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Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Pitfalls of the swift shift to remote education

The idea that remote education is here to stay in some form or the other is now a given, since it may take a while before students get back into the classrooms in these times of social distancing protocols.

Chandigarh | Published: June 15, 2020 4:13:28 am
Draft National Education Policy, remote education, Punjab news, Indian express news The proposed National Education Policy is likely to focus on bringing in ‘uniformity in education by providing universal access to quality education’ by employing ‘transformative digital solutions’. (Representational)

(Written by Avanindra Chopra)

The Covid-19 crisis has, in a manner of speaking, offered the government a ‘golden opportunity’ (as the CBSE succinctly put it) to restructure public education around technology. It has been widely reported in media that the Draft National Education Policy (DNEP), which has been six long years in the making, will be finalised soon. The proposed policy is likely to focus on bringing in ‘uniformity in education by providing universal access to quality education’ by employing ‘transformative digital solutions’. To this end, remote education (RE) platforms like online classes, class-wise broadcasts on dedicated education channels on TV and radio, podcasts, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) will be extensively utilized.

Inevitability of remote education

The idea that RE is here to stay in some form or the other is now a given, since it may take a while before students get back into the classrooms in these times of social distancing protocols. Even when they do return, we are told that RE will continue to be part of the teaching-learning process. Champions of RE, that include both national and international corporate entities having interests in the ‘business’ of education and in the business of the internet, have grabbed this Covid provided window to forcefully promote RE as the inevitable panacea for all our educational ills.

And, this idea seems to have caught on despite numerous concerns voiced by anxious stakeholders of the existing brick-and-mortar ecosystem regarding RE’s accessibility, affordability, reliability, and user friendliness. The widespread lack of ready access to technology, suitable computing devices, perennial internet services and uninterrupted electricity are obvious obstacles in RE’s deployment and implementation in a poor country like ours. These worrisome factors can exacerbate the existing pedagogical, social and economic divides across the country, already reeling under the disastrous effects of the pandemic, leading to catastrophic consequences.Earlier this month, on June 1, Devika Balakrishnan, a 14-year old Class 9 girl student in Kerala set herself ablaze, and died, after she missed an online class because she had no television or smartphone at home.

Her ghastly end puts into sharp focus the horrifying tragedy unfolding due to the stress and anxiety being faced by many due to the sudden shift to RE. Nevertheless, the many claims made by various educational institutions of having used online tools effectively during the recent lockdowns seem to have emboldened the various votaries of RE to march on. However, it is important that we pause, and ponder, over a number of vital issues before rushing into this tech driven race for RE.

The invasive camera

Besides the devastating sense of unease and uncertainty that most of us are facing due to the pandemic, most students and teachers on RE platforms are complaining of greater strain due to the invasive scrutiny and surveillance they feel they are all the time under. They believe that they have become like participants in a reality show with the constant pressure to perform. Most do not have the required space or privacy in their homes – a quiet corner from where to log on. Their poor home environment, their entire family, its activities, even quarrels and squabbles are visible on the ‘invasive’ camera, to the entire class.

Not only do they miss the freedom of the conventional classroom, but they most miss the social aspects of a vibrant school life. Some fear that their digital footprint could one day perhaps adversely affect their privacy and progression, especially if they are even playfully not ‘politically correct’. It has precedents – multinational employers are known to minutely scan and analyse the social media accounts of potential applicants. Who knows where classroom recordings, given porous security protocols could land up one day, and an anti-establishment question asked during a routine classroom discussion could well become a lifetime label and liability?Equally, some also dread the possibility that big data analytics may be employed over time to control their lives and attempt to turn them into subservient conformists, leaving them little space for alternate thinking or protest.

Dangers of patronage to a favoured few

There are apprehensions that this drive to ‘uniformity in education’ as implied by ‘one-nation, one-digital platform’ or ‘one class, one channel’ approach, may result in the emergence of influential centres of power that may come to exercise hegemony over teaching through RE, a kind of ‘thought control’ and thereby come to direct young, impressionable minds and lives. Though the nature of the electronic media provides sufficient scope for a variety of individual enterprises in both the making and broadcasting of educational content, it is felt that in due course, what may get to be eventually endorsed as ‘quality education’ will be stuff big content producers and providers, and their political masters approve of.

Future of the ordinary teacher

In such a situation, one wonders about the fate of most ordinary teachers. Despite finding themselves technologically inadequate, and with little institutional support or guidance, many of them plunged themselves into the production of e-content in these troubled times. They little realised that their RE materials may stand little chance when it is pitted against similar content produced in well equipped studios by commercial competitors. In this unequal fight, teachers may face the danger of even becoming superfluous with their primary class room role being ultimately snatched away by big content producers. And, as delivery systems become more scalable, with extremely large groups of students being taught remotely, the very survival of teachers as a tribe is at stake. At best, they may be needed to fulfill secondary roles involving evaluation and assessment. Some believe that even these will be taken over by Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in the long run.

Closure of educational institutions

RE will thus endanger many lives and livelihoods. Yes, presumably, RE will lower costs considerably. In the short run this may suit both central and state governments that are starved of funds for public education. The shift to RE may also help the government operationalise the DNEP’s contentious proposals of capping salaries of faculty and cutting down the current number of 800 universities and 40,000 colleges in the country to about 15,000 institutions. The DNEP had even hinted at making optimal use of vacated infra of closed educational institutions. But all this will be at huge human cost and suffering. Already, there are shocking reports of highly qualified teachers working as daily-wage workers in Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and other states.

It must also be remembered that something of the same nature happened to senior secondary education in our schools when competitive tests for admission to medical and engineering colleges were introduced in the 1980s. All teaching-learning eventually shifted to the market place ‘tutorial’ classes leaving high school education in tatters. Both infrastructure and staff became redundant. It is feared that the same scenario but on a much larger scale is likely to play out across all institutions now if teaching becomes largely remote.

Significantly, the government in a policy shift in Feb 2020, even before the advent of Covid-19, had allowed Indian institutions to offer fully online degrees for the first time. Now, the stimulus package allows the Top 100 universities to automatically start online courses. Policy changes also propose to permit foreign institutions, including massive open online courses (MOOC’s) to operate in India.

Ideally, more thought and far more rigour needs to go into RE adoption before declaring it as the chosen way forward. Blended learning formats where the teacher remains in a pivotal role in the education system is what is needed. Technology has its uses, but not as a substitute to the presence, and constant guidance that a teacher imparts every single day in class. Make haste, but slowly.

(The author is Associate Professor and Head, Department of English, D.A.V. College, Chandigarh)

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