The Paradox of Online Education: Inclusive or Not Inclusive?

Sudip Bhattacharjee & Dr. Anindita Sinha

Online education has been promoted by Public and Private Universities, colleges, and schools for quite some time now. Online teaching and learning platforms such as MOOCs (massive open online courses) and e-Learning websites viz., NPTEL, Udemy, Course Era, Extramarks, Unacademy along with delivery platforms like Google Meet, Zoom, etc have been around for at least since the beginning of the 2000s. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has put online education back in the limelight. Online education is defined by encylopedia.com as a flexible instructional delivery system that encompasses any kind of learning that takes place via the internet. Online education is a good medium for educators to reach out to a wide base of students who may not possibly access classroom education due to the paucity of resources like time, money, etc. The global business society that runs on a 24/7 schedule is quite happy with such arrangements. The cost involved in reaching out to a large number of students and a global audience which is quite huge in the traditional educational system in terms of infrastructure is drastically reduced in online education models.  The students are also given great flexibility in timing. It seems online education is a great equalizer and finally, the social ceiling of quality education has been breached with the rich and poor having access to almost similar content in competitive prices. This cannot be denied that the internet has made tons of data available to billions of people at very low cost and has leveled the field to a great extent but it should also be remembered here that education is not all about information bombardment or data feeding.

    A study at Massachusetts Institute of Technology published in 2019 found that 96% of online enrolled students do not complete the course and drop out. The study period was 2013-14 to 2017- 18 and the dropout rates remained consistent throughout. Thus the ability of online courses to keep students motivated and involved is far lower than traditional classroom deliveries where in most cases the completion rates are comfortably above 90%.

The Inside Higher Ed an online publication made some studies on MOOC (Massive Open Online Courses). Their observations were first, MOOC completion rates have consistently remained very low. Only 6% of MOOC students completed their course(s) in 2014-15. By 2017-18 the course completion rate dropped to 3.13%. Secondly, the percentage of first-time MOOC users who subsequently enrolled on a MOOC the following year has fallen every year since 2012-13, from a high of 38% that year to 7% in 2016-17. Thirdly, the majority of students initially enrolling in their first MOOC reside in developed countries. The promise that MOOCs’ high quality and low-cost delivery would rapidly enhance tertiary education opportunities in developing countries has yet to be realized.

            A global organization in providing performance enhancement solution the Peak Performance Center recognizes the contribution of three essential parameters of effective learning i.e. Attitude, Skills, and Knowledge (ASK). Attitude simply defined as “feelings, emotions, beliefs or values.” Attitude has a significant impact on a person’s behavior and requires considerable time and effort to alter. The dismal completion rates of online courses may be an indication that online courses have little or no impact on people's attitude, the most crucial block of any learning process. To make matters more complicated it is more difficult to measure the impact of training programs and educational activities in some one’s attitude.

Similarly, most studies have found online education is less effective in imparting skills compared to hands-on training. So although theoretical knowledge can be more easily provided by online courses but their limitations in developing real-life skills is a major impendent. To develop competency in skills requires hands-on training & practice which may be difficult to achieve in an online environment. Speed, precision, and techniques are parameters to measure skills, where online education has a distinct disadvantage in evaluation. However with passing time and increasing familiarity with online teaching methods this limitation can be overcome to a considerable extent.

Knowledge is the condition of being aware of something like facts or concepts. It is the only aspect in ASK where online education can provide a distinct advantage. Knowledge is directly linked to access to information and cognitive processing of information. But without being able to develop the right kind of Attitude and Skills, the acquired knowledge will not be sufficient to motivate the candidates to meaningful utilization.

In a study on students’ experience of online education in the COVID 19 lockdown, Dr. Anindita Sinha, a faculty member at the ICFAI University Tripura tried to identify the various factors that might be associated with a less than ideal outcome of online learning. The study was conducted on a pan-India basis with a sample size of 340 students between the ages of 15 and 25 years. Out of the 340 respondents, nearly 55% belonged to rural areas. Also, social group-wise classification of the sample found that 40% belonged to the General caste category, 24% belonged to Scheduled Tribe, 15% to Scheduled caste, and the remaining to Other Backward Castes. Among the online platforms used, Google classroom was the most popular, followed by WhatsApp, Zoom and Google Meet. On the statistical analysis of the data, it was found that an overwhelming number of students were facing problems in access to internet (70%). Around 65% of the students also reported difficulty or were not adept in using computers/mobile phones for attending online classes. However, what is most disturbing is that nearly 75% of the students reported problems in mastering the method of using online learning platforms i.e., even if they are having access to smart phones or laptops and also online learning tools but they are not comfortable using them. Overall, the findings highlight the need to focus on these various issues to make online learning effective for students. Furthermore, classification of the responses by social groups also indicated that the students from the ST communities were facing greater problems than others in the areas of getting a laptop/mobile for the online class as also access to study material or books during the lockdown. Perhaps not surprisingly, students from lower economic strata were facing significantly more problems in accessing the internet, laptop/mobile, and also in accessing study materials and have reported a decrease in study hours to a greater extent than students from relatively affluent backgrounds. Thus, students from weaker economic backgrounds and those from scheduled tribes have suffered the most and they face the threat of exclusion from formal education in this situation. In fact, according to a World Bank study, previous experience from pandemics shows that students from poor and vulnerable populations rarely make it back to the classroom after the pandemic is over.

In light of the overall discussion, we may suggest the following steps.  First, there has to be a concerted effort on the part of educational institutions in instilling the confidence and skill among students to learn through online mode. Considerable effort has to be spent in establishing/re-establishing contact with students, especially from the marginalized communities and weaker income categories. The involvement of the guardians of the wards could be useful in this regard. This could go a long way in developing the correct attitude among students for online learning. Equally important is to ensure maintaining a healthy teacher-student ratio especially in online teaching through formal educational institutions. One of the primary problems faced by students as found in the survey was reaching out to the teachers and that plays a significant role in shaping the attitude, enthusiasm, and motivation level of students. Thus, the decision makers should give equal importance to teachers / trainers and strive to maintain a low student teacher ratio to enable effective motivation, personal interaction and greater human touch in online learning. Otherwise, the marginalized sections of the society will get more marginalized overtime.