Online Education, the Latest Stage of Educational Apartheid: Maya John

Guest post by MAYA JOHN

Given the rampant social and economic inequalities in our society, education has been seen by majority of the common masses as a tool for moving up the social ladder. Their aspirations for higher segment jobs and status constitute the largest component of the growing demand for higher education.Nevertheless, the opinion of the dominant classes that the state cannot pay for the education of all has come to enjoy hegemonic status, resulting in the lack of adequate development of educational infrastructure to meet the rapidly growing demand.In response to the widening gap between the demand and supply for education, successive governments have pushed through measures that allow for greater penetration of private capital in higher education, and its corollary, the persistent decline in per capita government allocation of funds towards education. Consequently, private colleges and universities have mushroomed across the country. Likewise,the expansion of the open and distance learning (ODL) mode and mainstreaming of e-learning have been consistently projected by policy makers as credible alternative routes to accessing higher education when higher educational institutions (HEIs) are not within reasonable distance, or when students do not have the marks or financial condition to enroll in formal education.

E-learning is consciously showcased as easily accessible, affordable and quality education for those who cannot make it to formal education.[1] While augmentation of digitally accessible learning has been increasingly paraded as the sure-shot ‘democratic’ route to making knowledge available to all, the entrenched hierarchy in the education sector, and the propensity of its reproduction through e-learning, are conveniently overlooked. Indeed, is the goal of such informal education equality in the real sense? Given the pathetic state of preexisting forms of informal education such as distance/correspondence education that were mooted for the less privileged, it is imperative to question the current projections about the feasibility and desirability of e-learning in higher education.As a society we must seriously consider our moral imperative towards meeting the educational needs of working-class youth whose parents have contributed tremendously to the wealth of the country through their labour. Are correspondence courses, and now its new avatar, e-learning, the best education that society can give them?

Engaging with the marked inequality of our education system, the discussion below assesses why exactly e-learning is not an alternative mode of education that will be more accessible, affordable, or qualitatively at power with formal education, which is what the students from working-class background, who are kept out of the best university education, actually demand.

Trends of informalization: from correspondence courses to e-learning

In India, informal education was launched with the claimed intention of providing a choice to largely those who had been excluded from formal education and those beyond the typical college-going age who required adult and continuing education. However, in the context of not creating more seats and colleges in proportion to the number of aspiring candidates, the choice became a matter of compulsion, wherein excluded students have been forced to opt for informal education; thereby ending the whole façade of choice.[2]

Informal education has gradually evolved from print-based correspondence education to web-based, information and telecommunications technology (ICT)-enabled learning. Initially, it was the First Five Year Plan which tabled the idea of private study/self-study through radio talk shows and correspondence courses. These were not immediately implemented. In 1961, the Professor D.S. Kothari committee, appointed by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), recommended that distance education be imparted to the large component of students who could not avail of regular college education for various reasons. Its recommendation was implemented by Delhi University (DU) in 1962 where the Bachelor of Arts course began to be offered in the correspondence mode in the School of Correspondence Courses and Continuing Education.

Subsequently, the Kothari Commission (1964-1966) drew attention to the pilot experiment in DU and recommended that by 1986 at least a third of all students could be enrolled in a non-formal alternative system of higher education offered through correspondence courses and evening colleges. Institutional growth of distance education unfolded gradually with the establishment of central-level open universities like IGNOU, state-level open universities (SOUs); and correspondence course institutes (CCIs) located within the conventional dual mode universities.[3] The Distance Education Council (now District Education Bureau) kept recording a rapid increase in the number of students enrolled in distance education, such that by 2005 the percentage of students in distance education was approximately 20 percent of the total students enrolled in higher education. In the last decade the University Grants Commission (UGC) has recorded a gross enrollment ratio between 22 to 25 percent. That said, the credibility of distance learning in India has remained tenuous, and thus, continues to be considered as a weaker option to regular classroom teaching or formal education – a point which I shall return to.

