Emergency solutions are exacerbating the digital divide

India has come to a near standstill, but people are still keen to learn and teach. The restrictions due to the COVID-19 pandemic have temporarily and abruptly closed down most of the higher education institutions in India, compelling them to (re)think how to use their existing platforms and find new and innovative solutions to continue with teaching and learning.

While many state and central level institutions initially postponed their educational activities until they are able to reopen physically, several others, especially the Indian Institutes of Science (IISCs), Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and National Institutes of Technology found technology-mediated solutions to continue with teaching and learning remotely.

Gradually, most of the higher education institutions in the country, including undergraduate colleges located in the far corners of the nation which have limited digital communication infrastructures, have begun to explore how they might be able to teach remotely.

However, there seems a clear divide between the former and the latter, and the premier and well-funded higher education institutions with better infrastructure are more equipped to adopt digital platforms almost seamlessly, while the rest grapple with basic and makeshift arrangements to continue to complete their syllabi and assignments.

Even though it is temporary, this ongoing shift from a physical to a digital mode of academic intellectual transactions in the Indian higher education institutions is remarkable and shows why there is a dire need to invest in developing digital technology-mediated platforms and to train teachers in all the educational institutions, to support remote teaching and learning during and beyond emergency situations such as the COVID-19 crisis.

The digital divide

While most of the higher education institutions in India are now aiming to complete their syllabi and course contents using a variety of available digital media, some of them are also exploring the possibility of incorporating digital teaching and learning into existing brick-and -mortar set-ups.

Such efforts can be divided based on the types of higher education institutions and the financial and dedicated technical support systems they enjoy. I have divided them into three broad categories, namely ‘premier’, ‘average’ and ‘the rest’, with financial and technical support per student and faculty decreasing in that order.

The premier institutions

Almost all IISCs, IITs, IIMs and renowned private higher education institutions are now offering real-time online classes using their institutional learning management systems, Google Classroom, Google Meet, Webex, Zoom Classroom and Microsoft Teams, among others.

In addition, a few of them are also exploring other potential digital avenues such as Edmodo, Mentimeter, BrainPop, Flipgrid, Eduflow, BigBlueButton and Coursera platforms to facilitate teaching and learning. These institutions are encouraging their faculty members and students to use live streaming of lectures, online discussions and other methods to simulate classroom experiences.

Notably, these premier institutes also receive generous financial and infrastructural support, either from public or private sources, which enables them to afford a plethora of subscription-based online platforms for remote teaching and learning.

Their faculty members are also sufficiently well versed in using digital technologies and these institutions also have a dedicated technical team on board which are there to support academic activities, procure paid licences to use online platforms, or extend digital storage capacities.

This empowers faculty members and students to prepare, upload, store and download large customised digital files of video and audio lectures and conduct live interactions and feedback comparable to their regular classroom schedule.

Average institutions

The second tier of higher education institutions represents the average conditions of educational institutions in India in terms of financial and dedicated information technology (IT) support.

They are the largest in numbers and the most diverse, ranging from general degree colleges, most of the state universities and a few central universities located in smaller cities to many private higher education institutions, including engineering colleges. They cater to the majority of higher education learners in India.

Most of these institutions run on yearly, pre-approved line-item budgets, which are difficult to use flexibly, and therefore are less effective in facilitating an urgent move to digital learning at a time of sudden lockdown. Moreover, the majority of their faculty members do not have any formative training in using modern digital technologies for integrated online teaching and learning.

To facilitate digital learning, these higher education institutions mostly rely on the resources provided by the University Grants Commission and the All India Council for Technical Education as well as other public and private entities. Considering the present need, several of these organisations have collaborated, compiled digital repositories and made them available for free.

While this is a great move aimed at facilitating self-directed learning, many of these resources are non-interactive or are recorded video or audio lectures and documents.

Since higher education institutions had to suspend their classroom teaching and learning activities abruptly, it is important to continue with it in digital formats. However, due to the lack of swift additional funding, IT infrastructure and support, most of these institutions are less able to use the full potential of the digital platforms to engage their teachers and learners in real-time interactions.

As a substitute, some of these institutions have started issuing circulars to their teachers to prepare contents, assignments and quizzes to share them with their respective students, using email and other commonly used networking platforms that are not necessarily dedicated to academic purposes. Teachers are encouraged to use existing applications such as WhatsApp, Facebook, Google and trial versions of academic and networking platforms for teaching purposes.

It is important to note that class sizes in regular colleges are often much higher than the permissible limit for live teaching and learning in the trial versions of such platforms, and therefore their use is rather limited in practice.

The rest

In terms of effectively using online resources for teaching and learning, the most deprived are higher education institutions, including the mushrooming private institutions located in the corners of the country, especially in the smaller towns and villages, offering bachelors of education (BEd) and other courses.

