The gendered nature of domestic work, most of which falls on women and girls at home, may affect the chances of women students to access their online classes and prepare for assessments and examinations. They may also be negotiating with other family members to access shared gadgets and internet connection and would be affected in case there is selective preference for their elder siblings or male members of the family.
Digital media offers a world of possibilities. It collapses space and time, allows for more social connectivity, and facilitates greater interaction among people. Cultures of relatedness are increasingly shaped by digital media with people using internet applications to stay in touch with family and friends. Some of the greatest protest movements of the twenty first century have been shaped by digital media. Digital and social media often become the site for counter-narratives, emerging as alternative spaces where the boundaries between readers and writers, journalists and citizens, are continuously challenged. Examples could range from blogging to tweets and memes surfacing online. As Walter Benjamin (1969) had argued, referring to the extension of the printing press at the end of the nineteenth century, the distinction between author and public would lose its basic character and become merely functional. If the reference here was to a special case of mechanical reproduction, introducing the era of mass communication and unrestricted circulation of information and ideas, these possibilities increase exponentially in the era of digital media. However, if digital technologies promise a more open and democratic world, they also in many instances facilitate social reproduction. The ambiguous role of the internet is such that while it may emerge as a site to counter and critique state practices, it may also work as a very effective means of state control and surveillance. Similarly, as Coleman (2010) argues, ‘if some technologists can make and use digital media to ﬁght the injustices of capitalism, others are enmeshed in ﬂexible post-Fordist capitalism’ (2010: 493). If digital media is a ‘double-edged sword’, it’s a call for us to engage with its promises, plenty and hopeful as they are, but it’s also a call for us to engage with its politics, to better understand how it mediates, challenges, or reinforces social inequality.
In the wake of the pandemic Covid-19, when interactions, exchanges, paid work, education, have increasingly been mediated by digital technology, whether successfully or not, popular discourse has come to revolve around the indispensability of digital media in our lives. While it is important to engage with how this will re-shape our lives, and reconstitute us as humans, it is also critical to check a technological determinism as the latter may paper over structural inequalities and differential access to resources and power. These are important questions, not to bring down the euphoria around the digital era, but to plan for more thoughtful interventions that do not go on to harden the already existing digital and social inequalities. This paper uses this larger context to engage with a question closer home – how are universities working with and thinking of digitally mediated education at the time of the pandemic, and what problems need to be acknowledged and addressed if we are to plan a more reflexive engagement with our students.
Connection Lost: Some Questions on Infrastructure and Access
With Covid positive cases rising in India and serial lockdowns announced since the third week of March 2020, universities and departments across the country have been devising methods to continue the teaching-learning process in the absence of regular physical classes. Across the world, online platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Hangout, Skype, Webex have become preferred options to conduct classes, and to give them their due credit, on days internet connection works well for most participants, they do allow some simulation of a classroom experience. However, as we plan our ongoing and future exchanges on online platforms, it is critical that we engage with some concerns with online education – particularly regarding availability of resources, contested claims to shared gadgets, and lack of conducive environment to participate in learning. These concerns become more urgent in the light of universities contemplating remote examinations for graduating students. A blanket assumption seems to operate that all students will be able to take exams remotely, just as they would have managed to log into their online classes.
However, it needs pointing out that many students have not been able to access their online classes and this is not an ‘exception’ that can be ignored in an assumed ‘larger interest’. Lack of availability of required gadgets, such as a computer or laptop, or availability of gadgets on a shared basis, can severely impact one’s chances of attending online classes. A glimmer of hope here is the mobile phone, a gadget that has definitely had deep penetration in India, with the effect that even in the absence of a laptop most online activity, such as emailing, coordination on WhatsApp groups, downloading e-material, logging into online classes, could be facilitated by the mobile phone. However, unlike telephoning and sending messages, these activities depend on a suitable phone model to support advanced operating systems and an internet connection with stable speed that is still not as widely available.