The promotion of informal education through e-learning began to increase rapidly when ruling elites across the world increasingly reached a consensus on facilitating greater flow of private capital into the education sector. One of the World Trade Organization (WTO) treaties, i.e. the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS), promoted both health and education as tradable services. Such measures actively promoted distance, non-formal education in the name of cost reduction and structural adjustment. By 1999 many new educational tools began to appear like e-Blackboard, e-College, etc. Shortly later by 2003, 81% of American universities had launched at least one online course. Needless to say, these developments with respect to online teaching-learning unfolded worldwide and were backed by lobbies of domestic and multinational corporates that sought to carve out a space for private investment in the expanding education market, and sought to wean university education away from its wider social purposes and push it towards meeting the specific demands of private capital for more market-oriented skills.

In India, a milestone in the mainstreaming of e-learning was the launch of an exclusive educational satellite, EduSat, in 2004. This gave a boost to informal education, and with it grew the popular image that satellite-supported ICT networks were taking quality education to the remotest and most deprived nationwide. Expectedly, the capabilities of EduSat networks to support dedicated educational TV channels, virtual classrooms, video-conferencing, database access, state and national level digital repositories, linking FM radio stations for simultaneous broadcast of programs, etc. have been widely showcased. By the early 2000s, open universities like IGNOU began to make major strides towards digitization of some of their courses and their course material. The latter took precedence, for example, in IGNOU where a knowledge portal called “Egyankosh” was launched, comprising of uploaded study material of the university.

In 2008 the then UPA-I Government began pushing through MOOCs, following the recommendations for expansion of e-learning by the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE). Following the 2008 recommendations, MOOCs became fully operational by 2012, i.e. during the tenure of the UPA-II Government. Many faculty of higher education institutions (HEIs) have subsequently been roped in to prepare these courses. Interestingly, MOOCs are being actively pushed into the forefront by linking it to the career advancement or promotions of university teachers. As per the most recent UGC notifications, the preparation of MOOCs for the Swayam portal has been provided as an option in lieu of actual attendance in a refresher course, which is required for promotion in the teaching promotion.

The current Government, in a more aggressive vein, is freely collaborating with the corporate sector and reducing per capita state expenditure in education. Under the current regime, MOOCs have been persistently promoted, and have gained a new lease of life with the lockdown, given the recent pronouncement by the Union Finance Minister on 17 May 2020 wherein she detailed the final tranche of the Rs.20 lakh-crore COVID relief package. The Minister’s pronouncements made it amply clear that the Government will actively facilitate the top 100 universities and ‘institutes of eminence’ to start running online degree courses without any prior approvals. These HEIs are encouraged to collaborate with private tech-providers in a public-private partnership format, which is a provision spelt out in the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, under the program named National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT).

In addition to this, the mainstreaming of e-learning looms large even with respect to the regular mode – a fact well reflected in the recent assertions of the UGC. For instance, in its April 2020 report, the Professor RC Kuhad Committee (constituted by the UGC) clearly stated that the Covid-19-induced imposition of digital learning and evaluation is part of the design to ensure that 25 percent of the academic workload will be handled online from now onwards; indicating that e-learning is now a supposedly indispensable component of education imparted in the regular mode as well.

Technology and the realities of accessibility

In sharp contrast to the charade that e-learning has/will drastically reduce the gap in educational access, we have numerous reports to prove otherwise, given the marked digital divide in the country. According to reports, out of an estimated 105 million of college-going youth in our country, 74 percent do not have access to college education. While it is easy to project e-learning or online teaching through technological platforms as a solution to this crisis of accessibility, we continue to be confronted by the realities of poor internet coverage, low internet bandwidths, low average download speed, internet usage mostly through mobile phones, and the overall low receptivity of students to online teaching due to regular technological glitches and less-conducive learning environments at home. Despite the glossy projections of virtual platforms like webinars, web portals, Zoom, Google Meet, Hangouts, etc., there is no getting away from a simple fact that poor internet services eat into the quality of interaction possible through such virtual platforms. Indeed, the two most repeated sentences in webinars are exactly this: “Am I audible” and “Am I visible”. The question is can we afford to ignore these anomalies when extensive online teaching-learning is becoming paradigmatic?

The image of seamless access to knowledge through virtual classrooms and repositories of e-resources appears like a mirage in the desert of crushing ground realities. In a McKinsey report titled, Digital India (2019), it is evident that out of approximately 525.3 million internet users in India, 390.9 million accessed the internet through mobile phones. We also have the recent assessments of telecom businesses and the World Economic Forum that by 2030 up to 80 percent of internet consumption in India will be through mobile devices. Clearly, the bulk of people who are expected to access e-learning are those who have nothing but smartphones to depend on. There is nothing positive about this, considering the poor quality of mobile internet in the country. For example, the February 2020 Speedtest Global Index, published by, shows that India ranks 128th out of 141 countries with respect to average mobile internet speed. According to recent calculations, India’s average internet connection speed on mobile networks was 4.9 Mbps, which is not only lower than the global average of 7.2 Mbps but way below the average internet speed in Singapore, South Korea, Japan, USA, and several Scandinavian countries. Neither can we overlook facts such as the limited life span of majority smartphones; battery, screen and storage capacity issues in lower-grade, less expensive smartphones; the limited access to smartphones in lower-income households where one such device is shared by multiple family members; the difficulty of studying long hours on a smartphone in comparison to studying from a personal computer or laptop; and the major strain that extensive mobile usage has on the eyes.

This apart, access to internet technology and electronic gadgets have to be contexualized within wider intersecting social realities like class and gender inequalities which substantially limit the access of women from the labouring poor to such technology. Likewise, the digital divide along the axis of urban and rural India is not one that shall dissipate anytime soon. We can hardly expect the rural poor, who are still tied down by poorly-paid, stigmatized manual work to overnight become owners of smartphones and beneficiaries of ICT-enabled e-learning. Indeed, even in today’s context of expanding mobile internet usage, the most recent statistics of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) reveal that urban subscribers are nearly double the number of rural subscribers.[4]Similarly, in the 75th round of the National Sample Survey in 2017-18, only 42 percent of urban and 15 percent of rural households had internet access, out of which only 34 percent of urban and 11 percent of rural persons had used the internet in the past 30 days.Add to this the discriminatory policies against certain regions in the country, such as Kashmir where censorship by the Central Government has wiped out broadband and 4G internet services since August 2019. Can e-learning ever be great leveler when rampant inequalities along the lines of class, caste, gender, community, region, physical disabilities, etc. continue to determine whether one would even have access to a smartphone with internet?

Duality of education: myth of affordability and quality

Even if the digital divide is somehow reduced, the question remains as to whether technology in itself is sufficient to overcome other inequalities in the education system. It is important to recognize that successive governments in India have steadfastly pursued elitist educational policies which have bred a hierarchical education system.[5] Considerations of quality higher education among the dominant classes and ruling elites have manifested themselves in an educational policy that consciously combines quality with exclusivity, or basically, limited intake. Hence, we have seen the creation of “centres of excellence”, backed by skewed funding. The high status of these “centres of excellence” is maintained by limiting the number of seats for admission, and by assigning them the lion share of government funding. Let us take the example of premium institutions like St. Stephen’s, Lady Sri Ram College, Sri Ram College for Commerce, and many such UGC-funded institutions, to understand this better. Although students studying in these institutions may believe that it is their parents who pay for their college education, in reality the combined annual fees of these students would not even add up to a month’s total salaries disbursed to teaching faculty. It is the state that ultimately pays for their higher education, and given the skewed funding within the higher education sector, society is clearly spending most on those who are already privileged. Meanwhile, the majority of students from poorer sections are made to languish in low-funded HEIs and the ODL mode.

This existing educational policy has simply strengthened the hold of the privileged classes on elite (central government-funded) universities; relegated the lower middle class to second grade regional universities and private institutes; and have kept bulk of the working-class youth out of the university system while pushing a segment into poorly funded regional universities, B-grade private institutes and the ODL mode offered by some public-funded universities. In effect, the degree of awarded by premium institutions is assigned much higher value on the basis of the politics of exclusivity, or namely, exclusion of a large number of aspirants. By extension, the ease of getting into ODL institutions is used to undervalue a degree in distance education.

