The coronavirus pandemic has upended our world and forced upon us a closure that was unprecedented and left most, unprepared. Schools, colleges, universities all over India have been majorly impacted and the academic calendar has been severely disturbed. Educational institutions will probably not open before August 2020 according to the latest announcements made by the HRD ministry and the union minister of Higher Education (HE) particularly in places that are marked out as red zones and have a rising incidence of the virus infection.
The pandemic has given legitimacy to an otherwise warped, insidious plan of a takeover of education by the online methodology, seen as the panacea for all present-day evils facing our education system. Online teaching methods have been in use before the pandemic and certain categories of students have been using this platform for self-study, which no doubt can be beneficial and effective in their own context. What is undermined in this evangelical ardour to adopt online methods of teaching and learning, are the immense diversity and the terrible inequalities that mark Indian society. Online education may work in some affluent pockets but it cannot be a substitute for the physical classroom for rural India and also many parts of urban India.
When it comes to online education we are faced with multiple challenges; primarily of mode of delivery, ease and quality of access and basic digital literacy. In a recent survey conducted by the University of Hyderabad, of the 2,500 respondents, only 50 per cent had access to laptops, 37 per cent students said they could attend online classes; 18 per cent did not have internet access (UOH Herald 2020). If this is the state of a central university, we can imagine what the situation will be in small towns or rural India. For most students, access will be on the smart phone which is not very conducive to hours of lectures; for many, the internet connection may be extremely erratic, or they may have no smart phones at all; for thousands. there may be a complete lack of privacy and quiet to study from home, due to lack of space. This mode of education is very likely to foster and deepen gender bias. Female students in rural areas may be burdened with household work while classes are going on digitally. It is quite possible that female students may not be able to attend such classes, because of the disproportionate amount of domestic duties that may fall upon them in a discriminatory society.
The other devastating consequence of this system will be the advancement of the elitist agenda in education. Education will become increasingly inaccessible to the poor and hence it will be a gravy train for the rich. Our class and caste-biases will receive traction from online teaching-learning, as the space of the university will no longer be able to provide a refuge for the economically and socially backward categories of students. Thus, the fallout of this system is the fracturing of an already unequal and stratified society, a deepening of class divide and a great disservice to those students for whom the university is a space that has very significant transformative potential, of course not forgetting that there have been a Rohith Vemula and others who have tragically encountered and fought campus caste discrimination. Digital education also means a loss of opportunity for the well-heeled to be exposed to a homogeneous, democratic, formally equal space of the classroom, where students from varied backgrounds come together and challenge privilege and entitlement or become friends across class and caste divide. Having said that, it is however, clear that the biggest losers in this project of making HE go digital are the students from weaker sections of our society.
The UGC chairman, in a recent statement on promotion of online education said: “We are seeing at this time of Covid-19 and even later when all of this over, to give a push to online education. It is important for improvement in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in the country” (News18 India 2020). Under the cover of the pandemic, it seems like online education will be formally introduced into the system and become a major and a permanent feature of HE.
The questions that confront us are many. We who have a role to play in HE must discuss the efficacy, accessibility and suitability of online teaching-learning in India. Can we substitute physical teaching-learning for the digital? Will students learn simply by way of simulation? Will laboratory experiments be conducted virtually? How will online teaching ensure students participation, debates and discussions? What will be the value of such disembodied learning? How will students be tested online when our syllabus and teaching is geared to testing them in exam halls under invigilation? What about student integrity and ethical issues during exams in terms of plagiarism and practice of unfair means? Students cannot be tested online if they have not been taught through online pedagogy and the question paper pattern is not suited to that kind of examination. The possibility of online exams is also subject to the vagaries of electric supply and uninterrupted WiFi and the availability of the right kind of software to monitor students writing exams from home. Online education would also heavily encourage teach-to-test which leads to standardization, increases chances of cheating in exams and fails to improve critical thinking skills and creative research.
Issues such as lack of proper infrastructure, skewed student-teacher ratio, near-total freeze on faculty hiring, increased privatization, furious conferring of autonomy, heavy emphasis on metrics to determine institutional performance, dwindling research funding, promotion of mediocrity, lack of professional ethics, dumbing down of syllabus and grade inflation, and caving in to industry demands, have already weakened the centrally and state funded HE system in the country. Digital education cannot solve the already existing problems that HE faces today. Online teaching and learning can be a stop-gap measure, it can act as a supplement until we are able to go back to our universities and colleges and start teaching physical classes again. Online teaching-learning can be adopted as an ancillary supportive method, based on the self-study module, according to student-teacher choice.
Digital education is an invasive medium that heightens the dangers of surveillance. Hence, we must be extremely cautious in its use. The fervour for online education seems to be the fantasy of technology-obsessed bureaucrats and those policy makers who think that super-advanced automation, digitization and artificial intelligence will be enough to foster efficiency and productivity. Once we adopt online education as our primary medium, there is a definite threat of disinvesting in HE, hiring of less teachers and saving the cost of building schools, colleges and universities for our students. There is no reason to believe that by adopting online education we will be able to advance the cause of knowledge, foster critical and creative thinking, help develop interpersonal skills, and usher in social progress.
In conclusion, disembodied learning in the digital world can never replace what we teach and learn in the interpersonal, transformative, radical space of the classroom. Simply focusing on digital learning reinforces the divide between those who have resources and those who do not, exacerbating the social divisions that already exist. Instead of obsessing over and fetishizing online teaching-learning, the need of the hour is to increase public expenditure on education. We need to invest in improving infrastructure, build more public institutions of HE, recruit qualified teachers, support the use of enabling technology, and fund more research. Higher education should be made accessible to all and it must advance pedagogy that encourages our students to speak out and question.