Digital Learning

“You are asking where Javed is? He went out to the local grocer to buy biscuits an hour ago. He hasn’t returned and I have no biscuits to eat with me tea,” laughed Jameela. “When he will return, he will be a newspaper. He will have all the basti news.”

Jameela is talking about her 12-year-old son. When asked if she would enrol Javed into an online learning course, she shakes her head vigorously, commenting, “Can you imagine him sitting in one place for more than 10 minutes? But I am worried about what will happen to him if schools do not open soon.” 

We’ll return to Jameela’s problem in a while. First, let us take a look at what has been happening over the past few months. 

At the beginning of March, schools started shutting down because of the Covid pandemic. Parents and schools alike were worried, and understandably so, about how education and learning would be impacted if the lockdown continued. Five months on, schools are still closed for the foreseeable future.

But these past five months have not been idle. Multiple versions of online learning have emerged. SCERTs across the country are busy placing digital copies of their revised textbooks online; short learning snippets are being made accessible on YouTube, radio, and TV; schools are organising online classes between teachers and students, following a regimented time-table; new learning apps have cropped up, some which are co-created by governments alongside private partners. In some cases, existing online learning platforms have upped their game and are now generating content at a speed faster than the spread of the virus. Fancy imagery promises to transport the child into a learning space, which may or may not match their context. Then, there are forums which provide supplementary learning modules, which range from how to read and understand poetry, to knowing how a rocket works. 

It is exhausting keeping track of all the new forms that are emerging. However, they all have one thing in common – their claim that they bring learning to a child who is sitting at home. 

So how does one choose which option to go with? One may like to list parameters like quality and the content being age-appropriate. But unfortunately, it comes down to the whole politics of access. Who gets what is determined by: 

  1. Does the family have a smartphone? If yes, can it be spared for the child’s learning?
  2. How many devices do they need, depending on the number of children in the family?
  3. What is the membership fee for different learning apps, and who can afford it? 
  4. What is the language of delivery of content?
  5. Can the family afford the data required to stream online content?
  6. Who will foot the rising electricity bill, with an increase in devices that need constant charging? 

Let us assume for a moment that we live in a fair, equal world — where everyone can access the same high-quality content, made by experts, which is unquestionably brilliant. Would it still be the way to go? Many parents believe that parental engagement actually increases during online learning. This could vary depending on the age of the child, and how much spare time the parent has to engage with their learning. The question of how to monitor and how much to monitor could also be an individual choice, but at the same time heavily determined by whether the said parent has the required time to give to their child. 

Another drawback of online learning, especially with platforms that provide pre-recorded content, is the blanket context it works within. It is standardised, and assumes that everyone will be familiar with the references and the language it uses. For example, a seemingly simple statement like “Look for a Coke can” while teaching the concept of a cylinder, has already alienated a large segment of children. Neither does it have a personal connect. It may be digitally customised to match the pace of every individual child, but the personalised touch brought in by a facilitator is missing. 

It doesn’t necessarily become better in a face-to-face online class. The physical and facial cues that a teacher or a facilitator pick up during live teaching, to customise their style in reaching out to each student, is lost on a Zoom or Google call. 

Now look at Jameela’s son Javed.  An oft-repeated phrase that educationists, or those in the education service industry, like to use with a flourish is how each child is “unique and different”. However, this uniqueness and differentiation is at risk in the wake of a stationary, undifferentiated instructive experience. What will happen to a child like Javed? Or do we consider it a requisite life skill to be disciplined enough to sit in front of a screen and learn? 

What happens to the possibility of learning involving different experiences, or learning from the very environment they live in? 

This is not to say that online learning is all bad. There are certain practices which are beneficial, and should maybe even continue beyond this pandemic. For example, there is a certain efficiency in submitting your work to the teacher via Whatsapp. It is quick, and feedback could be instant. There is a real-time sharing of information and thoughts. Digital literacy, which the urban middle class had so far coveted, is spreading. More and more people are becoming comfortable with digital usage. 

However, the point remains. Digital learning is still unequal and inequitable, and access is limited and defined by the cultural and social standings of those wanting it. It may actually deepen the chasms of access. Another worrisome aspect about its alarming pervasiveness, is how and by whom will content be monitored? 

Digital learning is here and it will stay. The thought we are left with and must grapple with, is the extent to which this learning should be allowed to persist and exist. Which practices should one take forward, what innovations can be made with its help, and what should be dropped altogether? And if the whole approach to learning is to turn it on its head, can we still have differentiated learning and experiences, including those that do not need a digital chariot to propel them forward?

For now, let us pause here, and think more deeply about the politics of digital learning, before hailing it as the only way forward in education and learning. 

Simrita Kaur

Simrita Kaur

Simrita is the Academics Lead at TIDE Learning.