against them and overcome their unbelievable difficulties by working hard with a strong willpower, and those are extraordinary feats indeed. However, as a nation and its citizens, it’s the government’s and also our responsibility to perform our duties to provide the less privileged with the facilities that will uplift them and truly help our nation in its developmental goals.

Our objective is not to provide qualitative education to only a selected class but to each and every child in India who should have it because it is their right. It is extremely unreasonable and unintelligent to use the same yardstick for the private and public-school students, whose already-existing divide has widened furthermore. In order to achieve equality, everyone should be brought to the same level first, and for that, sincere and strategic efforts should be taken to truly understand the problems of the poor students, formulate policies that will actually help them or provide them with the necessary equipment, implement those changes, elevate their capacities, bring them at par with the privileged students and then we could have a true fair competition.

Because we owe them this much for sure.








  1. The suicide cases:

Picture credits:










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