Multi-faceted impact of COVID-19 on higher education in India

The World Health Organization declared the Coronavirus outbreak as a pandemic on 11 March 2020. On 24 March 2020, the Indian government declared a complete lockdown citing the rise in COVID-19 positive cases, thus bringing almost every area of public life to a halt. One of the most affected areas due to COVID-19 induced lockdown is the education sector. Close to 32 crore students have been affected due to the pandemic and many have been forced to adapt to e-learning as an alternative.

With large-scale disparities in socioeconomic status and proximity, several students faced difficulties adjusting to online education. Apart from issues of accessibility, they also faced issues like lack of learning environment, dissociation from peers, burn out, low levels of retention, unavailability of resources and many more. As the academics for most school-going children haven’t completely restarted yet, it’s the college/ university students who had to bear the brunt of the many problems arising from e-learning. 

Digital Divide

The digital divide in India has severely affected students from marginalized communities and rural areas. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), there has been a rise in the number of wireless subscribers in India over the past five years, evenly distributed across rural and urban areas. But online classes and e-learning require more than just telecommunication. A smartphone with steady internet access is the basic requirement and some courses also require access to computers and other devices, where the urban-rural distinction makes quite a difference.

MS Education Academy

As per the 75th round of the National Sample Survey directed between July 2017 and June 2018, only 4.4 rural families have a computer, against 14.4 per cent in urban regions, with as low as 14.9 per cent of rural families accessing the Internet against 42% of families in urban areas.

The Fifth National Family and Health Survey showed that there is a huge gap in individual internet usage levels and accessibility between rural and urban areas. This gap is further seen with respect to gender as women in both urban and rural areas have lower levels of internet accessibility than men.

As mobile phones became the source of learning for many, other disparities like connectivity issues, handset model and available features also made a huge difference. Many students also engage in household and other economic activities, making it difficult for them to attend online classes or finish their academic tasks. It has been reported that India had one of the highest dropout rates of students. 

Public Vs Private

Students from public colleges/ universities and low-income private colleges were more affected than the students from private universities. As the public institutions had huge responsibilities concerning the well-being of students and other issues like infrastructure and accessibility, many private institutions did not.

Rishabh Chaudhary, a student at the University of Hyderabad researching in the area of students and e-learning concluded from his preliminary results that private university students had less trouble moving to an online mode of learning while students from public universities and other low-income colleges faced a lot of difficulties. The shift to online mode in private universities was quicker compared to public universities.

Many private colleges had their staff already trained in and accustomed to the online mode of teaching. Students in these institutions mostly hailed from urban and middle to high-income backgrounds, and thus did not face issues with accessibility.

Research

One of the most important aspects of higher education in India is research. A lot of this research is dependent on the academic institutions and the infrastructure provided by them to the research scholars.

“For science students and many social science students, the centers, labs set up in the universities provide them with an environment to do research. A lot of master’s programs in the country lack the research component. Many students enrolled in M Phil or PhD programs are actually doing the research for the first time. So if you do not have that environment, it becomes even more difficult,” said Devina Sarawatay, PhD student at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad.

Another issue is that research also requires access to the library, repositories, online journals and stable internet access. Data collection, interviews and other important parts of the research process were also difficult to carry out. This led to delays and stagnation of the work of many research scholars who couldn’t submit their work on time. Many universities managed to give extensions to scholars from older batches but students from newer batches are still uncertain about their extension. All these issues have severely affected the quality of research in India.

“Many research scholars manage to sustain with the monetary help they get from the government and universities in the form of fellowships but due to administrative holdups and other issues during the lockdown, they weren’t paid their stipend on time,” said Devina. This severely affected the research scholars from marginalized communities and low-income families.

Teaching and Learning

Teachers faced new challenges in terms of teaching online and adapting to new technologies. Many universities took cognizance of the difficulties faced by teachers in adapting to teaching online and conducted orientation programs for them. But as the shift was very quick, many teachers continued to face troubles while using online teaching platforms. Teaching was also difficult due to the lack of interaction and uncertainty in terms of retention by students.

The learning process was also heavily affected. Retention from online classes has been noted to be lower than in physical classes. There is also a major difference in retention between synchronous and asynchronous classes. Although asynchronous classes are more feasible with students facing connectivity issues, they don’t offer space for dialogue or interaction. Synchronous classes are feasible with interaction but cannot compensate for the lack of a physical learning environment.

Dushyant, who is pursuing masters in International Relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University said that his primary discontent with the online mode is that it fails to augment the classroom experience. “As a result, the learning experience is very casual. The virtual space negates the possibility of an important aspect of higher education—learning outside the classroom. This has hampered the learning process, big time. A part of the scholar inside me has been killed, and I’m not lying,” he added.

A collaborative project on media education in India during the pandemic by Dr Usha Raman and Devina Sarwatay of the University of Hyderabad found that students who had to pivot to online classes in the middle of their course had difficulties adjusting to e-learning while students who began their classes completely online adjusted well. “This could be due to the fact that the newly enrolled students were well aware of the pandemic situation and the need for online classes while the senior students were taken aback by the sudden interruption and change in their mode of learning,” said Devina.

