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Online classes

What new problems digitised classrooms create

Online education has become common during the pandemic. For young Indian women, this trend goes along with serious new challenges.
Students at an Assamese college: universities provide spaces with special freedom to young women, so in-person classes are preferable to digital teaching. Dasarath Deka/picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS.com Students at an Assamese college: universities provide spaces with special freedom to young women, so in-person classes are preferable to digital teaching.

The Covid-19 pandemic hit India in February/March 2020 and surged dramatically in the spring of 2021. As a measure to contain the spread of the disease, all educational institutions were shut down early on. Schools, colleges and universities moved online which made it possible for education to continue for a large number of students without risking their lives.

Online teaching and learning presented some important advantages. The costs and efforts spent on commuting were reduced. Classes were often recorded, so students had access to a lesson even if they missed it. Online classes enabled teachers and students from across the world to interact and share their perspective in ways that could not be imagined before.

Notwithstanding these advantages, online teaching presented enormous challenges. In particular, it deepened the existing inequalities in society regarding class and gender. In most developing countries, most families’ homes do not have separate rooms for children. In India, for instance, one third of the families live in one-room houses.

Close to 70 % of Indians live in villages. In rural areas, only four in a hundred families had a computer. Taking urban and rural together, the number goes up to eleven in a hundred. These numbers are from the national sample survey 2018, and they may have increased somewhat, but they cannot be anywhere near the demand.

Moreover, a family with more than one student would need more devices, and access to the devices depends on gender in various ways:

  • First, in patriarchal and gender unequal societies like India, the boys will almost always have preferential access.
  • Second, in 2018, not even 13 % of women in India were able to operate a computer compared with about 20 % of men. In the rural areas, the percentage of women able to use computers was close to half of that of men. Their ability to grasp opportunities is obviously impaired.

Smartphones are a slightly cheaper option for online education, and many more people own them. In India, there are between 500 and 750 million smartphone users. However, these figures hide grim realities. According to the Mobile Gender Gap Report 2020, women own only 40 % of the smartphones. India also has the widest gender gap among all surveyed countries in terms of smartphone usage. On average, men used a smartphone seven times per week (for text messages, voice calls et cetera). Women only did so four times. Anecdotal evidence helps to illustrate the barriers that women and girls face. Consider the following example:

Twenty-two-year-old Swati studies at a prestigious university but is struggling to complete her degree. With the pandemic striking India, her university stopped in-person classes. She returned home hoping to continue the course online. However, her large extended family expects a young woman to help with household chores such as cleaning, cooking or laundry. With the men in the family not sharing the responsibilities, the pressure is entirely on the women. Like most Indian families, Swati’s family does not own any modern household appliances that might reduce drudgery. Domestic work leaves Swati exhausted, she struggled to complete her assignments. Her grades have fallen. Unable to cope with the stress, she is contemplating dropping out.

Compounding the problems, the pandemic increased household chores many­fold with all family members living together. Online education does not take into account that the settings of the classrooms have changed from an ‘equal opportunity’ institutional setup to a deeply gendered and hierarchical family setup that disadvantages female students.

Making matters worse, Covid-19 increased care work. In most societies, including India’s, women are expected to do far more care work than men. Women also carry a ‘mental load’, referring to the responsibility of all the planning that goes on in running a household. These take a toll on the academic performances of female students studying from home in an online mode.

Radha’s entire family was tested Covid-positive and her father had to be hospitalised due to complications. Radha’s mother was devastated and spent most of her time crying. Radha, a university student in her final year, not only had to take care of her father’s treatment but also her mother’s physical and emotional well-being. She also had to run the family while taking care of younger siblings. With increased care responsibilities and her own health issues, Radha struggled with her advanced university course that was complex and required uninterrupted focus and attention. The stress also led to mental health issues.

Another detrimental impact of online education on women tends to get less attention. It concerns first-generation learners who live in college dormitories. They typically had to overcome great challenges to access education at all. Returning home in the middle of the course can cause serious difficulties.

Rani was the first girl from her community to enrol in a college. She had worked really hard for it. The first year went well. She learned a lot from the classes and from her peers. She could approach the teachers for additional help after classroom hours. Things changed after the college started online teaching post-Covid. The informal but important after-class academic support was cut off. Plus, there was constant pressure from the family to get married as girls her age in the community were mostly married. So long as she was staying at the residential college, she was ‘out of sight’. Her presence at home caused her parents to be approached with matrimonial alliances that were difficult for her to keep turning down.

Domestic violence

There is yet another dimension to the gendered nature of online education. UN agencies report increased domestic violence, calling it a “shadow pandemic”. This is particularly evident in societies with high levels of violence against women. A large number of girls and women are victims of or witness to such violence. Moreover, fear of sexual harassment in public spaces discourages many women from going to cybercafes. In such contexts, academic pursuits are discarded.

Educational institutions are aware of such issues. They have tried to ensure curriculum delivery and have considered pedagogical options. Several school and college boards have reduced curriculum portions. Most universities have also split the courses into synchronous modes (where there is a live class with faculty and students) and asynchronous modes (where the student engages in self-study based on material designed by the faculty). Universities like the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, for example, ensured that all students from marginalised backgrounds had laptops through its laptop bank programme. Jadavpur University in Kolkata pooled resources for students from financially deprived backgrounds to purchase mobile internet data.

These measures make a difference, but they are not universal. They are clearly not enough. Educational institutions must recognise that several ‘worlds’ co-exist around the virtual classroom screen. As online education is delivered now, the assumption is that real and virtual classrooms are basically the same. This assumption is wrong. A physical classroom, despite its diversities and complexities, creates a framework of equality. The online classroom is far more steeped in the realities of a discriminatory world, especially for women.

The point is that, for young women, educational institutions are spaces where they experience a sense of freedom and equality they often do not enjoy within their families and communities. The college is thus more than just another physical space. Educational institutions are not discrimination-free, of course, but to young women they offer liberating possibilities nonetheless. Online classes do not offer that experience.

Educators need to acknowledge this and improve matters. The responses will have to be context-specific. They could include institution-led, gender-responsive initiatives. Involving families in increased parent-teacher meetings would make sense. Regular counselling services for students and family members would be useful too. All options need to be considered. The state has an enormous role in recognising the gender disparities in online education. Governments must launch initiatives such as prioritised provision of devices and internet access to women and girls. Civil-society organisations have been proactive in their commitment to a gender-equal world. It is time now to take it to another level that encourages women’s education in this changed scenario.

The pandemic has been a major setback. We cannot allow ourselves to lose the hard-earned victories for women’s and girl’s education. The way forward is through a greater understanding of both gender dynamics and social justice. To grasp the opportunities of online education and control its risks, we need proactive public policies.

Ipsita Sapra is an associate professor at the Hyderabad campus of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences and the chairperson of its School of Public Policy and Governance.


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