A Viral Education? Into the Future of Our Locked Classrooms and Shut Campuses

With a curious alacrity, school and university administrations began advocating a wholesale shift into online teaching routines. But, is it really in the interests of our students?

The Indian middle classes share an uncanny ability for turning the tragic into the farcical, and drowning the pathos of a fall in a nationalist chorus of chest-beaters and thaali-players. Far from the scripted melodrama that the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed in India, what it should have brought home is a realisation of how ill-equipped our public healthcare systems are in dealing with such a medical emergency. Instead, it now waits to hurl us into an equally tragic consciousness around our public education systems – which, in order to compensate for a country-wide preventive shutdown, are seen embracing online app-based teaching as the only panacea.

With a curious alacrity and unpreparedness, school and university administrations began by advocating a wholesale shift into online teaching routines – often commanding teachers to physically risk their lives by travelling to empty classroom spaces and video-recording lectures. In several other contexts where institutional infrastructures are inadequate, teachers and students have been instructed to attend classes through privately-installed digital platforms like Zoom or Google Team or comparable interactive app-based media. College administrations in Delhi University had, till separate directives were issued by the state government and MHRD on March 19 and March 21 respectively, cautioned that normal class routines be followed and attendance marked – thus, putting up a business-as-usual façade in the name of student interest.

Also Read: As India’s Lockdown Enters Second Week, Three Big Questions Still Remain

But, is it really in the interests of our students that face-to-face classroom teaching is allowed to be substituted by online distance learning? How many of those students enrolled within public-funded institutions do we address, in imagining a seamless transference of teaching-learning processes from physical classroom environments to laptop/smartphone interfaces? In other words, how inclusive and effective is online teaching – and must we allow a health emergency to breed the conditions for a knowledge emergency by excluding a bulk of the population presently accessing government education?

The experimental switch to digital delivery of learning is not without precedent in the current context – insofar as the Chinese government called for suspension of all in-person instructional activities on school/college campuses beginning late January. State authorities in America and Europe followed suit, as the situation turned grimmer.

But, unlike in the US, social-demographic factors in India have never allowed for more than an elite flirtation with online teaching pedagogy – and mostly within expensive private university settings or as self-financed professional training-modules. This cannot be taken to mean that state-financed education in India has remained immune to the enabling effects of digital technology. Electronic resources are regularly circulated as reading material, digital libraries and e-journal databases are plumbed, online storage and sharing networks are made available, audio-visual archives do supplement traditional classroom teaching in the everyday lifeworld of institutional practice.

Social-demographic factors in India have never allowed for more than an elite flirtation with online teaching pedagogy. Credit: Flickr

In America, on the other hand, the online bubble ran a fuller course and failed. Soon after the economic recession of 2008, higher educational institutions in the global north made a bid for covering austerity cuts in public spending by ushering in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). These courses – structured as a substitute for physical classroom experience through pre-recorded learning material, chatroom-based feedback and digital assessment tools – claimed to connect top universities with a mass-market of educational demand.

Real-time teaching within built campus environments was projected as a far costlier option, as long as the same courses could be accessed by students from home and at their own leisure. The digital shift was imagined as a respite from the rising tuition costs of ‘good’ university education in North America and Europe, while simultaneously attracting additional revenue for cash-strapped universities reeling under state financial slashes.

Between 2011 and 2016, all these fictions around the relative profits of an online education had bombed into a travesty of democratic access. It was apparent that despite a gradual lowering of the costs of online education offered by private edu-tech vendors within for-profit universities, the latter still remained way more expensive than an on-campus public university degree. On the other hand, MOOCs – instead of adding to university revenues – leveraged whatever public resources were available in order to subsidise their selling rates.

Furthermore, over the period of increase in online enrolments, it was noticed that the lack of material teaching infrastructures lowered the learning curve of students, forced them to choose easier (and often cognitively under-demanding) courses, dramatically reduced course completion rates and encouraged mass drop-outs. While expanding the educational loan-market, an online degree was naturally under-valued by potential employers and only further crippled the incumbent’s ability to repay the debt incurred.

