Amidst the growing clamour for online education during the Covid-19 crisis, a survey conducted by one of the prominent public universities in the country has yielded results that suggest that a more cautious approach may be needed.

A team led by Prof. Vinod Pavarala and Prof. Vasuki Belavadi at the Department of Communication at University of Hyderabad designed and administered an online survey among the University’s student population to elicit information about access to the Internet and their views on online classes. About 2500 students responded to the survey, making it perhaps the largest such surveys conducted in-house by any Indian university, providing UoH administrators a vital input required for devising its strategy for catering to the students’ academic needs. It also contributes to the thinking at both the central and state level education authorities with regard to online classes.

While close to 90% of all students said they have a mobile phone, only about half mentioned that they have access to a laptop. About 90% of students also said they access the Internet at least some time, with about three-quarters of them doing so by using their mobile data packages, with the rest using WiFi or fixed Internet lines. When asked if they would be able to access the classes online if the University opted for them, about 37% of the students answered with an emphatic ‘yes’, while 45% said they would be able to do so ‘infrequently’ and 18% (about 450 students) said they can’t access at all. Among the concerns expressed by the students about accessing online classes, ‘reliable connectivity’ (40%) and ‘cost of data connection’ (30%) were the most significant, while at least 200 students also cited ‘unreliable electricity supply’, suggesting rural residences of a number of UoH students.

Even among those students who were favourable to having online classes, less than 10% preferred synchronous (same time) delivery, most suggesting asynchronous (pre-recorded classes, online sharing of material, etc) mode (90%) or a blended model. Many students who had laboratory or studio-based courses expressed their apprehensions about how online instruction could substitute for face-to-face on-site practice. One student said, “In this lockdown situation, attending online class is difficult for me, because I am living in a village which doesn’t have proper network and has electricity problem. Reading ppts, documents, writing assignment in mobile phone is also very difficult.” Other students pointed out interesting issues such as the mental state of the students, lack of private space in small and cramped houses, increased screen time, and the anomalies that it may create among a student population that belongs to various levels of social hierarchy.

The University that caters to a heterogeneous student population with diverse socioeconomic backgrounds from all over the country took into consideration these views as part of its brainstorming on pedagogical options during the ongoing pandemic. Given the issues of uneven access and levels of comfort with online classes, the University made a policy decision not to impose it on the students and faculty at this juncture. It left it to individual faculty members to use online communication to reach out to students and provide supplementary reading material and offer other kinds of academic support. The University took the decision not to include any online inputs as part of syllabus for exams and also directed its faculty not to put any added pressure on students by giving assignments and projects with strict deadlines. The University administrators are not ruling out the incorporation of e-learning technologies into its teaching-learning plans in the near future but would like the faculty and students to be adequately prepared for it. The University is currently getting ready with contingency plans for completing the ongoing semester and conducting entrance examinations for the next academic year.