Needless to say, the undeniable hierarchy in higher education is built on the dual educational structure that has been allowed to flourish at the school level,whereby poorly-funded and ill-equipped government schools coexist with private schools. With the shunning of common schooling, educational inequality has been bred from the school level with a majority languishing in run-down government schools while the wealthy simply purchase quality education through private schooling and expensive coaching centres.

The bitter irony is that the less privileged who are products of up to 12 years of government schooling are precisely the ones who are excluded from quality higher education imparted in the regular mode of public-funded universities. Carrying the weight of the educational inequality inherited from school, as soon as the children of the labouring poor enter the thirteenth year of their education, far from being greeted by open entry into public-funded universities, they are confronted by the cut-throat competition-based admission of the university system. Through its rigid admission procedures, such as competitive entrance tests and the ruthless “cut-off” system, the public university system effectively shows them the door. Meanwhile, their wealthier counterparts – armed as they are with the best class 12 Board Examination scores – make the opportune transition from top-notch education in private schools to affordable, quality education offered in the premium public-funded universities.

This educational apartheid wins little attention of the so-called critics of the current education policy, who might otherwise be critical of enhanced privatization of higher education, but have no problem in accepting the cut-off system or competitive entrances for admission to public-funded universities, and their consequences. Their complicity conveniently ignores the crucial fact that once inequality in school education has already created different ‘merits’, it is unjustifiable that admission to public-funded higher education is based on pitting the disadvantaged against the privileged few – a process which has simply allowed the privileged to easily monopolize the access to higher education.  This is precisely the structure of educational inequality onto which e-learning, as an alternative to regular college education, is sought to be grafted. Let us take up the question of e-learning and affordability.

Standing at the margins of state-subsidized university education, the bulk of the poor have already been purchasing higher education at considerable cost. For one, scores of labouring poor aspiring for professional education have been forced to shell out their families’ limited savings on degrees offered by second-grade private colleges. The disparity is shocking when we compare the fee structure in public-funded universities with the high fees charged by numerous ill-equipped private colleges. Let us take the example of the fees for a B.Ed. degree (the qualifying degree for school-teaching) from the Central Institute of Education (CIE), the country’s top B.Ed. institute funded by the Central Government. In CIE the fees is a nominal Rs.5,110/-, which stands in stark contrast to the Rs.70000/- to 1.5 lakhs charged by private B.Ed. colleges where many labouring poor are forced to send their children due to the lack of seats in premium government-funded B.Ed. colleges. Moreover, even while enrolled in the ODL mode of state universities, a considerable number of working-class youth spend additionally on computer literacy, English-speaking and numerous other skill courses which are on sale in the private education market. The ill-equipped functioning of ODL institutions is a major reason behind such additional expenditure. Evidently then, the majority of the urban and rural poor are paying a huge amount for bad education.

In this context, what change would the introduction of e-learning bring to such a firmly entrenched structure of educational inequality? The now hegemonic view of the dominant classes, characteristically projects that e-learning will be an affordable medium through which poorer students could access the knowledge production and skilling process concentrated in prestigious HEIs. We are made to believe that the poor are just a click of a button away from the direct classroom teaching and quality study material offered by premium institutions like St. Stephen’s, Presidency, the IITs, etc. Indeed, the Government’s recent endeavors allowing the top 100 HEIs to start online courses may appear to many as the opening up of the hallowed realms of quality public-funded education to the impoverished masses.

However, we can hardly expect MOOCs of HEIs to function any differently than the self-financed certificate and diploma courses launched by many such institutions in the past. There is no doubt that the Government’s recent measures seek to make a substantial number of premier public-funded HEIs self-sufficient over a period of time, and thus, MOOCs are one conduit through which the average per capita government allocation of funds to higher education can be reduced. This reduction does not translate automatically into reduced expenditure by the individual learner. In fact, while substantially reducing the state’s expenditure, online education will still mean significant expenditure by the individual learner. From the perspective of the labouring poor, in particular, this is nothing short of a tragedy.

