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We have seen how the pandemic not only amplified existing inequalities in access to education through school closures and disrupted teaching, but also altered the nature of the learning experience.
In March 2020, UNESCO reported that 87% of the world’s school children had been affected by COVID-19-related school closures and cessation of learning, signalling a major rupture in education. In May 2021, Human Rights Watch called for governments to devote serious attention and resources to ameliorate, mitigate, and correct the long-standing inequalities in education systems that have been highlighted and exacerbated during the pandemic.
Added to that, the camera is believed to have induced a whole new level of anxiety among ill-prepared teachers and learners, and exacerbated privacy violations, even as the question of the efficacy of a digitised education process remains unsatisfactorily answered.
Teachers and learners, not to mention institutions, have assumed that what works in face-to-face classrooms can smoothly transition to the virtual, in terms of the cognitive and immersive abilities and willingness. Perhaps we need to examine how the right to education, enunciated in various forums and forms, itself requires a recalibration, even as the context for the claim to the right has changed drastically from the classroom to the digital space.
We may also require a better understanding, grounded in empirical studies, of the new/different competencies that are expected of learners if they are to assert their right to (online) education.
The loss of the physical space of the class/university, now being exacerbated by policies on allowing all/any colleges to offer online courses has been greeted with scepticism from many quarters. One can discern three principal concerns – digital divide, privacy and access – all of which emerge from contexts in which cultural practices, of which education is one, have run into rough weather in terms of rights.
How to ensure that children are provided with dedicated learning spaces that enable learning? How many would have a physical locale, with a table, chair, a device, quiet, that enables learning? It is in this context that, in 2021, the Supreme Court also took cognisance of the digital divide, making it clear that the right to education was a right even in the online mode, especially for the economically and socially underprivileged students. “The need for underprivileged children to access online education cannot be denied,” the apex court had said.
The second concern is the multiple kinds of privacy lost through user-data monitoring. There is the on-camera surveillance entailing a threat to the privacy of the person and the person’s image, loss of data privacy in the form of data collection by corporate bodies for subsequent use, practices such as face recognition software, the loss of privacy of communication – for example, the chat function that may record even a joke made in the specific context of a class discussion – and the loss of location privacy (of one’s space and location). Extreme measures such as eye-tracking software/devices and response-monitoring, already introduced in several learning environments today, are further instances of the threat to individual privacy.
The question of access is not one that can go away any time soon, given that online and/or blended learning demands not just the physical device of a smartphone/computer but also data-packs, electricity, internet service providers and such – where the latter are geographically circumscribed.
After the concerns over loss of rights in the online environment, there are matters of available educational rights.
Online education rights
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which India has ratified, states:
The States Parties to the present Covenant recognize the right of everyone to education… Higher education shall be made equally accessible to all, on the basis of capacity, by every appropriate means, and in particular by the progressive introduction of free education
In order to facilitate the above, the Covenant suggests:
Each State Party to the present Covenant undertakes to take steps, individually and through international assistance and co-operation, especially economic and technical, to the maximum of its available resources, with a view to achieving progressively the full realization of the rights recognized in the present Covenant by all appropriate means, including particularly the adoption of legislative measures.
Taken together, the Covenant expects the state to ensure the right to equal access to available resources to all citizens so as to enable what it terms ‘the full realization of the human personality’. It weighs in heavily on the side of equal rights when it says:
The rights enunciated in the present Covenant will be exercised without discrimination of any kind as to race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.
Clearly, social, economic and cultural deprivations cannot be allowed to come in the way of education. And herein lies the rub: does the state ensure this equality of access to resources? The pandemic demonstrated that many nations were simply not equipped to deal with the amplification of inequalities in the education system. Those already marginalised found themselves even further distanced from the system due to the insistence on the device, the data-pack and the locational requirements.
Beyond questions of access, there was also the concern around the ability to navigate online learning platforms and devices (in this several teachers also found themselves at sea). Attention issues too reared their ugly heads, as the cognitive and multitasking requirements from students increased exponentially.
The International Covenant existed mainly in its breach during the pandemic and the issue now is to ask whether, with the trend in opening up of the online education system, the above iconic principles can be honoured at all. Before thinking in terms of enlarging the scope of online education and the right to such an education, there are specific matters to be addressed.
Setting the scene for rights
Now, as we all understand, rights are only available in a rights-friendly and rights-sustaining context. So what are the contexts for educational rights in the online scenario – the scene for educational rights, so to speak? We can think of two such scenes beyond the obvious, and most discussed, one of digital access about which much has been written.
Aligning educational rights with academic freedom, commentators propose that the open learning platforms are conducive to equitable learning and teaching. Arguing in favour of open learning platforms and the MOOCs (massive open online courses), Susan Perry and Claudia Roda wrote:
As an open learning platform, the MOOC arguably promotes academic freedom (the liberty to learn and to make course content accessible online) and the erasure of social difference in the pursuit of knowledge, while the Internet serves as a vast repository for scholarship.
The equation of open-access educational resources with academic freedom – contingent, of course, on state non-interference with the content – is only partially true. The ‘erasure’ of social difference depends on, for example, the erasure of linguistic differences in terms of the materials available online: how much of materials are in non-English languages for the learners to access? Are there comparable and translatable possibilities also available for such learners? The right to education clearly hinges on the availability of instructional materials – and so we need to equip ourselves for this on any online platform we choose as a medium for teaching-learning.
The educational right can only be exercised, in the case of online portals, through the acquisition of a whole new repertoire of competencies in which the oral, the visual, the literary (written), and now the virtual, merge. Where and how are these new skill sets to be imparted and acquired before we insist on the online, or even hybrid, form of teaching? As we transition to the online and blended mode, what are the competencies one is abandoning and/or gaining, switching mediums, materials and modalities?
Then there is the matter of attention. When print appeared, it radically affected attention economies and cognitive practices/behaviour, as we know now. The attention economy has radically altered with the digital learning environments, as numerous studies tell us. While fears about the negative effect of the internet on cognition and brain-work have been inconclusive, argue some scholars, activities such as scrolling are distracting and affect the ability to comprehend more complex actions demanded by the learning process. Lodge and Harrison noted in a 2019 essay in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine:
Given the interaction of factors contributing to the ways in which people work with information in the 21st century, it is difficult to isolate certain factors both in terms of the specific technologies people use and how, but also the specific cognitive functions they ostensibly influence.
The ability to voluntarily or involuntarily blank out ambient distractions on the screen – termed ‘attentional allocation’ – to ensure other cognitive functions becomes an essential skill in the virtual environment. This means, how the attention economy has to be modulated, through training for all learners in order to ensure acceptable levels of attention to the lessons unfolding on screen would be a preliminary stage to ensuring educational equity.
A new tradition in learning has just emerged. Speaking of this new ‘tradition’ of virtual learning in their recent essay in Journal of Human Rights Practice, Perry and Roda wrote:
It is essential that we embrace the virtual as one of the traditions that, together with the oral and the literate, shape the learning of our students… For professors, the human rights ‘yardstick’ allows for a more nuanced evaluation of whether online learning enables or compromises our students’ right to access higher education based on merit; issues such as protecting student privacy, encouraging freedom of speech and assembly, permitting fair access to scientific progress, and developing a student’s sense of dignity have been critical factors in assessing our own delivery of online education.
This means starting the learner out early on the protocols of this new tradition – from skill enhancement to privacy safeguards.
If education is indeed a right, the shift to online and blended modes of teaching-learning demands a massive reorganisation of skill-sets through training, the nature of instructional material and of course access. Without this preliminary training and educating of the learners on their rights in the virtual, the right to online education would remain unimplementable.