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High Tech Classrooms as a Precursor to Equitable Online Education

The world, especially the underdeveloped and developing, has seen a plethora of changes since 2020.

The COVID-19 and its subsequent variants have led to health and economic crises worldwide, rise in digitization in the form of digital payment banks and online education platforms have been promoted with the promise of easier and more equitable access to public facilities. The world has also been made aware of the imminent threat of global warming and climate change.

It is the common norm today to inform citizens worldwide with advertisements about the latest online degree program hosted by a university in a developed country, or the latest green initiative or vegan product by a multinational conglomerate. However, the lurking question behind these developments remains the adherence to the concept of equality.

COVID-19 has seen at least a new variant being discovered every year. Each of these outbreaks have been followed by full or partial school closures in various parts of the world.

The proposed and largely accepted alternative has been online education.

Multiple new companies have popped up globally and have seen their stocks soar in the absence of conventional sources of learning. However, despite the convenience of online live and recorded study sessions, the UNICEF has been persistently requesting Governments to open their schools immediately by adopting various precautionary measures such as staggered reopening and improvement in sanitization facilities. The root of this concern has largely been the absence of any large-scale study on online platforms being a successful replacement to in-person classes.

On the contrary, New Zealand has in many cases seen schools scale back individualized online education since education personally accessed by students through tablets and online learning platforms have often been inadequate.

The Metaverse, a virtual world comprised of Virtual Reality and Augmented Reality platforms, is being hailed by Meta, the multinational conglomerate previously known as Facebook. Facebook, however has been under scrutiny for human rights violations worldwide. Instagram, a major video sharing platform has been blamed by organizations such as National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children for driving pedophiles and groomers to children’s accounts or for allowing sexualized images of children. On top of studies showing the risks associated to unfettered access to technology by children, tech giants like Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg have reportedly contemplated limiting screen time and unsupervised technological access in case of their own children.

Another major drawback of online education is the quality of education provided, the curriculum being followed and the validity of such courses in a professional setting.

Online courses, even though an excellent source of being introduced to the latest technologies, can be severely lacking in content. For example, multiple world-renowned universities such as Stanford University and University of Michigan provide online certification courses on Coursera, an e-learning platform. However, a large number of the courses are not formally eligible for credit. Without sufficiently developed test-taking systems and precautionary measures to ensure the integrity of the examinee, online courses have often been treated as subpar or inadequate by companies during their hiring process.

Global warming has been a major concern for leaders worldwide, with the leaders of the developed Western countries pushing for net zero emissions and carbon credits. Schools have been identified as a factor in influencing carbon emissions, as has been animal husbandry.

However, various organizations in developing countries worldwide have repeatedly complained of carbon colonialism where rich Western countries have been blamed for shifting production facilitated by low-skilled labor to countries in the east, thereby exhausting their carbon credits without any significant infrastructural development of their own.

In terms of school education, it has had severe detrimental effects as well.

Public schools are not only a primary source of learning for the lower classes in developed and underdeveloped countries, but also a source of accessing food and nutrition for the underprivileged children in the form of mid-day meals. With schools being shutdown disproportionately in the less-privileged nations and non-vegetarian food products being heavily imported by developed nations to reduce their domestic emissions, from countries already struggling with malnutrition, mitigating protein deficiency and undernourishment is increasingly becoming a challenge to countries in the east and the global south, pushing them downwards on the Global Hunger Index.

The responsibility of combating climate change cannot be disproportionately shouldered by underdeveloped countries at the cost of their children’s lives and future. India’s repeated emphasis on historical CO2 emissions is a much-needed step in this regard.

The drawbacks of online education also have serious adverse effects in addressing gender disparities. In 2021, Business Standard reported India’s mobile gender gap to be one of the highest in the world amongst low and middle-income countries. Observer Research Foundation reported smartphone ownerships in 2020 for adult women to be merely 25 per cent against 41 per cent amongst the adult males. This makes women far more likely to miss out on education, leaving them increasingly vulnerable to child marriage and other forms of exploitation.

UNODC’s Global Report on Trafficking in Persons reported over 60 per cent of trafficking victims in 2018 to be women or girls, with children being highly vulnerable in certain areas, such as West Africa, where 100 per cent of the victims were children. In 2021, the US Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report placed India at Tier-2, recognizing the country’s efforts in combating trafficking, as well as signifying the need for further efforts in its elimination.

Under such conditions, developing and underdeveloped nations need to treat online education with extreme caution, placing a greater impetus to the directives promoted by years of research on educational procedures. High-tech classroom is one such facility that offers the benefits of both traditional classrooms and online education within an efficiently regulated curriculum.

Various companies provide their services and partner with high schools worldwide to provide 21st century classroom facilities. For example, High Tech High, California, that provides project-based learning from an elementary level, has grown to sixteen charter schools after starting off as a single public charter school in 2000. Similarly, Charlotte County Public Schools in Florida were rebuilt to incorporate facilities such as the Promethean Board – an interactive whiteboard that can act as a projector and allows students to interact through touch or specialized pens.

Promethean World develops various interactive whiteboards and lesson delivery software for immersive in-class learning.

New Zealand, another high-ranking country in education has contributed some of the most widely used digital educational technologies such as Kami. However, the country has seen growing dissatisfaction towards such learning devices and a shift towards ICT classrooms – classrooms equipped with tablets, content banks hosted over cloud servers and smartboards, etc., facilitated largely by Microsoft Azure and Office 365.

In 2020, Kerala became the first Indian state to introduce high-tech classrooms or labs with approximately 16000 government-funded or aided schools being equipped with over 3.5 lakh digital gadgets and nearly 2 lakh personal laptops for students.

Such education delivered directly through public schools, ensures a basic adherence to educational standards and uniformity of curriculum, thereby promoting equity. This also solves the problem of inaccessibility of digital learning tools due to poverty. It is unreasonable to expect the majority of the underprivileged socioeconomic sector to afford personal tablets, smartphones or laptops. Unequal access to cheap high speed internet facilities in most rural areas and low digital literacy even among the parents, are depriving the youth of education and promoting monopolies of internet and EdTech service providers whose involvement can further destabilize the education system in such areas.

Pushing for an education system where the means of accessing it is non-existent to the majority is not a sound plan and needs to introduced in steps, after ensuring the major drawbacks have been addressed.

Education is a fundamental right that should always have a community funded option to prevent discrimination and malpractice by private businesses.

High tech classrooms, directly funded or run by the Government would also help to eliminate the personal biases and beliefs of private organizations, thereby maintaining equal access to educational facilities by marginalized communities.

Governments, especially in underdeveloped and developing nations need to collaborate with EdTech companies and seize the opportunities provided by technological advancements such as cloud-based educational media and low latency in data transmissions to deliver classes online in schools, in order to incorporate highly skilled educators who can teach classes in rural areas and setting up vocational training facilities where educators in rural areas can develop their digital skills as well as improve their teaching abilities if necessary.

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