Online Education in Covid -19 Days: A Castle in the Sky

Sanjoy De & Atanu Sengupta

Like many other sectors, the Covid-19 has impacted the education sector across the globe. India is no exception to this. According to a UNESCO study, over 72% of the student populations are impacted due this unprecedented closure. In this new situation, academic institutions and policy makers are desperately seeking some way outs to maintain some sorts of continuity in the education systems. Many educational institutions including schools, colleges and universities are emphasizing teaching remotely through online mode. Even the television media has been used all over the country to ensure the continuation of education. It has also been proposed by the higher education authority to evaluate the students through online mode. This has however cropped up several questions to the fore. Some of them pertain to the availability of infrastructure, equipment and facility to carry on with the new system. Some talk about the pros and cons of the two types of education system –online and face to face. Finally, this also brings to the fore the issue of equity in the dissemination of pious knowledge. Before entering into all these we just want to recall our own education heritage prevalent over the ages which have been the bastion of creating quality human resource. Next we concentrate on the infrastructural shortcomings in the country for effective online education system

Education in India
Like its wealth, culture, religions and philosophies, the education system in the ancient times enticed humankind all over the world. In ancient India, both formal and informal modes of education were prevalent. Temples, tols, pathshalas, gurukuls and chatuspadis were the places from where the indigenous education was imparted. In fact, in the gurukuls or ashramas (residential form of education), situated in the remote and tranquil ambience far from the crowd, pupils lived miles away from their homes for years to attain their goals in life. Students from the various parts of the country as well as from other countries such as China, Korea, Tibet, Burma, Ceylon, Java, Nepal etc used to visit viharas and universities (Takshashila, Nalanda, Valabhi, Vikramshila, Odantapuri and Jagaddala) for the quest of higher knowledge. Pupils were taught various subjects such as history, debate, medicine, law etc. Alongside these outer aspects, aim was to enrich the inner dimension and personality of the students.

In the Medieval period, maktabas, madrassas, pathshalas and tols were the places where the Hindus and the Muslims were imparted knowledge through various languages such as Arbi, Farsi and Sanskrit. In the pre-British era, indigenous education – mostly of spiritual and religious form - thrived. This form of formal education was supported by local people and donations from many. In the southern part of the country, several centers of learning and teaching – (agraharas, Ghatika and Brahmapuri) flourished, courtesy the generous donations from the society.

The present day education, though changed a lot from its yesteryear, has been able to maintain some of its past traits. At least, in the state –sponsored education system, which is comparatively less expensive, classrooms are places where education is imparted equitably to all the students. Face to face method, personalized touch and direct physical interactions between teachers and the students are the hallmarks of this type of teaching. All the students present in the class room have equal share to the lectures and the teachings of the teachers. There is no scope of division arising out of the economic status of the pupil present in the class. This equal share of all to the greatest virtue of education is instrumental for bringing out the best from the highly potential human resource.

The temporary halt of the educational institutions all over the country amid Covid-19 has given a big blow to the face-to-face, non-discriminative and interactive educational system of the country. The less-privileged and poor students, who used to sit with comparatively rich students with a sense of equalness, are likely to be deprived in the ongoing system of remote and online education. With no/little availability of the required infrastructure coupled with fight of their family to arrange food in these hard times, online education is a fantasy for them.

Gaps in Infrastructure for Online Education
We hope that Covid-19 deadlock will be very temporary and likewise the move towards shifting to online route will also be short-lived. If the Covid-19 reality brings in a permanent and wholesome shift in the education system to online remote channels, it would have serious implications to the socio-economic and cultural fabric of the country. In fact, the recent national policy, even before the outbreak of the deadly Corona virus, aims at encouraging teaching through online platforms and even suggests conducting examinations online. The limited infrastructure however does not support this transition as short-time arrangement and even as a way-out for the near future.

The rudiments of connected life such as Internet facility, availability of smart-phone, laptop or computer, speed of data and the affordability to avail these facilities, particularly at this situation, are awfully low. According to the 75th round of NSSO 2017-18 survey (GoI 2019), all-India percentage of households having computer[1] stands at only 10.7% with rural availability at 4.4% and urban availability at 23.4%. Again 23.8% of the households have Internet facility. These figures for the rural and the urban households are 14.9% and 42% respectively. The three states with highest availability of computer are Delhi, Kerala and Tamil Nadu where 34.9%, 23.5% and 18.1% of the households have computers at their homes. The three states with lowest availability of computer among the households are Odisha (4.3%), Jharkhand (4.4%) and Bihar (4.8%). Again, the three states with highest availability Internet facility among the households are Delhi (55.7%), Himachal Pradesh (51.5%) and Kerala (51.3%). Again, the three states with lowest availability Internet facility among the households are Osisha (10%), Chhattisgarh (15.2%) and Bihar (15.4%).