This suggests that even when certain gadgets are available, the online transaction may not be as seamless; rather it may be experienced as fragmented and discontinuous. This particularly comes to the fore in reports documenting how students, as well as teachers, in Kashmir and North East have been struggling with poor network and connectivity (Ahmad 2020; Karmakar 2020). Yes, new media promises transformative possibilities, but, as Brian Larkin (2004) argues, ‘much of the work on the transformative effects of media…takes for granted a media system that is smoothly efficient rather than the reality of infrastructural connections that are frequently messy, discontinuous, and poor’ (2004: 292).
Larkin observes that studies on technology often discuss the effects of technology as if it is working at its optimum, but what is less discussed is how technology inﬂuences through its failure as much as through its successes (2004: 291). This also informs his unease with theorizing ‘digital divide’ in terms of the assumption that ‘economic and cultural effects of new technologies are absent from “disconnected” societies’ (2004: 305). For Larkin, this logic fails to examine ‘the structuring effects that technologies and their failures—however dysfunctional—have in everyday life’ (ibid.). Examining the infrastructure of piracy in Nigeria, that generates new economic networks and makes available to Nigerians a vast range of world media at an unimaginable speed, Larkin also draws attention to the material qualities of piracy that generate a particular sensorial experience of media marked by constant breakdown and poor transmission (2004: 290-91). Blurred images, distorted sound, muddy dialogues, loss of detail, broken screen colors, faded figures, are distortions that ﬁlter audiences’ engagement with media technologies as well as their experience of time, speed, space, and contemporaneity (2004: 307, 291). As Larkin argues, ‘while media infrastructure creates the reality of being ever more connected to a globalized world, it does so by emphasizing Nigerians’ marginalization at the same time’ (2004: 308).
Drawing from the discussion above, one can argue that while the unavailability of certain gadgets hinders access to digital media, digital inequality may also be at work when some of the basic requirements are made available. Thus, in the context of online education, being connected to new technologies may not automatically guarantee a seamless and liberating digital experience to many students trying to access their classes or exam material online. Rather, slow and fragmentary internet connection – manifesting in frequent disconnections, audio-video hang-ups, difficulty in downloading heavy files and reading material – may intensify the experience of class, or regional, or technological marginalization. As Larkin argues in the context of his work, breakdown and slowness of internet connection may create a temporal experience that has less to do with ‘dizzying, real-time global integration’, but a ‘frustrating experience of duration brought about by the technology of speed itself’ (Larkin 2004: 306).
The discussion so far has attempted to critically engage with an assumption, regarding online education, that may take for granted a certain quality of infrastructural access across regions and student demographics. I now move on to questioning another critical assumption underlying remote education that fails to acknowledge the dynamics of the domestic space from where most students would be accessing their online classes.
Re-thinking Home: Viewing the Pandemic through Gender Lens
When online classes are seen as the future, and demands for remote examinations are made, one not only takes for granted a computer or stable internet connection being available at every student’s place, one also assumes a certain domestic space where there would be enough room to work on online assignments, or log into multiple classes on a regular basis, or successfully take examinations. But what if the domestic arrangement, especially during lockdown with most family members home, does not permit this space? If in normal times one could have used the classroom or library space for personal study, amidst the pandemic there are less chances of escaping home. What this observation is aiming to challenge is not so much the potential of technology, but the assumption that with advanced technology ‘place’ ceases to matter. Yes, the only place the laptop literally needs is the lap, the wireless internet literally allows connection without plugging the gadget into a wire socket; but just as there is a huge material infrastructure of wire and pipes, very much tied to physical locales, that creates the experience of wireless for the end-user, the space one inhabits may also shape this ‘wireless’ experience and the very chance of experiencing it in the first place. By space, I mean not just the physical layout of the home or neighbourhood, but home as a space that is relational. This allows us to also consider that home may not always be the site of love and conviviality as often gets projected in popular descriptions. At a time when online classes have to be accessed from one’s home, this could severely impact one’s chances of access, even if the requisite gadgets and connection are made available.
