Online lessons bring home offline problems

Updated: Jun 15, 2020, 07:28 IST | Dharmendra Jore | Mumbai

The digital divide could quite possibly defeat the new exercise in learning; even 'the haves' see it as greatly complicating their lives

E-classrooms should engage students with a mix of online and tactile activities
E-classrooms should engage students with a mix of online and tactile activities

Dharmendra JoreLong queues in front of the electronic shops that restarted business barely a week ago marked a spurt in demand for smartphones and laptops. Not everyone was there to buy the gadget for themselves. Many were buying the high-end instruments for their schoolgoing children who need them for online lessons as schools aren't expected to open anytime soon. Consumers either paid in cash or credit card or even used an EMI facility. The buyers' data may still be raw but it has brought out an abject reality - parents who cannot even afford a smartphone, forget a laptop. Will their kids go without lessons until schools resume?

Digital divide too wide
A survey conducted recently in Maharashtra and nine other states showed that about 56 per cent of children didn't have access to smartphones. The study 'Scenario amidst COVID 19 - Onground Situations and Possible Solutions' was conducted by child rights NGO Smile Foundation. The findings of the study showed that 43.99 per cent of surveyed children have access to smartphones, another 43.99 per cent have access to basic phones, while 12.02 per cent do not have access to either.
Plugging the digital divide in the country shouldn't be an easy task. The survey observed that the divide may turn online classes into an operational nightmare. As per official statistics, there are over 35 crore students in the country. However, it is not clear how many of them have access to digital devices and the Internet, said the survey.

Possible solutions?
I say that one solution could be privileged students sharing online material with their underprivileged classmates, but that too doesn't seem acceptable as fear of infection is overriding all other concerns. The other option could be that people like us donate smartphones, used or brand new, to needy students. Another alternative could be to have smartphones and connectivity distributed for free by the governments. But wouldn't that be too much to expect from the governments, including Maharashtra's, who haven't been able to decide on conducting final year university examinations? However, some governments going to the polls could be generous, if they pursue it as a tool to influence voter parents. Remember the tabs the BMC distributed some years ago? The laptops largesse in Uttar Pradesh and the colour TVs the governments down south gifted to people?

Shift brings new worries
Parents in Mumbai are also concerned as they are about to experience a paradigm shift in their wards' learning module. There is a growing discontent even before the digital sessions go full throttle. Depending on their board affiliations, the schools have been taking online classes in April and May (with a two-week break). Some have scheduled their digital classrooms from Monday to mark the beginning of the academic session. Some schools held PTA meetings online to make sense of digital schooling till we attain normalcy in terms of health scare. According to some parents in my locality, the classes will be held for two to three hours in the first week and then eventually six hours. There will be much-needed breaks in between classes and changeover of teachers. The parents have also been told to sit with the students through the lessons till further orders. The state board students haven't been able to use textbooks because they aren't available in the market yet.

As most online sessions begin by 9 am,, the parents, either working full time from home or outdoors (which started from last week), have a tough task balancing work, home and children in the digital class. Parents fear that they will end up spending much more on buying quality internet packs and high speed Wi-Fi. The parents of more than one child say the overlapping lessons will have them multitasking if they don't have spouses or tech-savvy elders at home to share the additional workload. These parents at least have some ways of expressing their concern but homes where academic awareness and activism are non-existent and yet have resources to buy smartphones and laptops will lose out in their inability to grasp the lessons and not utter a word of protest either. The have-nots who have the urge to achieve academic excellence but are failed by their financial resources will see every good purpose of the online exercise defeated.

Dharmendra Jore is political editor, mid-day. He tweets @dharmendrajore Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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