If we consider the costs of online courses more closely, it will surely be evident that the individual learner’s expenditure will continue to rise; busting the myth of e-learning as the affordable alternative for the poor. Let us consider the fact that extensive online learning would require substantial investment in electronic gadgets like smartphones and computers. Add to this cost of internet data, expenses for fixing the wear and tear of gadgets, the need for printout of study material for enhanced learning, etc. A sum total of these and other hidden expenditures would easily add up to the fees already being paid by the labouring poor enrolling their children in B-grade private colleges. It is important to link this point to an unfolding reality of how ODL students – the majority of who belonging to the ranks of the urban and rural poor – have been responding to the ongoing trend of digitization by ODL institutions. Noticeably, digitization of course material and e-learning itself have not been met with met with much enthusiasm, and have in fact been resisted by wary students. In Delhi University’s School of Open Learning (DU SOL), for instance, the authorities have been attempting to replace printed study material with material provided on pen drives – a measure successfully thwarted by students[6] – and through the e-portal, E-Pustakdwar. In this way, in the name of transition to digitization there have been attempts to compel SOL students to increasingly spend on printing of study material – a measure that would transfer the costs onto the individual learner. This is an irony in itself considering that majority of such ODL students are the poorest of the poor students. Sadly, we can expect this detrimental cost transfer to grow in a context wherein the top HEIs, and thus, ODL institutions within them, have been issued the green signal for starting MOOCs in a major way. Ultimately, it is more accurate to argue that e-learning is a convenient tool through which state expenditure on higher education is sought to be steadily reduced and not the average per capita expenditure of the labouring poor on such education.

The fallaciousness of the dominant view that informal education, both in its e-learning and distance education form, is an affordable option which requires greater promotion is further evident when we draw attention to the fact that some of the largest ODL institutions are self-financed. This is due to the fact that the UGC channelizes no funding for ODL institutions, which in turn contributes to the ill-equipped functioning of ODL institutions. A noteworthy example is DU SOL where majority of those enrolled are SC/ST/OBC/Minority category students. DU SOL might be the biggest model of proxy private education under the garb of a government institution. Despite the concentration of socially and economically disadvantaged sections of youth in SOL, since July 1997 the ODL institute has received no financial assistance or maintenance grant from any government institution. With zero financial contribution from UGC, the large establishment of SOL runs on the tuition fees collected from the poorest of poor students. Even the salaries and pensions of SOL directors, principals, teachers and administrative staff are paid through the money collected from students.[7] Contrast this with the highly subsidized structure of DU’s regular colleges where the salaries, pensions and many running costs are paid through UGC funds and not students’ tuition fees.

Let us take up the question of quality of informal education. Contrary to the glossy image of equivalence in the quality of education imparted through the regular mode and that which is imparted through more informal modes like e-learning, the propensity for the bulk of MOOCs and e-resources to be of low quality is very high. In this regard, we can glean a lot from the experiences of distance education that has evolved since the 1960s.

Far from preparing these weaker students to compete with their peers in the regular mode on equal terms, the bulk of distance education continues to be imparted on the basis of barely a handful of classes and substandard study material which is given no weight by the teaching fraternity of the regular mode.[8] For instance, whereas DU SOL offers less than 20 “Personal Contact Sessions” to its students, regular colleges of the university offer 180 days of classes to the regular mode students to complete a similar syllabus. The lack of serious study, dilapidated libraries, outdated study material of extremely poor quality, poor examination results, etc. are far from stereotypical images of ODL institutions. Instead, they are proof of the sheer neglect that accompanies informal education for the poor. It is nothing short of a farce that the poorest of the poor students, who most need face-to-face teaching and access to the best educational resources so as to overcome their inherited disadvantages in schooling, home environment, etc., are persistently pushed down the path of self-study when they seek entry into higher education.