Sociological studies on gender and family have long drawn attention to the dynamics of gender based division of labour at home. Christine Delphy and Diana Leonard (1992) adopt a materialist approach and study the family as an economic system where women’s labour often gets appropriated by the male head of the household. For Delphy and Leonard, an understanding of the unpaid work women do in the family, and the relations within which they do it, are key elements in understanding male domination (1992: 20).
They argue that the unpaidness, the specific character of housework, doesn’t depend on the special nature of the tasks, since all the goods and services produced at home can also be bought on the market. It depends rather on the fact that the tasks which comprise it are performed within particular relations of production where the ‘people who usually do the work do not own the products of their practical, emotional, sexual and reproductive labour’ (1992: 84). Moreover, these relations of production characteristic of housework (that is unpaid work, done in the home, by women) are not just restricted to the common housework tasks such as cooking and cleaning. Thus, in addition to housework and household work, Delphy and Leonard separate out and distinguish as ‘family work’ all the unpaid work done by dependents for the household head, noting most of the dependents are women as wives or cohabitees (1992: 79).
This allows a focus on the variety of work women do within the family-based household (see Delphy & Leonard 1992: 226-253). As the authors discuss, this could range from their direct contribution to family members’ occupational work, often filling in as unpaid assistants, to ‘emotional work’ – work which establishes relations of solidarity, maintains bonds of affection, provides moral support, friendship and love (1992: 21). In addition, and often overlapping with emotional work, care-giving to elderly family members and children is again work largely done by women. In the context of the pandemic which has led to massive uncertainty among people regarding jobs, livelihoods, healthcare – the demands of emotional work and care-giving would have become more pressing. Even maintaining kin contacts between households and checking up on relatives becomes a task expected of women. Delphy and Leonard argue that even when men contribute to domestic work, the chances are that the overall responsibility of housework would still lie with the woman. Even when women are employed outside, they would generally end up working very long days and at the least favoured aspects of household work (1992: 240).
This discussion highlights the diverse tasks that constitute important components of women’s domestic work – which rarely gets visibilized or addressed as ‘work’. It also suggests that in critical times such as the pandemic, the quantity or intensity of women’s unpaid work may go on to increase exponentially. For instance, with the lockdown entailing that most members stay put at home, there is more food to be cooked, more dishes to be done, more clothes to be washed. This increase may still not de-invisibilize housework. In fact, it’s interesting to note how the jargon of ‘work from home’ may further invisibilize house-work. The expression refers to office-work that is paid and can be done from home. It not only allows a legitimate insulation from housework but also rests on someone doing the larger part of the unpaid work. As Janet Finch (1983) observes, ‘women’s coverage of domestic work enables men to work at home while being assured of protection from disturbance’ (Finch 1983; cited in Delphy & Leonard 1992: 235). What’s particularly relevant for the present discussion is Delphy and Leonard’s observation that there are repercussions for wives and children when men work at home. As they argue, ‘household space and routines have to be organized around the husband’s needs to allow him to carry out the breadwinning activities’ (1992: 243). They add, ‘the house becomes ‘reconstituted as a semi-public place’ (Finch 1983: 55), and the wife loses her privacy and must organize herself even more around her husband’s timetable’ (Delphy & Leonard 1992: 243).
This analysis acquires a tinge of prophesy in the present times. For women, not only has their share of unpaid work increased, but the freedom and time that was guaranteed by either their stepping out for work or their husband’s stepping out for work has also gotten curtailed. For women in abusive relationships, a daily spatial-temporal separation from family members was paramount for escaping control and developing coping strategies. In lockdown-like situations, the chances of escape become more difficult to negotiate, as also suggested by reports of rising domestic violence during the lockdown period (see Mlambo-Ngcuka 2020).