Mere availability of computer and Internet facility does not assure their effective usage. Availability may not actually translate into usage. According to the survey (GoI 2019), only 16.5% of the persons (above 5 years) have the ability to use computers in the country. For the males and females, these figures are 20% and 12.8% respectively. This divide is also seen region wise. In the rural areas, 9.9% of the persons above 5 years have the ability to use computers whereas this figure is 32.4% for the urban areas. Only 7% of the rural females above 5 years age are capable of operating computers.

Now, if we look at the ability to use Internet facility, we see that at the all-India level 20.1% of the people above 5 years have the ability to use Internet. For the all-India males and females, these figures are 2.5% and 14.9% respectively. The rural-urban divide is also clear as only 13% of the people in the rural areas are capable of using Internet facility whereas this figure for the all-India urban area is 37.1%. Again, only 8.5% of the females above five years of age in the rural area are capable of using Internet facility.

Another hindrance in the effective use of the mobile data in the country is its poor speed. As of December 2019, in terms of average mobile Internet download speed, India’s ranking was 128 among 140 countries surveyed (Hindu 2020). With an average download speed index of 103.18 mbps, South Korea ranked first, whereas with an average download speed index of 11.46 mbps India ranked 128. As per the data given in TRAI MySpeed Portal, 4G download speed data of last six months is highest in the UP West circle for the operator Reliance Jio with an average speed of 35.9 mbps, whereas in the same circle, average download speed for Airtel, Idea and Vodafone are 6.6 mbps, 5.9 mbps and 3.7 mbps respectively.

Table 1: Data Expense



Cost (Rs)


28 days

1.5 GB/Day


84 days

1.5 GB/Day


365 days

1.5 GB/Day



28 days

1000 FUP minutes, 1.5 GB/Day


84 days

3000 FUP minutes, 1.5 GB/Day


365 days

12000 FUP minutes, 1.5 GB/Day



28 days

1.5 GB/Day


84 days

1.5 GB/Day


365 days

1.5 GB/Day


Source: Compiled from company websites

The issue of affordability of data pack is also very important. Table 1 gives an idea about the costs of various data packs charged by different operators for validity periods of 28 days, 84 days and 365 days. The table shows Reliance Jio to be the cheapest provider of data pack in the country.

As per the 68th round NSSO survey on Household Consumption of Various Goods and Services in India (GoI 2014) in 2011-12, per capita expenditure on food items in the rural areas for 30 days was just Rs.756.49 and for the urban areas it was just Rs. 1120.88. For non-food items, per capita expenditure for 30 days in the rural area was Rs. 673.47 and Rs. 1508.77 for the urban areas (Table 2).

Table 2: Per capita Expenditure per month-All-India (in Rs) in 2011-12*




PC/Laptop including software

0.62 (0.4% )

5.33  (3.1%)

Mobile Phone Handset

2.86  (12.8%)

6.07( 12.1%)

Telephone Charges, Mobile

24.07 (76.7%)

59.03 (91.6%)

Food Item

756.49 (100%)

1120.88 (100%)

Non-food Item

673.47 (100%)

1508.77 (100%)

*The figures in bracket represent percentage households reporting consumption.
Source: Compiled by the Authors from NSSO data

Now, if we come to the expenditure on PC/Laptop including software we find that on an average, in 30 days in 2011-12, only 62 paise was spent in the rural area on the per capita basis and only 0.4% of the households made consumption expenditure on PC/Laptop including software in the comparable period. Corresponding figures for the urban areas were Rs. 5.33 and 3.1% respectively. Only Rs. 24.07 (76.7% of the households reporting consumption) was spent as telephone and mobile charges per month per capita in the rural areas in 2011-12, whereas this expense was Rs. 59.03 in the urban areas (91.6% of the households reporting consumption).

This paltry expenditure profile does not support a bright picture for the people to spend generously at least during the Covid-19 lockdown period. In fact, loss of employment, business and economic activities are likely to have a dwindling effect on consumption of various items including expenditure on Internet data usage. When lives and livelihoods are at stake, hunger and uncertainty are lurking at the horizon of the countless people in the informal sector, including the migrant labors, expending money on online data is a fantasy.

Face to face vs Online Education
There has been a rapid voice behind the transition towards online teaching amid Covid-19 outbreak. Chances are also high that there would certainly be an increased emphasis on transition to online education even after the situation normalizes. However, this may have serious implications on the educational idiosyncrasies of the country. From the ancient times, education in India has followed a direct, dialogue-based, interactive, universal and personalized form.  The very psyche of education in India paints a picture of pupils seating in front of a guru and attuned to the teaching being disseminated (Jarvis 2016).