Indeed, when we turn to the more recent web-based versions of informal education, the problems are simply magnified. This is essentially because this mode of education seeks to replace rather than supplement classroom teaching. In other words, e-material and occasional online interfaces between teachers and students and between some students (since all students are not in a position to participate) are supplementary resources at best, and cannot become the mainstream option. Moreover, online education has been characterized by inadequate learner support infrastructure and the lack of concern on how to address differential learning capacities and learning skills. The contrasting socio-economic conditions from which students come and their differential learning capacities can only be properly addressed through teaching, learning environment and socialization nurtured in real classrooms, and not through teaching on virtual platforms. Direct classroom teaching creates a public space in which understanding can grow through collective participation of diverse individuals and groups. In contrast, e-learning tends to shift the entire burden of education (and its cost) onto the individual, isolates the learners from a real public space, and makes them overtly dependent on digital technology and gadgets which are synced to homogenized modules.

Students drop out, teachers lose jobs

Clearly, concerns regarding the quality of e-learning and its outcomes cannot be brushed aside. In a policy brief on e-learning, prepared by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a significant observation is the disillusionment with such education, particularly due to low learning outcomes. For example the document states:

“The vision common at the height of the boom of students following entire courses at a prestigious overseas university from the comfort of their own home, without the inconvenience and cost of living abroad for years has largely failed to materialise. Students are stillmostly wedded to classrooms for at least part of the time, and after the hype of the new economy, growing disenchantment with e-learning has replaced earlier over-enthusiasm.”[9]

While agencies like the OECD remain hopeful regarding the mainstreaming of e-learning, their assessments cannot efface the inherent problems with replacing direct classroom teaching with virtual learning – something which students themselves acknowledge by either continuing to enroll in formal education wherever possible, or unfortunately, by dropping out of online courses.

The high drop-out rate for online courses is a characteristic phenomenon worldwide. In the US itself where general access to newer technology is much higher, e-learning brought graduation rates down to one-eighth of regular classroom courses. In India, of course, the mainstreaming of online courses will become the great Indian institutionalized drop-out story. Overall, the low rates of course completion point to serious limitations of online learning. These include the questionable quality of e-resources; the inability of learners to cope with self-study, given their home environment, economic compulsions and poor schooling; as well as the lower value assigned by potential employers to degrees/skills attained through online education.

It has also been rightly pointed out that following from budget cuts in education, e-learning has been developed as a tool to steadily deskill teaching faculty and reduce paid teaching positions over a period of time. In an insightful study titled The Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, David F. Noble argues that automation; namely, the distribution of digitized course material online, without the participation of the teachers who develop such material, has prepared the ground for many teaching positions to be made redundant. In many American universities, faculty have had to place their course work — ranging from syllabi and assignments to the entire body of course lectures and notes — at the disposal of their administration, to be used online, without any information on how it will be used and with what repercussions. At York University, untenured faculty members were compelled to put their courses on video, CD–ROM or the internet or lose their job. They were subsequently hired to teach their own now automated course at a fraction of their former compensation. Clearly, such automation of higher education has been used to increasingly bring teaching faculty under disciplinary control, to deskill them and to eventually dispense with them.

Closer home, the policy shift towards mainstreaming of e-learning has accompanied visible increase in job losses. Policy-makers would like us to believe that online learning is to be offered in the absence of qualified teaching faculty – a principle spelt out in Section 4.4(a) of the UGC (Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through SWAYAM) Regulation, 2016. However, reports of reduced teaching positions – such as the AISHE Report (2018-19) which highlighted a loss of fifty-seven thousand teaching jobs in the past five years – continue to expose the artificially created shortage of teaching faculty in numerous institutions, and the consequent promotion of MOOCs.


