The online system of learning, which is being encouraged amidst the closure of educational institutions, may not fructify after all, if recent signals are any indication.

The inherent difficulties in accessing this post-modern matrix has now been underlined by two UN entities ~ Unesco and Unicef, both entrusted with the advancement of learning, science and culture.

The uncertainty deepens not least as parents ~ now working from home ~ have let it be known that in the context of their schedule, which they have had to adjust, they are scarcely in a position to oversee their children’s education.

Given the reality that only a segment of the children can afford this computerised method of instruction, Unesco and Unicef have warned that online education will deepen socio-economic inequalities. More accurately, this is a warning against what they call “virtual platforms”.

Their caveat is particularly significant for India where online teaching has been encouraged in the wake of the lockdown, and from the primary to the post-graduate levels.

“It is an illusion to think that online learning is the way forward,” is the signal emitted by the independent entity, called Futures of Education Commission, whose timely recommendations have been cited by Unesco to buttress its arguments.

The conventional system ought never to be jettisoned, granted that educational institutions will be closed for the immediate future. On closer reflection, Unesco and Unicef have echoed the misgivings of several Indian universities and IITs, specifically that a switchover to online education will exclude poor students.

Learning cannot be selective, just as medical treatment in India is sometimes only for those who can afford it. Education must fulfil the Benthamite doctrine of the “greatest good of the greatest number”.

Another deterrent must be the uncertainty over the quality of learning which is no less critical than to maintain the continuity of the system. Whereas the conventional praxis makes it imperative for a child to spend seven/eight hours in school, the online method, as promoted by certain schools in Kolkata, prescribes a two-hour schedule ~ from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

It would be disingenuous to promote the online system even after Covid-19 ceases to grab the headlines. Many students do not have Internet access individually; the cyber cafe can also be unaffordable. The proposed paradigm shift calls for deeper reflection than has been evident.