The perils of online education in India

Anupam Banerjee

The last three decades have witnessed the privatization and commercialization of the education sector in India. The governments at the Centre have continued with policies that are meant to push colleges and Universities to become “self-financing” (which basically imply funding through the fees students pay), thereby destroying the accessible character of public education institutions. Since 2015-16, the Centre has spent less than 4% of the total budget every year on education (primary, secondary and higher education) and teacher-training taken together. In 2018-2019, a meagre 3.5% (lowest in the decade) of the budget estimate was allocated to the education sector. In such a scenario, the government and private players in the market are promoting online education. According to the National Sample Survey (2014) only 27% of households in India had some member with access to the Internet though, it didn’t mean that the family owned an Internet connection [1]. However, the interesting fact is that the Modi Government is hell-bent to introduce online education notwithstanding the reach of internet connectivity in the country.

The paradigm shift has started in the last decade when online education has emerged significantly mostly in the private sector. According to a corporate survey, the online education market in India was USD 247 million in 2016 with approximately 1.57 million paid users. By 2021, this is expected to grow to USD 1.96 billion with a paid user base of 9.6 million [2]. By the beginning of this year, the government of India made its position clear on generating fully online degrees with the U.S companies like Coursera, edX, Udemy etc. as key players in the domain. Universities and colleges in India were previously not allowed to offer fully online degrees due to concerns related to the quality, supervision, restricted infrastructure and regulation of such degrees. But with a dubious logic of access to higher education and enhancing the profiles of institutions in a global scenario, the government is lifting the restrictions on online education. This approach of adopting online education should not be seen in isolation with the project of complete commercialization and privatization of education. The draft of the New Education Policy proposed by the Modi government focuses on online learning as an alternative to regular classroom exercises. It claims to achieve the dual objectives of cost reduction and increased enrolment. Naturally, the higher officials of Coursera, edX are delighted with such steps taken by Modi government. Raghav Gupta, managing director of India and the Asia-Pacific region for Coursera said – “It's a high-focus market for us. We're thinking about how we can serve the market better. We see online education in India as a large opportunity.” Similarly, praising the announcement of allowing Universities to offer fully online degrees, Amit Goyal, country head of India and Southeast Asia for edX termed this step as – “true democratization of higher education in India” [3]. However, we all can realize that like overall democracy this ‘democracy’ in higher study will be confined in the hands of economically privileged upper class people.

The Covid-19 pandemic has also created certain instances where the urge to opt for online education is at its peak. Since almost all the educational institutes are shut from end of March, digital platforms have been projected as the only alternative to face-to-face mode of classroom teaching. Although some may argue on the substitute as an interim modus operandi, the initiative of transfer to online/digital platforms were taken long back. An initiative of Ministry of Human Resource Development, SWAYAM which stands for “Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds” was launched on 2017. It is an integrated platform and portal for online courses which presents about 1550+ online courses out of which 800+ courses are already delivered. The courses are targeted for higher secondary, bachelors and masters degrees and the press statement by Ministry of HRD made it clear-"This covers all higher education subjects and skill sector courses. The objective is to ensure that every student in our country has access to the best quality higher education at an affordable cost." Even, recently the UGC Chairman said that during the present situation of Covid-19 and also when everything will become normal, emphasis will be given to online education. He further mentioned that such a move is required to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of our country. Therefore, the primary aim is to increase the GER, i.e., an attempt to increase the sale of education. The government seems to be not at all bothered regarding the accessibility and affordability of such an education for the vast masses of the country. Nevertheless, even accepting these kind of lofty official claims at their face value, we must ask one fundamental question – Can the spectrum of "Digital India" favour this shift? Few facts and figures in this regard might be helpful –

a) On 29th April, 2018, with the electrification of Leisang in Manipur, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that electrification in India has been 100 percent complete in 600,000-plus villages of the country. However, Central rural development ministry published another survey report which mentioned that there are more than 14,700 villages without electricity for domestic use. On 8th July, 2018, The New Indian Express reported – “It has been observed that a certain percentage of villages in almost every state have not been provided with electricity.” The news report also mentions about Uttar Pradesh having the highest number of non-electrified villages, 1,044, followed by Odisha with 666 and Bihar with 533. In 2017-18, the Ministry of Rural Development launched Mission Antyodaya, a nationwide survey which depicted that 16% households received 1-8 hours of electricity daily, 33% received 9-12 hours and only 47% received more than 12 hours [4] of electricity. For online education, access to electricity is of prime-most concern, both in terms of charging devices as well as for internet connectivity.  

