COVID-19 pandemic is impacting all sections of society. However, the impact on higher-ed students is the least discussed so far. Unlike schools, where students come from nearby localities, university students come from afar. They travel across their districts, their states, and the country to realize their dreams. Thus you will find the greatest amount of diversity in these students of higher-ed institutions – rural and urban, poor, middle-class and rich, from different religions, castes, and backgrounds. During this crisis and lockdown, when classes can not be conducted on the university premises, institutions are adopting digital tools for delivering lectures to students now back in their homes.
Many instructors and universities have leveraged ICT and tools like Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype and Microsoft teams to impart live classes to the students. Universities have already started conducting exams and taking assignment submissions online. This is a great way to make education more accessible during these tough times. However, this access is not going to be uniform across all the students belonging to different sections of society.
The poor students are going to be affected the most during this period. Their access to appropriate devices like laptops and computers is going to be very difficult during this period. According to the India Internet 2019 Report, 99% of users in the country access the internet through mobiles, not laptops or computers. Laptops and desktops usage is only 2% and 1% respectively in rural areas and 6% and 4% respectively in urban areas of the country. Further, internet penetration is still very poor and stands at a mere 27% in rural India. Under the Bharat Net program of the Government of India, more than 40% of the villages are yet to be connected to the internet grid.
Thus, lack of access to the internet and proper devices is going to negatively impact students in leveraging online platforms. Many such students will not be able to attend online classes and participate in assignments and exams that are conducted online. In such a scenario, the rural students are in a disadvantageous position and the urban and rural poor students will be highly disadvantaged.
Recognizing this challenging situation during COVID-19, many universities such as MIT and Harvard have announced that they will either provide every student with a Pass or A/A- grades during this semester. Steps like this ensure fairness and empathize with students facing difficulties due to their prevailing circumstances.
In India, however, no debate or discussion is going on this pressing matter yet. It is an important issue affecting the future of the students who are the future of the country. UGC and deemed universities must provide suitable guidelines to ensure students are promoted to the next level fairly. It is a tough situation concerning the poor and the marginalized students and it must be dealt with utmost empathy. Keeping in mind the “digital divide” all further exams and assignments during the rest of the semester must be made voluntary. All students must be promoted to the next level. Alternatively, institutions can use the tests conducted so far as the basis for final assessments in a fair manner.
Unless such corrective measures are taken urgently, COVID-19 and the after-effects are going to deepen the divide across the poor and the rich students, rural and urban students for generations to come.
This blog is authored by Chaitanya Prakash Namburi. The author has a Masters in Public Policy and Computer Science and currently works for Google India. All views expressed are personal.