The COVID-19 crisis has given rise to some unprecedented problems across the world. In India the government swung into action mid-March and imposed a country-wide strict lockdown. Several districts saw very heavy-handed police behaviour. Businesses and factories were shut down. Market places were heavily regulated. Lakhs of people, especially daily wage workers, were rendered jobless and were left to fend for themselves. Many of them started moving from one part of the country to another, in some cases on foot, to reunite with their families. This large-scale migration was a result of unprecedented and sudden loss of jobs resulting in extreme uncertainty and stress coupled with anxiety about the pandemic.
Educational institutes, universities, colleges and schools were shut down mid-session or mid-semester. Several residential universities and institutes evacuated their hostels due to the fear of COVID19 spread. As a result, all the academic activity came to a sudden halt. The government, through bodies like UGC, strongly encouraged the universities to conduct online lectures. This shift to online classes or meetings was not limited to India. Platforms like zoom, Google-meets, Microsoft teams etc. saw a global boom in their business due to a spike in online classes, meetings, seminars (now called webinars) during this time across the world.
With this shift came several challenges; for teachers as well as students. Teachers were expected to quickly learn the ropes of online teaching while many of them also struggled with lack of good internet access and adjustments to the work-from-home mode. The bigger and better funded universities and institutes could provide the infrastructure and a good bandwidth to their teachers but they also faced the issue of digital divide at the other end. Several students, who by now had reached their homes in various corners of the country, were often not able to access online lectures or study material due to bad or completely unavailable internet connection.
As of today, there are many conflicting reports about when the pandemic would peak in India. If the social distancing norms are to be followed for a considerably long time in future, online teaching is here to stay in some form or the other. This is also an opportune moment for the advocates of online teaching to push this into the mainstream. With a large part of the market already moving online, this is a natural next step for the middle class and the rich. The question of access (digital divide) does not affect them. The shift to online medium of instruction and the problem of digital divide cuts across class, caste and gender, affecting the marginalized sharply, primarily by exclusion, but also in many other ways.
Unsurprisingly, the impact of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown measures has been much worse on women than men1. Post-lockdown, an increase in domestic violence cases was reported. Many homes are far from safe for women or young girls and the work-from-home or study-from-home mode would push them into a more vulnerable situation. In this note, I would like to delve deeper into the women-centric problems that are likely to crop up when we speak of stay-at-home online education.
At school level, a large number of teachers are women. During the lockdown and because of the work-from-home situation, merging of both the workspaces increased women’s labour and made it difficult for them to cope. Something similar has existed in the slums and low income households in Indian cities for a long time now. Many women are employed in the informal sector doing jobs like packing masalas, rolling bidis, making paper envelopes, bindis etc., where all this work is done from home. This does not only take away any kind of responsibility that the employer might have in an actual factory, but also decimates any space for building solidarities, unionizing and fraternizing against the oppressive structures. Similarly, a shift to online teaching is likely to affect teachers’ unions. It will further diminish the presence of women from public spaces and as mentioned before, it will affect them uniquely by blurring the boundaries of the private and the professional.
Women invariably are the primary caregivers in the majority of households and in addition a large part of domestic work, if not all, falls upon their shoulders. Their 24X7 presence at home also means that they are, in principle, available for domestic labour for the entire time, making it difficult for them to take time out for other work. After the onset of COVID-19, studies reported a decrease in output by women researchers2. For the Indian middle class, a part of these problems emerged due to the dependence on the often unacknowledged labour of the househelp (who are almost always women) and their inability to come to work during the lockdown. In many ways, a middle class working woman’s career is made possible by these working class women. While the middle and upper class women’s struggle to strike the work-home balance grew, the women who worked as househelp had it much worse and many struggled to make ends meet in the midst of severe lockdown. It is not clear how many of them lost work during these times or received salaries for the lockdown period.
The medium of online teaching also adds a new dimension to the question of sexual harassment at workplace for women. Several cases of zoom-bombing3 were reported across the world. Many cases involved obscenity when the instructor was a female. Online trolling, abuse and vulgar remarks are not new for women on social media. The fact that these lectures can be viewed by anyone, anywhere in the world makes women teachers more vulnerable to such behavior4. It also makes it difficult to define the “workplace” and hence address the harassment under existing laws. While several online platforms acknowledged the problem and came up with solutions to address them, schools or institutions of higher education are yet to make any policy decisions regarding this. It was a long struggle to reach this point where our institutes of higher education have now established gender cells and/or committees against sexual harassment on campuses. However, there is still a lot of hesitation about addressing online trolling and abuse. With educational spaces moving online, this challenge will come to the forefront.
Once the online lessons had concluded and semesters were declared officially closed, universities were faced with the problem of conducting the final exams and grading; a process that is a vital cog in the modern education machinery. This undue stress on exams and determination of final grades (which is extremely important for a market-driven educational framework) reinforces the extremely problematic “merit argument”, which again cuts across caste as well as gender. There have been studies that observe that women students thrive in a collaborative, rather than a competitive environment. This means an educational system that over-emphasizes examination as the only mode of evaluation puts already marginalized women students at a further disadvantaged position. Online education is likely to push us towards a more examination dependent system which would mean further marginalization of women.
A fair examination process and a complete absence of context in the classrooms form the ethical backbone of modern education. It is one thing to insist that in an educational institute all students must be treated equally and be judged without discrimination; and completely another to let this idea overpower so much that we start to ignore the mental health trauma, caste/gender/sexual-orientation based marginalization or financial hardship that our students might be going through. As a result, we come up with rather cosmetic ways of handling issues of mental health, caste-related bullying or everyday sexism on our campuses. We do not care if a student can pay fees only at certain times because they come from peasant households. Therefore, it is unfortunate, but not surprising, that the institutions of higher education have chosen to completely ignore the stress students are currently under. They have chosen not to assess the financial hardship the students’ families might be going through. Students coming from privileged backgrounds, that is students whose parents are in white-collar jobs and/or have economic and social strength to pull through the situation created by the pandemic, are not and cannot be the archetype for making any decisions regarding the future of Indian education system.
Despite being market-driven, hierarchical and pedagogically unimaginative, schools and colleges provide a way for students to reach out and meet new people. This experience is particularly important for girls who often grow up in extremely regressive environments. For several college-going girls, going to college/university is the only time they are able to step out of their homes without excessive scrutiny. Schools, colleges and universities provide a very real and physical space to have peer interactions and build solidarities. It helps them grow beyond the boundaries of their homes. This is particularly important for young women because they often lack other avenues of socializing.
For a large number of girls/women, studying from home would result in a constant tussle between the house-work and school/college education. In families with severe financial constraints, there is often a limited number of smartphones, which means their use would be prioritized and the study hours would depend on where the girl’s education falls on the priority list. Smartphones are also often seen as providing “undesirable freedom” to young women. This could mean excessive surveillance on the use of smartphones by these girls or they could be denied access altogether. Thus, the problem of access would hit girl students harder than the boys and we must remember that we do not have a very good scorecard when it comes to taking timely decisions on issues that affect women more than men.
While online teaching platforms have earned some popularity recently (even before the pandemic), it was never seen as a mainstream method of imparting education to the masses in India. It remains to be seen how much of this “online teaching” is here to stay permanently in the post-COVID19 world. The idea that online education would bring some sort of democratization or larger reach seems like an incomplete picture of what is to come. It is important that we understand the problems and the kind of further marginalization online education would bring.
I would like to thank Jayasree, Shreya, Tulsi, Anupama and Kishor for the discussions and Sandipa, Debarati, Manjari, Alok, Vaibhav, Ritajyoti and Kartik for their valuable feedback.