The Covid-19 crisis has forced an abrupt shift in the mode of instruction in colleges and universities from a traditional face-toface, campus-based format to fully online, or at best, to a blended mode. The centuries-old practices of universities located in campuses providing face-to-face instruction have shifted almost overnight to online for all academic matters ~ from the admission process to course delivery.

A vigorous debate is now taking place on what online instruction means for learning outcomes, student satisfaction, instructor convenience, the cost of course delivery, and more. This debate, however, has been narrow and has unfortunately sidestepped a discussion on the equally important implications for in-class pedagogical improvisation, student capacity to organise and express dissent and how to build courage amongst students.

If the shift to online and blended education continues beyond Covid-19 and becomes permanent, it will fundamentally transform the structure of the education system. At stake is the hugely important issue of the very purpose of an education system in society. Should its role be restricted to solely enhancing ‘learning outcomes’ and creating a cadre of skilled professionals? Or should it have a more expansive obligation to deepen democracy by producing an informed citizenry that is aware of its rights and possesses the capability to mobilise the tools of democracy for societal progress?

The possibility of a permanent move towards large-scale online learning modules in higher education in India has to be located in the context of the government’s reduced investment in public education. At just 4.6 per cent of GDP, India’s spending on education is below the recommendations of the Kothari commission of the 1960s and of the Niti Aayog that it should be 6 per cent. In a Covid-constrained budgetary environment, there could be a temptation to move away from the higher maintenance costs of physical campuses and rely increasingly on online education.

Before adopting online education in a comprehensive manner, educationists should consider certain issues. How does online education plan to ensure equity of access in a caste-ridden, class-divided India with poor internet connectivity and a stillunreliable electricity grid? Despite impressive strides in rural electrification, the government’s claim of universal household electrification has been questioned. India’s internet penetration rate was just 36 per cent as of 2019, with 451 million active monthly users.

The low rate of penetration is worsened by low download speeds and unreliable connectivity across large swathes of the country. Students in smaller cities and towns, where electricity supply and internet connectivity are unreliable, are likely to be even more disadvantaged when it comes to availing the benefits of online learning resources. The absence of quiet spaces in poorer neighbourhoods only heightens concerns about equality and justice.

Unsurprisingly, in a recent university survey in India of 2,500 students, close to half the students revealed that they would not be able to access online classes frequently and nearly a fifth of them said they would not be able to access them at all, because of cost concerns and unreliable internet connections. Viewed in this context, the move towards greater reliance on online/ blended learning is likely to further widen the gap between students from privileged families and those from marginalised ones.

It is also likely to weaken the pressure on the state to invest in improving existing government institutions and open new institutions affordable to students from the lower and lowermiddle classes. The concept of blended learning is not new. But the ongoing swift shift to online teaching has coined the term ‘emergency remote teaching’, to separate it from already existing online or blended education, which requires careful curation of course content and close interaction involving professors and instructional designers.

Online and blended education modes have been among the most rapidly growing industries in the past decade. A Forbes report estimated the e-learning market would reach $ 325 billion dollar by 2025. KPMG and Google had in 2016 projected India’s online education market to be $ 1.96 billion in 2021, with a total of 9.5 million users. These numbers would now rise even further. The ongoing discourse on research in online education is a mix of digital triumphalism predicting the impending decline or demise of the brick-and-mortar college and university and of cautious optimism as complaints about online education’s inherent limitations pour in from professors and students worldwide.

According to a study, the cost of instruction in classrooms comes down by 80 per cent in online courses, with blended courses lowering per student costs by nearly 20 per cent. Online and blended courses would multiply the productivity from the same campus space, while saving on costs for new construction and additional recruitment. The current pandemic has put a spotlight on this issue, with proponents of online/blended learning making arguments that include statements such as ‘students are bored of the brick-andmortar classroom’ and ‘online learning is an equalising force in unequal societies,’ among others.

They also contend that with everimproving technology and greater internet penetration, the gap in learning outcomes between these forms and traditional forms of learning has been narrowed, if not bridged. Yet, the physical classroom affords the lecturer the capacity to instantly alter a classroom discussion based on visual and social cues from the students. For example, just a few moments of silence in a physical class may be enough for the lecturer to reframe a question, play a new video or quickly refer students to a newspaper article.

This capacity to quickly alter the trajectory of the lecture and the terms of the class discussion is reduced in an online lecture as the ‘online space’ between teachers and students makes such instant deviations difficult. In addition, online lectures create a cognitive dissonance between teachers and students as course content is delivered through a medium where students often see only presentation slides with the lecturer’s camera switched off, and teachers see only an impersonal student name-tag without an interacting face.

This ‘faceless’ classroom not only has the potential to exhaust the participants, but more worryingly, it threatens to weaken the bond that students share with their teachers. This dilutes the incentive for both professors and students to connect with each other at a human level. Other complaints about online teaching include having to deal with privacy violation on platforms such as Zoom, when ‘Zoom Bombings’ take place with hackers entering chat rooms and spewing racist language and showing pornography.

According to John Dewey, one of the great American intellectuals of the twentieth century, every progressive era in the history of mankind has seen the elimination of the distance between peoplesand classes previously hemmed off from one another. Dewey insists that it is through education that individuals get opportunities to escape from the limitations of the social groups in which they were born and come into living contact with a broader environment.

The question that arises then is: Can such a process occur effectively in online or blended learning spaces, with their severely reduced in-person, on-campus components? A physical campus serves a much larger purpose beyond aiming to deliver the learning outcomes listed in various course outlines. Today, most private and public universities in India are home to students from all backgrounds. It is in the common spaces of classrooms, canteens, and hostels that students exchange ideas and opinions that carry the potential to change minds. The gradual chipping away of prejudices based on caste, class, and faith occurs not just through an exchange of views, but also through the formation of deep friendships on campuses.

(The writer is with the Eastern Institute for Integrated Learning in Management (EIILM), Kolkata)