Online Learning In The Times Of COVID-19

Considering the state of the world we’re currently in, it seems that online learning is here to stay.


Ever since the COVID-19 lockdown began, 15-year old Savita has been forced to shuffle between her brother’s mobile phone and her father’s to be able to attend her online classes. Besides, in the remote Jharkhand village where she lives, internet connectivity is erratic at best, completely nonexistent at worst. Not only is her lack of access to a phone a major barrier, so is her lack of access to the internet. 

Before the pandemic hit, Savita was doing extraordinarily well at the local public school she attends, acing all her classes and on the road to winning a gold medal in academics by the end of this year. However, with the indefinite closure of schools that the lockdown brought forth, she is currently stuck at home without the required resources at hand to continue her education online. Her father, a daily wage labourer, has also been out of work ever since the lockdown set in, and hence, whatever meagre financial resources the family still has, has only been channelled into getting essential rations. Things like books, study material, and even online tools to aid Savita in successfully attending and learning from online classes has fallen pretty low on the scale of their priorities. 

Even before the pandemic, accessing education was a major challenge for adolescent girls. In fact, a 2018 report by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights found that across India, 39.4% girls aged between 15-18 years drop out of school and college. Patriarchal norms lead many families to not emphasize girls’ education, and instead engage adolescent girls purely in housework, or marry them off before they even turn 18. But with online learning becoming the ‘new normal’ in the wake of a pandemic that continues to stretch on and continues to pose risks to the reopening of schools, countless adolescent girls from remote rural communities (much like Savita) are finding their educational prospects in grave jeopardy. 

A recent tele-survey conducted by Centre for Catalyzing Change (C3) – a non-profit organization working towards empowering girls and women for over 30 years – that was aimed at tracking the schooling status of the adolescent girls and risk factors for school dropouts during COVID -19, highlights important evidence in this regard. Conducted in rural communities across the states of Jharkhand, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, one of its key findings was that custody and access to media (such as TV, radio, newspaper) or mobile-based internet and social media communication has so far been mostly dominated by the men of the household. For example, compared to over 35% of the adolescent boys between the ages of 15-19 who were surveyed, only 18% adolescent girls claimed to own a personal mobile phone, which is nearly half the amount. Therefore, adolescent girls had to depend on their male family members for essential support with respect to the availability of phones or the internet before they could attend an online class. This, coupled with the financial burden many households are facing during the pandemic, and the added burden of care-work and household work that girls and women had to take on during lockdown, has made it doubly difficult for a conducive environment to be created around an adolescent girl for her to pursue her education without disruption or fear. Almost double the amount of adolescent girls stated in the survey that it was more likely for them to drop out of school because of the pandemic compared to the number of boys who stated the same. Out of this, nearly 29% of the girls said that if they were to drop out, it would be to help out with household and care work.  

At the same time, teaching within the framework of online classes hasn’t come without its challenges either. 

In another survey conducted by Centre for Catalyzing Change, nodal teachers from Bihar and Chhattisgarh talked about their experiences adapting to this entirely new form of teaching, where they themselves highlighted their own barriers and struggles with accessing technology and having stable internet connectivity. Many teachers improvised through disseminating lesson notes and study materials through mobile messages in the absence of the internet – but of course, the gaps between access to mobile phone among girls and boys were well documented already, and would potentially once again lead to adolescent girls being the ones more adversely impacted than adolescent boys.  

Nearly 86% of the nodal teachers that were surveyed expressed concerns around online classes having a lower engagement, lower interest levels, or having the presence of distractions and hindrances like the pressure to be engaged in household work or income-generating activities. Many of these teachers also felt that adolescents from poverty-burdened households, adolescents without parents, adolescents with a higher number of siblings were more vulnerable to dropping out of school after lockdown. 

Considering the state of the world we’re currently in, it seems that online learning is here to stay. While it has definitely come with its pitfalls, there is an urgent and alarming need to bridge these gaps and ensure that the pivoting to e-learning only brings with it greater digital literacy and more innovative modes of imparting skills and knowledge, rather than proving to be something that further alienates and discourages adolescent girls from continuing their education and following their aspirations.  

There is a need to explore options of how to make digital learning available to all sections of students especially the marginalized. The Kerala State Education Department’s ‘First Bell’ initiative, which was launched on June 1, 2020, has been a big step forward in this regard. Through this initiative, nearly 604 different classes via the ‘KITE Victers’ television channel, making these lessons accessible to students without internet access. But more gaps need to be bridged, and more strategies and solutions need to be implemented to ensure that the process of online learning is equal for all. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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