b) The data from Telecom Regulatory Authority of India showed that the total internet users as on September 2019 was 687.62 million (which is about 52% of the population) out of which rural subscribers accounted for 18% of the total connections. According to the 2017-’18 National Sample Survey report on education, only around 15% of rural households have internet access. The proportion amounts to 42% for urban households [5]. Keeping in mind the availability of internet, speed should also be a concern for online classes. As of February 2020, India ranked 69th out of 176 countries by average fixed broadband speed and 128 among 141 countries in terms of average mobile internet download speed. According to a report by Quacquarelli Symonds, we do not have the necessary infrastructure to start country-wide online education in India. Rather, the situation is abysmally poor. This organization conducted a survey among more than 7600 people. In order to use the internet at home, 72.60% of the respondents used mobile hotspot and 15% used home broadband. Considering the broadband users, 53% reported poor connectivity, 11.47% reported frequent power cuts, and 32% reported weak signal problems. The percentages of respondents, who faced the exact same problems while using internet through mobile hotspot were 40.18%, 3.19% and 56.63%, respectively [6].  Notwithstanding the abysmal state of internet connectivity in the country, the MHRD reduced the expense in digital infrastructure to Rs. 469 crores in 2020-21 from Rs. 604 crores in 2019-20, i.e., a 22.35% reduction in one single year [5]. So, whom is the government trying to fool?

c) There cannot be any doubt regarding the necessity of a computer or smart device for an online class. Data depicts that while 24% Indians possess a smartphone, only 11% of households have any kind of computer that may include desktop, notebook, laptop, notebook or tablet. It is interesting to note that only 2.7% and 8.9% of the poorest 20% household have access to a computer and internet while the numbers are 27.6% and 50.5% for the top 20%. The variation in proportion among the states should also be taken into account. The percentage of households with access to a computer varies from 4.6% in Bihar to 23.5% in Kerala and 35% in Delhi [5].  The government is very worried about the “learning outcome” of the students; however, it is not considering the fact that 37% households in the country somehow manage their existence in a single dwelling room with all family members in it [7]. Therefore, even if we imagine a facility for online education present in such families, how can students learn uninterruptedly in such households?

d) According to an in-house survey of 2500 students regarding issues related to online teaching conducted by University of Hyderabad, 63% of the students having a mobile phone (90%) could either access classes infrequently or not at all. Out of the several concerns raised by the students, 40% complained regarding poor connectivity while 30% students were concerned about the cost of data. Significantly, less than 10% respondents reported uncertain electricity supply as a concern [8]. In a survey conducted by Delhi University Teachers’ Association among more than 51000 students, it is revealed that 85% of the respondents expressed their unwillingness regarding online open book exam. Nearly 38% informed that they were not able to access online materials that were provided to them. While nearly 34% of students reported that they could not attend any online classes via platforms like Zoom and Google Meet and another significant 39% students reported that they could attend less than half of the classes. Undoubtedly, the primary problem is the accessibility and affordability of online education [9]. In 2017, a survey involving 400 students of the Delhi University revealed that while approximately 35% of the students were from villages, 75% of the students had family income less than Rs. 5 lakh per annum and 40% of the students were first generation college-goers. The number in recent years are similar or even worse. It is important to note that these figures are from Delhi University which is considered as one of the elite Universities of the country.

The USA has been leading the way in the field of online education. Students in the USA can pay and opt for online courses and then subsequently transfer the earned credits to a number of different colleges which award them the relevant degree [10]. It is like buying education from online vendors. Those who have money can buy more credits, and thus, can buy degrees in a much more flexible way. It is unfortunate that a country like India facing steep socio-economic inequality has decided to lift the restrictions on online education. Already seven Universities are granted permission to offer fully online degrees. However, in the USA, the experience of online education has not fallen in line with the expectations. A study by Spiros Protopsaltis, director of the Centre for Education Policy and Evaluation at George Mason University and a former aide in the Obama administration's Education Department mentions- “Online education has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students. Faculty, academic leaders, the public and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favourably than traditional degrees.” [11]. The growth of online education is overrepresented in the for-profit sector. Academic experts, industry practitioners and faculty are sceptical about the quality and efficiency of online education and in most cases have marked it inferior to face-to-face class experience. In a technology-driven nation like the USA, the study clearly mentions that online education has not improved affordability and in commercial term failed to generate positive return on investment. Students with underprepared and disadvantaged backgrounds mostly underperform and in general have poor outcomes. Evidence about success in MOOCs confirms that students from higher-income, more educated backgrounds are most likely to participate and succeed in these courses. Therefore, fully online courses contribute to socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps while failing to be more affordable than traditional courses [11]. Even if we leave the problem of accessibility and affordability, a completely online education system will leave the students of marginalised communities and less proficient students in general in a state of limbo. In traditional system they at least would get the opportunity to discuss their doubts with a teacher or mentor in flesh and blood. In an unequal society like India, online education in any form is nothing but a luxury to the lower stratum of our society, and this will further sharpen the class-division in the education sector. The suicide of a 14-year old Class 10 Dalit girl from Kerala’s Malappuram, due to her inability to attend online classes that began on 1st June 2020, is a latest example of this [12].













Anupam Banerjee is an independent researcher and an ex-student of the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, Jadavpur University.

Back to Home Page

Jun 12, 2020

Anupam Banerjee

Your Comment if any