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Home > 2020 > Online Education, Covid-19 and the Marginality | Showket Nabi

Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 48, New Delhi, November 14, 2020

Online Education, Covid-19 and the Marginality | Showket Nabi

Friday 13 November 2020

by Showket Nabi *

Covid-19 is a world-wide challenge. It affected almost every sphere of human life. When it comes to formal education it was the first to shut: schools, colleges and universities have been closed ever since the pandemic broke out. The students have been forced to stay home-bound for an extended period of time and stand out of sync with institutional education. Globally 1.2 billion children are out of the physical classrooms. Freedom of movement is curtailed to a considerable extent and restrictions on socializing are exposing children to a range of newer challenges.

About learning, over-stay in homes, if on the one hand, allowed children to have extended periods of personal contact with parents, it also exposed them to domestic violence and a suffocating environment of peerless milieu, on the other. Privileged children developed an overwhelming tendency to use electronic gadgets, both for e-learning and entertainment. The exponential increase in screen exposure triggered a set of new routines for children which seems difficult to change when the Covid-19 pandemic becomes a history.

The impact of Covid-19 on school-goers is profound and is still evolving. There is, of course, the first and foremost impact of it on health – particularly mental health – which needs immediate parental and specialist attention. The incidences of anxiety-related disorders among children triggered by the clampdown on routine life have significantly increased. The restriction on movement leads to anxiety, mental health issues and restlessness. If not addressed with empathy and professional acumen, it could potentially affect the overall well-being of children.

It is said that the pandemic has been a great equalizer. It brought to its knees rich and poor, privileged and downtrodden, alike. This is misleading, oversimplified and dangerous proposition. The fact is that its impact has been severely borne by the disadvantaged sections of our society, specifically economically marginalized. Rich people could afford to work from home, own expensive hand sanitizers and facemasks, buy online premium education for their children and spend time with their family without starving. This luxury wasn’t in the destiny of poor and destitute. They suffered unemployment of the worst type. With no saving and hygienic social setting, they were forced to get exposed to the deadly disease (Covid-19); they had to take thrashings of the police for breaking social distancing/stay home protocols and, at times, had to travel hundreds of kilometres on foot to reach home. On the way many died unceremoniously. There was no bail-out package for them. Unlike the elites who are evacuated via aircrafts these poor labours were even denied the luxury of concession fare for state-run trains in a country where the constitution calls it ‘Socialist’.

What about the education of their children? Legally speaking, they had a fundamental right of elementary education. In reality, they were rendered out of the job (child labour and beggary, most often) or their inglorious government schools went dysfunctional. Online education was never their fate. It never will be, unless elitism and capitalist approach to education is reversed – which itself seems a distant reality given the storm of neo-liberalism that pervades every sphere of life. They remained oblivious of any online and offline educational platform that could have been experienced in this crisis. This is the cost of being on the margins of an elite-driven society.

How Covid affected these poor children in just academic sense, leave alone the invisible iceberg of its contingent implications? Unlike rich and privileged, the scholastic growth of the poor children further decreased, their cognitive development took a hit and their first introduction to educational online toolkit remained a pipedream. Thus, increasing the ever-widening achievements gap between the children of rich and poor. Thanks to their ownership of the technology-driven world at the macro level (and its corollary gadget-driven educational scenario), rich children could largely compensate for the losses made due to closure of physical classrooms. E-content continued to be delivered to them without interruption and in a customised manner. They, in fact, registered for add-on courses. Flow of knowledge dried up for poor as it flew along the technological-stream.

Educational administrators in our UT and rest of India boasted of this alternate-educational platform. They push for more ICT interventions in education by boosting the existing infrastructure and giving online platforms a permanent role in the post-Covid era. I have no issues with online education, although I don’t deem it an equivalent replacement of the physical classroom. My concern, however, is the callousness with which our institutions ignore the inaccessibility of these online platforms to poor and marginalized, and still manage to pass it off as something that benefits all and sundry. Despite having education, a Fundamental Right (Article 21A of the Constitution), no state government, except Kerala, bothered to rectify the massive extent of exclusion of children at the margins in these online educational platforms.

Though the mortality rate of the pandemic might be low, it causes huge deprivation to marginalized and vulnerable sections of society. An ambitious but poor secondary school girl’s frustration with the inability of her parents to own a smart-phone and thus leading her to commit suicide – for she doesn’t want to lag behind in education – is insufficient to evoke conscience of our educational administrators. I wonder, how could it not appeal to the conscience of Honourables Lords & Ladies of our judicial system who affirm faith in the moral principle of ‘equality of opportunity’ and ‘equity and social justice’. I don’t know how they assume that education imparted over expensive devices may have reached all the enrolled children between age of 6-14, (for whom education was a fundamental right without any exception) because no one talked of remedial classes for the children whose parents don’t own smart-phones.

(* Showket Nabi, Research Scholar, NET/JRF, Department of Education, University of Kashmir)

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