Students enrolled in courses that require practical learning and laboratory access faced heavy learning loss during the pandemic. With a large number of students enrolled in STEM courses, this could have long-term effects for India. This could also result in pushing students from marginalized social and economic backgrounds away from STEM education.

Mental health, Abuse and Lack of support

Online mode of learning has had severe effects on the mental health of students. Alongside accessibility issues, many faced difficulties in attending classes due to various family issues. Oxfam India reported that the lockdown period saw a sharp rise in domestic violence cases.

Many students, particularly queer students and women use their university/ college residential campuses as a form of escape from abusive homes and find necessary support in their peers or inclusive groups on campus. Lockdown resulted in closing down on campuses, leading to these students losing out on support and having to go back to toxic home environments.

A student from the University of Hyderabad, who wished to remain anonymous said, “Those of us who come from dysfunctional families have a hard time adjusting to home. And that also adds to our inability to study or retain information no matter what our teachers want to do to make things accessible for us. That’s how I lost an entire semester. I don’t think I’ll get it back so I don’t think of it but I wish I could have dealt with my dysfunctional family and mental health issues and done a bit better in my studies. I felt as if everything was slipping away and I didn’t even have the mental peace to think about what I wanna do in the future.”

They also shared how things are looking up post lockdown. “I have come out of home and I’m able to think a little bit, listen to audio lectures, talk to my friends and partner overcalls more freely. So it’s better when I’m away from home after the lockdown because it was a hell of a time adjusting and I realized that no matter what I do I can’t change anything about home but I can take care of myself away from there,”

Students battled severe stress related to deadlines and exams. Physical classes offered students opportunities to study in groups and help each other out with assignments and exam preparations which wasn’t as feasible with online classes. This led to anxieties and stress while working on academic tasks.

Students who had pre-existing physical and mental health conditions were among the most affected groups due to digital learning. Meghana, who is a student of MA Development Studies at TISS Hyderabad said, “I have ADHD and amblyopia (a neuro-visual disability) and a lot of my problems during the online semester, learning online are related to ADHD and neuro-visual disability and are magnified by lack of accommodations/institutional mechanisms in the university spaces. Although I’ve been blessed to have many professors who understood my (our) situation and pushed themselves to help me in whatever way they can, I found it dehumanizing to write emails to each of them about my ADHD and how it plays out.” 

They went on to explain how the lack of physical environment affected their coping mechanisms. “A huge part of  ADHD is also having a lot of shame associated with not fitting into educational institutions, for years. I realized that in the absence of accessibility or accommodations, even as much as an acknowledgment of ADHD or neuro divergence, I evolved certain coping mechanisms. These coping mechanisms were embedded in the physical environment of the college. And suddenly when it wasn’t in reach anymore, I saw the fragility of these coping mechanisms. They fell apart and I sometimes did not know how to function.”

Meghana then discussed the shame or embarrassment asscociated with asking professors for an extension of deadlines. “I just feel like there was a lot of shame writing to the professors each time I needed an accommodation or an extended deadline. There is no institutional mechanism where I could rely on a procedure that could grant a few accommodations. I had to do this a lot more than before and writing to a professor each time I needed an extension was extremely tedious,” they added.

Continuous usage of the internet and smartphones caused digital burnout among students, which resulted in a lack of motivation to study or finish the scheduled tasks.  Sai Gangothri, a psychology student from Osmania University said that she had noticed a huge increase in her smartphone usage during the lockdown. “I am not someone who uses social media a lot. But due to lockdown, I had to stay connected with my friends. Online classes also needed me to stay updated on classwork online. Due to this, I was using my phone way more than I did before. Most of the time, it felt like I needed a break from it due to burnout,” she said.

Uncertainty about the future

As a number of important entrance exams were postponed or cancelled, students had to spend the lockdown period in uncertainty about their future. Similarly, graduating students faced difficulties finding jobs due to the lack of placements on campus and the unavailability of job opportunities outside. Students also faced issues finding academic internships necessary for their course.

Varun, who graduated from IIT Madras right at the time of the lockdown said, “As soon as educational institutions were closing down, our college prioritised graduating students & informed us of the plan ahead. Exams, reviews, presentations, all were fast-tracked and the syllabus was cut down for some courses.” He said that they couldn’t believe it was all happening so fast.

“Although our placement session was over by the time, some of my friends had their offers rescinded. They felt betrayed,” he added. Another biggest area of uncertainty, he said, was the finishing of projects for masters students. “As the campus closed down, many of the students’ work came to a halt,” he added.

The Indian government has been pushing the institutions across the country to adopt digital teaching and learning methods owing to the pandemic. It has also been made clear through its new National Education Policy (NEP). But this push only lay bare the systemic inequalities faced by students in India. With the right infrastructure, education in India can be revolutionized but the existing disparities are only harming students from marginalized backgrounds.

It is high time there is an intervention by the government to actually equip all students with required resources that enable learning. It is also necessary to address the massive digital divide and work towards bridging it, before claiming to have begun a digital revolution.

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