Online Classes Are Amplifying Inequality. What Can We Do?

Recently, Aishwarya Reddy – an undergraduate student at Lady Shri Ram College for Women – died by suicide because she didn’t have a laptop and a proper internet connection to be able to attend online lectures and write exams.

I am an alma mater of the same college, and during my time there, the college propagated ideas of equality in terms of class, caste and gender; ideas that I internalised. Our classrooms had students from diverse backgrounds. The college went out of its way to make students not feel excluded – it even held classes in Hindi for those not too comfortable with the English language. However, the online education system, which was born out of necessity because of the pandemic, has swept such provisions under the carpet.

I am pursuing my masters now, and I cannot help but observe how students are being impacted. Mannat from my class, who is from Srinagar, can hardly attend lectures because she is in a 2G zone. Priyanka, from my friend’s class, is unable to attend online lectures because she cannot afford a 4G or wifi connection. Gaurav from my colony assists his father at his ration shop all day while simultaneously attending classes. He chooses to hide his background by blurring it, or adding a virtual visual. He says he feels ashamed about being the only one who is working while attending lectures. Many people also hesitate to ask questions – because it breaks the flow of the lecture – even if the screen froze for them because of a shaky internet connection.

Also read: ‘Switch off Video’: On Caste, Cameras and an Unexpected Perk of Online Education

From my graduation at LSR to my masters at Jamia Millia Islamia, I have always been part of a batch that is diverse in all aspects. However, never has the inequality within it become this obvious. In the pre-pandemic world, our different backgrounds would get blurred as we would sit and work on group projects together and share the same tea, biscuits and samosas.

College is the only space where most of us feel free of the baggage that our respective identities carry. It’s a space where we are meant to be just students. What happened with Aishwarya is very unfortunate, and it is very sad that it took something like this for many of us to realise how important every individual identity is, and how we cannot ignore the plight of students who don’t have sufficient resources.

It is the responsibility of colleges to offer the same inclusivity in online lectures that physical classes do. While it will take time to better this system, we can also make some effort ourselves.

Our convenience-based activism limits us to talking about inclusivity on social media. It does not extend to helping the people around us who are facing difficulties in accessing online education. This incident has garnered a lot of attention on social media, with students criticising the college and the online system in general. However, before we rant about something we do not have control over, let us also take a look around and try to help those whom we can. Those like Aishwarya should not be sidelined for not having sufficient resources to attend online lectures.

Do your bit, maybe by just dropping a message on your class group offering study material, lecture summaries, and notes for those who you notice are not present for lectures. Most importantly, ask if anyone needs help.

Ankhiyan Ranjan is pursuing media studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty