Social distance on campus, but social disconnect online

Malish CM

It is too early to make any systematic attempt to assess the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the education system in general and the higher education system in particular. Some of the transformations that are taking place in higher education in the context of the pandemic are global in nature. One such transformation is the closing down of colleges and universities and the emergence of virtual learning as a primary mode of teaching-learning.

Many commentators have highlighted issues of digital have-nots during online learning. They fail to adequately locate the category of ‘have-nots’ in the debate. Is the alleged suicide of a school student from Kerala who could not attend the first session of ‘First Bell’, an online teaching project launched by department of education, a first warning bell for decision-makers?

Before considering the potential social impact of online learning, we need to understand the social dynamics of higher education in India.

India is one of the largest higher education systems in the world. One in five higher education students in the world is Indian.

According to Martin Trow, higher education is massified when gross enrolment ratio (GER) is above 15%. India has massified its higher education during the first decade of the 21st century with the entry of under-represented castes and communities and those from rural areas and poor households and those who studied in government schools with a regional language as the medium of instruction.

Different policies and scholarships and academic support programmes have made an important contribution to increasing GER in higher education. However, socio-economic inequality with regard to access to higher education continues to prevail. There is clear evidence of a widening of regional inequalities in recent years due to the uneven geographical distribution of institutions.

As per estimates of the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE), the 2018-19 student enrolment in higher education was 37.4 million, with a GER of 26.3%. Excluding 10.62% of distant enrolment, 33.4 million students were enrolled in 993 universities, nearly 40,000 colleges and 10,000 stand-alone institutions.

Scheduled castes, scheduled tribes and other ‘lower’ classes constitute 57% of total enrolment.

Some 79.8% of the student population is studying on undergraduate courses in affiliated colleges. The larger share of students from lower socio-economic households are enrolled in less prestigious government and government-aided colleges and the majority of them are more likely to be first-generation learners from under-developed districts, urban margins and villages.

The ‘social distance’ between students is a major hurdle for envisioning an inclusive campus. ‘Social distance’ refers to the extent to which one experiences a sense of familiarity when engaging with others.

When colleges and universities were closed due to the pandemic, millions of students who have been the victims of ‘social distancing’ on campuses became ‘socially disconnected’. They were unable to connect with their teachers and friends. Higher education leaders and teachers are literally clueless about them. This is an utter systemic failure.

Therefore, the response to COVID-19 is a touchstone for teachers and institutional leaders, calling them to critically examine how equity and inclusion is espoused and enacted in the structure and process of higher education.

Virtual learning as a global norm

Virtual classrooms, once considered as a luxury, are becoming a global norm. To what extent higher education should promote virtual learning is a contested domain.

Of course, we should not be averse to technology. But how technology is integrated in the teaching-learning process is inherently a pedagogical issue which needs not to be prescribed by technocrats and educational bureaucrats.

Currently, the online mode of teaching is simultaneously seen as a compensatory as well as primary mechanism of teaching-learning. This is a new scenario. As online learning provides an opportunity to connect with co-students and teachers, elements of social and emotional support and a sense of belonging are more important considerations during the initial stages.

However, the institutional response to online teaching has been diverse. Elite institutions such as Indian Institutes of Technology and Indian Institutes of Management go ahead with their different virtual modes. Delhi University’s move to conduct online open book examinations was referred to the courts. Hyderabad Central University decided not to implement virtual learning as students reported problems with internet connectivity. Colleges are not in the debate.

From social distance to social disconnect

As a survival mantra in this pandemic time, social distancing is being vigorously advocated. Students are forced to keep a distance from their teachers, co-students and the campus eco-system, all of which instils in them a sense of being ‘social’.

This social sense is the crux of university education. The increasing tendency to view higher education as teaching shops has far-reaching implications. The lack of a ‘social experience’ in university education almost equates to having no university education.

There is a long history of struggles in universities against ‘social distancing’, such as struggles against caste, class, race and gender-based exclusion and marginalisation. In a mass higher education system, efforts to institutionalise equity and inclusion need to be seen as an attempt to eliminate ‘social distance’.

The Equal Opportunity Office and other support provisions like remedial coaching, tuition fee waivers and tutorial programmes are mechanisms for institutionalising equity.

However, a national study carried out by the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education in 2016 observed that many of the mechanisms for promoting equity on campuses are not effective and efficient.

Although everyone is affected by the pandemic in one way or another, people’s vulnerability to the pandemic is uneven in terms of its drastic outcomes on people across socio-economic strata. Those students who are not connected to university through ICT are the ‘socially disconnected’ population of the pandemic time.

The ‘social disconnectedness’ that is being experienced by a sizeable student population is not merely a matter of access to technology, as many would misrecognise it. It reflects the foundational flaws in current socio-economic systems and developmental inequities.

In a period of crisis, a lack of adequate data acts as a significant threat for developing effective strategies. It is disturbing how few institutions develop and maintain an updated student database, including a functioning mobile number and email.

The majority of institutions may not be keeping such data in a format that can be easily accessible. One of the reasons may be a lack of adequate resources to collect and store such data. For instance, as per AISHE 2018-19, 10% of universities and 16% of colleges do not have computer centres on campus. That shows the magnitude of the problem.

A mirror to existing inequities

India is going to face acute unemployment and extreme poverty. Households of ‘socially disconnected’ students will be the first to be hit, which will put more pressure on students to withdraw from higher education. While male students will be compelled to contribute to household income, the cost of supporting women students may be seen as a burden by many households.

As a result, bringing students back to institutions and ensuring they complete their courses will be a challenging task for institutions. It is largely agreed that the unprecedented scenario we are facing requires unprecedented planning and implementation strategies. If the crisis is not the right time to discuss India’s vulnerable student population, then what do we understand by the whole idea of equity and inclusion in universities?

The ‘socially disconnected’ and the significant number of ‘marginally connected’ students are more likely to be from traditionally marginalised groups whose stock of the various forms of economic, social and cultural capital which are necessary to succeed in higher education and after is inadequate.

For that reason, we need to see ‘social disconnectedness’ in higher education as an indicator of the ‘continuity’ of deep-rooted social division rather than a mere aberration. It also indicates how educational inequalities are being reproduced during the pandemic.

Dr Malish Chirakkal is assistant professor at the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education, National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration, New Delhi, India.