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Is online education off line?

by Annamalai Suriamurthy
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A 14-year-old girl ends her life in Malappuram district of Kerala because she cannot afford a mobile phone to join online classes. In Bihar, a boy runs around his house, staring at a never-ending circle on a cheap mobile phone. In a Tamil Nadu town, children come out of their homes with their phones to get connected, unmindful of social contact. Another girl in Kerala crawls up the roof of her tiled house with a mobile phone to remain connected. The case is still worse with laptops. These are the same children reprimanded by their parents for spending time on mobile phones. Today, the gadget, once considered a necessary evil, has suddenly transformed into an essential tool. Thanks to lockdown forced by COVID-19.

Online learning is slowly becoming the norm in a country where uninterrupted power supply, high-speed Internet connectivity and affordability cannot be taken for granted. Are laptops and mobile phones transforming the process of learning? Are we creating a digital divide in a country which already stands divided on so many issues? Can a gadget replace a classroom? What will be the physiological and psychological impact of online learning on students? Is learn-from-home as good or as bad as work-from-home? These are the questions pounding the minds of students, parents and educationists.

The primary tool to attend an online class is a mobile phone with Internet connectivity. This gadget and a laptop are used alternatively by school and college students. While the tiny tots “watch” the lessons either on a television screen or a laptop, children in middle school have to depend on mobile phones. Parents, who are aware of the perils of using a mobile phone at a young age, have kept it away from their young ones. In the case of working parents, who will spare their phone for online learning? It is double whammy for ordinary people who have already been hit by the lockdown.

Parents point out that their presence is required at home to help young ones in the learning process. But grownups are generally comfortable with e-learning. In a way, the phone does not distract them at least during online classes. For the teacher, it is a dicey situation as all classroom advantages, like eye contact, body language, instant reaction, student assessment and a formal setting, are lost while lecturing online. In instances where the video is muted, it becomes faceless learning. There are also teachers who feel that something is better than nothing. “If we leave the students as such in this lockdown, will their mind not become devil’s workshop,” asks Dr. K. Sasirekha, an English teacher.

A study on access to online classes for 10th standard students, undertaken by the Chennai-based NGO, Arunodhaya, underscores six reasons for students’ inability to attend. They are: No separate phone; not able to recharge (due to power outage); no signal (poor connectivity); phone not supporting app; no smart phone; phone with working parents. The Aravind Eye Hospital, Puducherry, has also come out with an educational video on how to exercise digital distancing. It cautions that a spurt in average screen time of children is on the rise during lockdown and this may result in a myopic pandemic in India. Research has shown that too much screen time will increase the rate of childhood myopia. Attention deficit and communication issues are also seen among these children. Two hours of viewing a day will increase the power of glasses, it warns.

The All India Federation of University and College Teachers’ Organisations has opposed the University Grants Commission advisory to universities and colleges to encourage online teaching and examinations. In a representation to the Union Minister for Human Resource Development, it says that the “advisory is intended to dismantle the public-funded education system and thereby will be detrimental to the interests of poor and marginalised sections of the student community.” There have also been a few complaints from parents of school children that their wards are removed from online classroom if they play truant for genuine reasons or if the parents are critical of the new process.

At the same time, there are also students and teachers who look at online learning as a great opportunity. M. Palaninatha Raja, Dean, Thiagarajar College of Engineering, Madurai, points out that the time has come to exploit new platforms of learning. Despite several drawbacks, there has been an increased access to digital learning in recent months. Dr. Raja wants all institutions of higher learning to train their faculty in the digital platform. He is confident that online learning will be acceptable in due course and cites the Arizona State University’s online electrical engineering programme that has attracted 1200 students, much higher than normal enrolment. E-learning provides for need-specific courses and collaboration with experts outside the academic arena. It is cheaper and affordable than conventional learning.

It looks like COVID-19 has thrown open a portal of hybrid learning or blended learning. We are now at the Home page.

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