This form of teaching-learning is existent even today. Teaching and learning cannot be conducted solitarily. In face to face teaching, like the class room interactions, students are hooked to outside associations. Studying together, exchange of notes and ideas, looking for recommended books in the library, sharing ideas with coffee, discussion on any latest research or any contentious topic, debates, arguments, programs, seminars, sports and bonding with others are some of the secondary facilities of face-to-face education system. These are the ways to feed the brain, to remain energetic, active and filled with ideas and thoughts. Inanimate and expressionless online education availed from the confines of a room cannot fetch these exhilarating and joyful facilities (Deshpande 2020).

Education is not only about mere injection of knowledge to a group of students. Mechanical delivery of lectures from a remote place with physical distance and no personal touch cannot reach to the top echelon in terms of quality (The Tribune 2020). Moreover, it is not possible to monitor all the students while taking online class. Also, the relatively weak students, who actually require more monitoring, will be hit hard in online education system.

Despite the fact that the digitally-enabled study materials, lessons, quality online pedagogical tools are putting pressure on face-to-face education, digital classes have not yet been able to match the features of class room teaching. The teachings of laboratory-based subjects, medical science, excursion, visit and survey-oriented disciplines will be incomplete through digital channels. Also, some of the subjects related to fine arts, dance, crafts cannot be thought of being conducted remotely.

In a way too much reliance on online classes could lead to the hilarious situation that Margie encountered in “The Fun They Had” of Issac Asimov. Asimov pictures a situation in 2155 when the entire education system is machine based-each student are taught separately by a “mechanical teacher”. The slots of the teacher are sometimes changed by engineer. In her remote lonely life Margie has a friend Tommy. Tommy brought an old book from an attic. This book contained a description of schools prevalent long ago-grandfather’s grandfather’s boyhood days. Margie leans to think of the old schools –the whole neighbourhood kids come together, laughing, shouting, learning the same thing and returning home together. They could help one another on the same task and talk about it. In the end, the teacher was a man. Without this gusty experience of a classroom, teaching is meaningless. No fear of pandemic should curb this.

Despite its deleterious effects, Covid-19 lockdown situation has given us some opportunities to rethink our education system. The continuation of online education (though with its limited scope in the country) is fine for the short term period, i.e., during the Covid-19 lockdown period. But, any further continuation of the online system will be serious to our society. Besides the huge direct and indirect benefits of face-to-face education over its online counterpart, the huge infrastructural gap is also a severe constraint for the wholesome introduction of online education, particularly at the time of Covid-19 outbreak. The issue of affordability is also a matter of concern in the way of successful launch of online education. Above all, the psyche of education system in India has its roots in the Ashram like dissemination of knowledge to the students in groups.

The discussion so forth brings to the fore the idea of decentralization of education which could have at least reduced the crisis, to some extent if not averted it totally. Devolution or transfer of power to lower levels such as school and college level can better manage the affairs at the time of any big impasse. The local level management with better understanding of the local situation and better linkage with the families of the students can come up with a possible solution. Dealing the problems in clusters may lessen the gravity and the intensity of the crisis. Otherwise to offer a unique solution for all in a gigantic country like us is absurd, particularly at the time of any prolonged deadlock situation. Autonomy in education at the grassroots levels can tackle the problem in a better way and that too without compromising with its interactive and face-to-face features.

1.For this survey, a computer included devices like, desktop computer, laptop computer, notebook, palmtop, and tablet (or similar handheld devices). However, Smartphone was not considered as computer.


Government of India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, National Sample Survey Office (2019): “Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India,” NSSO 75th Round, 2017–18, New Delhi, India.

Government of India, Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, National Sample Survey Office (2014): “Household Consumption of Various Goods and Services in India 20ll-12,” NSSO 68th Round, 2011–12, New Delhi, India.

Hindu (2020): “Data | Where India's mobile Internet speed ranks globally, which operator offers the fastest download speeds, and more,” 12 February, viewed on 8 May 2020, more/article30800987.ece

Jarvis, Peter (2016): “Learning to be a person – East and West,Comparative Education,” East and West in Comparative Education-Searching for New Perspective,Han SoongHee and Jarvis Peter (eds), UK: Routledge.

Deshpande, Ashwini(2020): “Teaching in the Time of Isolation,” 24March, viewed on 8 May 2020,

The Tribune (2020): “In nascent stage, online education quite a task for pupils,” 4 May, viewed on 8 May 2020,

Dr. Sanjoy De, Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, Shyampur Siddheswari Mahavidyalaya, University of Calcutta, West Bengal, India

Dr. Atanu Sengupta, Professor, Department of Economics, Burdwan University, Burdwan, West Bengal, India [ ]

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Jun 11, 2020

Sanjoy De

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