I refer to these higher education institutions as ‘the rest’. They have poor overall infrastructure, rudimentary IT facilities, almost non-existent technical support and the intent of the institutional administration in facilitating teaching and learning is questionable.

A review of their websites and discussions with their faculty members and students reveal that most of these higher education institutions have made very little effort to find alternative digital avenues for teaching and learning. In some of these institutions, notices have been circulated to use the available online learning platforms offered by the government of India, such as SWAYAM, according to the needs of particular disciplines, without any pro-active involvement or support from the institution itself.

It is important to note that a large number of students enrolled at these higher education institutions come from economically and socially marginalised households. Many of these students, and their poorly paid contractual or guest teachers, cannot afford to have large data subscriptions, making it nearly impossible for them to access available online contents with bigger file sizes.

Moreover, it is important to note that some of the regions where these higher education institutions are located do not have fast enough internet for video conferencing or live streaming of lectures, even if it was made available for free by the online learning platform(s). The sudden surge of demand for the internet during the lockdown has made the internet speed per device even slower, making the situation more difficult for higher education students.

Practical problems and innovative solutions

Interestingly, faculty members and students in all types of higher education institutions are spontaneously creating online study groups, using popular applications such as WhatsApp and Google Meet. Even in the most remote higher education institutions, teachers have started delivering scan copies or pictures of handwritten or typed notes and using group calls to engage in discussion sessions. They are also communicating with their peers and colleagues from neighbouring higher education institutions to prepare questions papers, assignments and assessment criteria suited to current needs.

The premier higher education institutions and some of the central level institutes are facing a different kind of challenge. In spite of having better facilities and on-board support than many of their less privileged counterparts, some of these higher education institutions are not able to help their students.

Since most of the students left the campus before the lockdown in India, which started on 24 March, they are now in their homes. Therefore, the effectiveness of the online teaching and learning is now subject to the existing data subscriptions and internet speed where they are living.

For instance, some of the students at IIT Jammu who are not on campus are not able to view live lectures from their home towns due to low internet speed. Sometimes, downloading a few online lectures consumes their daily data limit, making it virtually impossible for them to engage in any online activities before midnight.

In these situations, faculty members are sharing PowerPoint (PPT) slides with recorded voiceovers which consume much less data than the video or live streaming of lectures. These PPT and voiceover lectures are customised for the students by their respective teachers and continue from where the classroom lecture ended, making them effective and a feasible solution for many students.

In addition, students and teachers have formed smaller, discipline- and assignment-specific discussion groups which are proving to be useful for deeper and engaging discussions.

Integrating digital technologies with teaching and learning

While the above examples are not exhaustive and there are many more innovative ways in which teaching and learning are being practised remotely in Indian higher education institutions during the nationwide lockdown, there is no denying the fact that better infrastructure and financial autonomy are the cornerstones for facilitating academic activities, even remotely.

In the present turbulent times, higher education institutions supported by IT infrastructure and technical teams are well equipped to deliver learner-centric and customised teaching and learning remotely within a short notice period, while some of the average higher education institutions are left to choose from the available resources, which are not necessarily suited to their needs. The teaching and learning at the poor-quality higher education institutions are being worst hit by this pandemic, as they are neither prepared nor have the financial support or technical knowhow to facilitate effective teaching and learning digitally.

The lack of teacher training and learner orientation with regard to using the available, and sometimes limited, digital resources optimally for teaching and learning activities leave us with some important doubts but no immediate answers. Could the teachers and learners of the average higher education institutions engage more effectively in online teaching and learning if they had been trained properly? What kind of training do they need to integrate digital technologies with teaching and learning and how can higher education institutions be prepared?

While this unprecedented situation may work as a testing-bed for the feasibility and effectiveness of digital technology and the preparedness of higher education institutions in delivering teaching and learning remotely, it requires further investigation and diverse empirical studies to suggest evidence-based policy recommendations.

However, it seems evident that investing in infrastructure, especially digital and IT infrastructure, and training teachers to use them optimally, are some of the key areas to ensure effective teaching and learning in Indian higher education institutions with or without the four walls of classrooms.

Dr Sayantan Mandal is an assistant professor at the department of humanities and social sciences in the Indian Institute of Technology Jammu (IIT Jammu), and the coordinator of the national level study on Teaching and Learning in Indian Higher Education conducted by the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi. This article is based on the author’s telephonic and electronic discussions with various colleges, university staff, teachers and students. In addition, the websites of several universities, institutions and colleges, the online notices regarding teaching and learning during the lockdown have been reviewed. The documents circulated internally to their teachers and students of IIT Jammu have also been reviewed in this regard.