But, people here would argue that this is only an interim emergency measure. Most would concur that such a method would not succeed in the long term within the Indian context – but desperate times call for desperate measures. The question however is: do the government and its policy-makers really consider this transition as a desperate crisis-response? A glance through recent policy-documentation would prove otherwise. In July 2016, the University Grants Commission (UGC) brought in a set of Online Learning Courses Regulations which empowered every central/state government university to offer MOOCs if “there is non-availability of suitable teaching staff for running a course in the Institution” (Section 4.4.a). In 2019, the Commission passed down a directive that every teacher must mandatorily prepare a MOOC outline as part of every career advancement programme that s/he attends. Needless to say, these submissions are then part of a readymade archive of online teaching material that may be outsourced, monetized and sold by the government at will. The new National Education Policy, waiting to be tabled in parliament, envisions the setting up of a National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT) – whose work it will be to design technological utopias for the future of teaching pedagogy.

Most crucially, the same policy draft funnels its plans for Indian higher education through a fundamental contradiction: reducing the number of institutions to one-fourth of its current spread and yet doubling student enrolments. It does not take too much of an imaginative excursion to understand what this magic formula portends – a mass transitioning into online teaching. Not surprisingly, this only explains why the latest All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE) Report 2018-19 records a loss of 57,000 teaching jobs from the country’s colleges and universities over the past five years. Our emergency-teaching in the times of the coronavirus might well provide policy-fodder for further slashes, further desiccation of physical resources from the brick-and-mortar university.

Let me conclude with an index of the social costs of online teaching, within an economy as sharply riven along class, caste, community and gender relations as ours. Though the government’s trumpeting of neat rhetorical fantasies like ‘Digital India’ might sound liberating, the Census 2011 data paradoxically registers that only 3.1% of Indian households own a computer or laptop with an Internet connection. The proportion of rural households featuring in this bracket is a meagre 0.7%.

A more recent McKinsey Report on ‘Digital India’ (2019) might make us believe that the smartphone phenomenon has, over the past decade, substantially amended the situation by bringing close to 560 million people within a mobile economy of internet usage. But, it needs to be remembered that the total number of internet users is never an index of household access, let alone questions of speed or bandwidth. There are households where every member subscribes to unlimited 4G data, but – for every such recorded sample – there are a hundred others where only one member (typically, the male wage-earner) has prepaid access to data. Students from such families have a less hostile access to classroom spaces within public universities than to their fathers’ or uncles’ or brothers’ phones at the end of the day.

There are households where every member subscribes to unlimited 4G data, but there are a hundred others where only one member does. Photo: Reuters

Did we think about students indefinitely quarantined into a manufactured war-zone like Kashmir – whose tryst with online learning must necessarily be at the mercy of government-imposed communication blackouts and bandwidth regulations? I teach in a provincial public university in Asansol – where requiring a Masters student to submit a typed research paper at the end of the term entails the task of training her into elementary MS Word skills. A policy-fiat – however desperate in its framing as an ‘exception’ – will apply without exception to all students within a classroom, irrespective of her histories of disprivilege; and then, to all universities irrespective of their locations within or outside a metropolis. If Delhi University’s colleges show the way, our lesser institutions will only be forced to follow – because, as we know, the ‘one size fits all’ model is not new to educational reform-planning.

Despite sustained onslaughts, the public university remains a somewhat-damaged crucible for stitching up dreams – even now, in these times of global catastrophes and selective injustices. In letting it remain so, we need not shun digital technology. Instead, let us learn how to use it towards a future that neither abandons the dream nor the dreamer. Online education is clearly not that route.

Also Read: A Pandemic Is the Price We Pay for Ignoring the Warnings

Given that the viral onslaught is only predicted to aggravate over the next few weeks, how do we then make up for the loss of teaching time? It is more than coincidental that the ‘online’, when proliferated beyond calculation or controlled programming, is believed to be infected by a ‘virus’. To escape this scourge, perhaps we could begin by arresting the virality (or, an abnormal normality) of online education – by reassuring students and parents that nothing is lost and that nothing forsaken is irreparable. And while we keep up with our practices of reading and sharing resources (digital and otherwise), let us demand that the academic calendar be proportionately extended. Let us demand that examinations be postponed, entrance tests be rescheduled, semesters be recalibrated and our survival be the cause of a reimagining.

Let the entire world, for once, come together and undo the norm and thus undo the damage.

Debaditya Bhattacharya teaches literature at Kazi Nazrul University, Asansol. He has recently published two edited anthologies titled The Idea of the University: Histories and Contexts and The University Unthought: Notes for a Future.