India struggles to work and learn online


Ankita Mukherjee

Kolkata: The lockdown caused by the threat of Covid19 caught everybody unawares. Schools and colleges were suddenly forced to switch to online classes and employees compelled to work from home. But India wasn’t ready for this drastic changeover.

“On Thursday we faced a twelve-hour power cut which affected my work,” says Akhil Jain, resident of Bangalore. “We called and requested Bescom (Bangalore Electricity Supply Company) four times to do something but they didn’t. We have an invertor but by the time power was restored, the battery had died.”

Bescom’s zonal officer sounded surprised saying, “We didn’t know that the power cut was this long. We looked into the matter and a faulty cable was found. It took a little time to get fixed.” While routine in Bangalore, power cuts now threaten to upend what’s left of daily life. 

While colleges and privateschools have started running online classes using platforms like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Classrooms, a survey by LocalCircles, an online community platform, found that 43% of parents are not equipped to work and allow their children to study from home. Mobile screens are not suited for online education.

Says Ayushi Kundu, a student of the Pune Institute of Business Management, “Online classes are fun but if you don’t have a proper internet connection you might get lost in the loop and will never get to hear what the professors are saying. These days getting a strong internet connection is a task. Theory classes can be done but the practical classes are getting difficult to understand.”

“My brother Srijit is in second standard. To make him sit in front of the mobile screen and concentrate on what the teachers are saying takes a lot of energy. Online classes are not for toddlers.”

Some parents needed to buy gadgets, recharge their internet services while some needed immediate servicing for their routers and mobile phones. They say these products and services should be classified as ‘essential commodities’. Daily wage earners, whether migrant workers or the average worker in the gig economy use prepaid connections. Once their phones run out cash, they’re effectively stranded, neither able to work nor even call home.

Recognising the problems that closing down computer spare-parts stores, mobile shops, recharge and service centres etc. are creating, the Kerala government has decided to open them on Sundays, chief minister Pinarayi Vijayan recently announced. Telecom operators like Vodafone Idea and Airtel have extended the validity of their SIM cards and some have tied up with banks to enable users to recharge through ATMs.

Says Sohini Datta, a lecturer at Vidyasagar College affiliated with Calcutta University, “We have to connect to our students who stay in different districts, also inter-state, so Internet connectivity is really necessary. A lot of our students do not have proper Wi-Fi connections so get easily disconnected. This is affecting their studies.”

As Swati Moitra, a lecturer at Gurudas College, Kolkata told News18, “I teach in a college where many are first-generation learners, coming from low-income households, who don’t have devices with advanced storage capacity. Now, I hear some teachers are holding Zoom classes and that sounds lovely in elite institutions. But my realities are different considering the students I teach.”

Rustom Kerawalla, chairman of the Ampersand Group, a school-management services provider, is an evangelist for e-classrooms. He proposes a phased plan for the government to roll out 5G telecom services at the earliest.

Tanuja Babre, coordinator, I-Call, a mental health helpline run by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Mumbai, told Livemint, “The boundaries of work and home have been blurred. So, the meaning of ‘productivity’ has also changed. Even when all this is over, there would be after-effects and organizations must acknowledge this.”

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