As long as the target audience of distance education and e-learning remain the socially and economically disadvantaged, even if accessibility to digital technologies were to improve, the chances of e-learning simply reproducing the hierarchy between regular/formal college education and informal education are huge. Indeed, the lack of formal education has visibly denied the socially marginalized communities their due share, leading to an exponential growth in their numbers within correspondence courses. The largest open university, IGNOU, in the last nine years has seen a 248 percent increase in the enrollment of SC students and 172 percent increase of ST students.[10] Moreover, cutting across caste and community, youth from working-class backgrounds are increasingly herded into informal modes of education, of which e-learning is going to be just another new component.

Without addressing the marked inequalities in our society and the pro-corporate policies of the state, digital India and its corollary, e-classrooms, will continue to reinforce the hierarchy and segmentation in the education sector, and by extension, reproduce inherited socio-economic inequalities among students. In other words, e-learning merely stands to replace certain crucial face-to-face interactions that actually create a public space in which understanding can grow through collective participation of diverse individuals and groups. These include not just the interface between students and their course material but also the interface of students with other students and students with teachers – all of which are absolutely necessary for those who have inherited educational inequality, are first generation learners, and come from less conducive learning environments at home. Devoid of these interfaces, e-learning will only perpetuate the ongoing educational apartheid.

The strongest reason behind this assessment is the fact that e-learning is/has been equivalent to distance education offered by our universities for years now. As the poorer older cousin of e-learning, distance education has always been the mainstay of the country’s urban and rural poor. The pathetic quality of education imparted for years through correspondence courses should adequately caution us against the popular notion that informal education is equivalent to regular mode education. Standing at the margins of the university system, scores of youth from the ranks of the labouring poor may reflect in the data on enhanced Gross Enrollment Ratio, but for all other purposes they remain invisibilized. A section of these youth may have some basic access to technology that supports e-learning, but even today what continues to reach them in the form of e-resources are merely the repackaged substandard study material converted from the print format to digital form.

Evidently, we can begin to comprehend the façade of e-learning only in the context of whether quality education can be selectively provided to some while the majority are either kept out of the public university system or shunted into the ODL mode of the university system where modern-day Eklavyas are manufactured by the millions.

The author teaches in University of Delhi, is an activist, and wants to acknowledge the valuable assistance of student-activists Md. Bilal and Harish Gautam in formulating the arguments.She can be contacted on


[1] Echoing this view, a section of teachers in leading public-funded universities while arguing against the implementation of e-learning in the regular mode, due to fears that it will dilute the standard of education imparted in such institutions, have been arguing that e-learning should nonetheless be offered to the impoverished masses, who according to them, cannot be adjusted within the given infrastructure of formal higher education. Their doublespeak reveals their class bias and the tacit understanding that online teaching-learning is significantly inferior to regular classroom teaching.

[2] The preference for the regular mode among the students forced into distance education has come out very clearly in surveys conducted by Krantikari Yuva Sangathan (KYS) among Delhi University’s School of Open Learning students of the batches of 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19.

[3] Dual mode refers to a structure of education where both regular and ODL modes of learning are imparted.

[4]TRAI (2020), “The Indian Telecom Services Performance Indicators,”

[5] For a critical overview of the elitist education policies post-1947, which have continued to reproduce marked inequalities along the lines of class, caste, gender, region, etc., see Maya John (2012), “Critiquing Reforms in Higher Education: Understanding the ‘Education Question’ in India”, Social Scientist, 41(7/8), 49-67.

[6] Students in Delhi University’s School of Open Learning (DU SOL) have successfully opposed the introduction of such digitization. The radical working-class youth organization, Krantikari Yuva Sangathan, that has been spearheading these struggles has been also demanding increase in the number of classes being provided at SOL centres, and accommodation of SOL students in the regular mode through setting up of the evening shift in DU’s regular colleges.

[7] Based on information provided to an RTI application, dated 27 January 2020, Ref. SOL/PIO/2020/05.

[8] See Maya John (2020), “Online examinations: towards educational genocide of students of School of Open Learning,” 24 May,

[9] See OECD, “E-learning in Tertiary Education”, Emphasis added.

[10]For greater engagement with the long-standing educational apartheid, see Maya John (2020), “Fears and furies of online (mis)education – lockdown and beyond”, 22 May,

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