Why is this relevant to a discussion on pandemic and university education? The gendered nature of domestic work, most of which falls on women and girls at home, may affect the chances of women students to access their online classes and prepare for assessments and examinations. They may also be negotiating with other family members to access shared gadgets and internet connection and would be affected in case there is selective preference for their elder siblings or male members of the family. Further, going to college allowed women students to escape familial authority and surveillance and discover themselves anew in terms of their choices, whether of dress, friends, courses, politics, sexualities, which may have not found acceptance at home. Now at home, many would have to carefully guard their identities as the cost of breach could make staying at home more stressful. As we deliberate on the future of university education in the time of pandemic, I argue that it is important we take into account that many of our students may be navigating through lack of gadgets, poor internet connection, house-work, care-giving, family conflicts, loss of parents’ livelihoods, just as they may be navigating their online classes. These are concerns that must be accounted for if we are to plan more sensitive and thoughtful engagements for the next semester.
It is difficult to imagine university education today without some reliance on digital resources which has made some of the best scholastic literature widely available online. But if new media promises spaces of democratic possibilities, conversely, it may also reinforce existing structures of power and inequality. These questions are pertinent to a discussion on the future of university education, especially public educational institutions. Our classroom spaces are not free of economic, cultural, and social disparity, but if a commitment to public education compels us to constantly evaluate our universities and fight for non-discriminatory and affirmative policies, it is just as important for us to take cognizance of the ways online education may amplify existing inequalities and plan for interventions that prioritize greater inclusivity. It is important that universities and colleges take students’ experience of online classes seriously, take into account their constraints and design modules in a way that students without facilities for online sessions are not disadvantaged. This is also a time for us to question if we can think of education in a way that does not necessarily culminate in an end semester examination. Remotely offered education in exceptional times shouldn’t make education ‘remote’ in terms of being inaccessible to students.
The ‘Arab Spring’ is often invoked as a textbook case for studying the role of internet and networked social media as being at the centre of civil resistance and political uprisings that engulfed North Africa in 2011 (see Eko 2012).
I must add that though one is raising the infrastructural question in terms of online classes, it’s a pertinent question even for physical classes. Are our university spaces and classrooms designed in ways that allow differently-abled students to access college facilities easily? This concern also raises important questions vis-à-vis online teaching – how do differently abled students manage online classes; are their needs taken into account when universities plan online examinations?
Ahmad, Mudasir. 2020, April 22. Students, Teachers in Kashmir Struggle with 2G Connectivity as Classes Move Online. The Wire. https://thewire.in/education/kashmir-2g-online-classes
Benjamin, Walter. 1969 (1936). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ In Illuminations, edited by Hannah Arendt, translated by Harry Zohn, pp. 217-252. New York: Schocken Books.
Coleman, E. Gabriella. 2010. ‘Ethnographic Approaches to Digital Media’. In Annual Review of Anthropology. 39: 487–505. Doi :10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.104945
Delphy, Christine, & Leonard, Diana. 1992. Familiar Exploitation: A New Analysis of Marriage in Contemporary Western Societies. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Eko, Lyombe S. 2012. ‘New Media, Old Authoritarian Regimes: Instrumentalization of the Internet and Networked Social Media in the Arab Spring of 2011 in North Africa’ in New Media, Old Regimes: Case Studies in Comparative Communication Law & Policy.
Finch, Janet. 1983. Married to the Job: Wives’s Incorporation in Men’s Work. London: George Allen and Unwin (Publishers) Limited
Karmakar, Rahul. 2020, June 13. In the Time of Online Classes, Northeast Waits for a Faint Signal from a Distant Tower. The Hindu. https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/ground-zero-in-the-time-of-online-classes-northeast-waits-for-a-faint-signal-from-a-distant-tower/article31815979.ece
Larkin, Brian. 2004. ‘Degraded Images, Distorted Sounds: Nigerian Video and the Infrastructure of Piracy’. In Public Culture, Volume 16, Number 2, Spring 2004, pp. 289-314. Duke University Press
Mlambo-Ngcuka, Phumzile. 2020, April 6. Violence against Women and Girls: The Shadow Pandemic. UN Women https://www.unwomen.org/en/news/stories/2020/4/statement-ed-phumzile-violence-against-women-during-pandemic
Aarushie Sharma teaches Sociology at Hindu College, University of Delhi. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.