Over the past few years, the AAP government in Delhi has made commendable efforts in tackling one of the most persistent causes of social and economic inequality. Since 2015, it has paid special attention to improving the manner in which education is imparted in Delhi’s government schools in order that students not only receive a better standard of education but also that this is reflected in success in examinations. While the latter should not be regarded as a reliable index of intelligence or thoughtfulness, failure in examinations has catastrophic personal and professional consequences in a society as unforgiving as ours.
Emboldened by its success, the AAP government now seeks to install CCTV cameras in each classroom and providing parents with an app that will, apparently, allow them to observe and monitor their child’s behaviour. Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has suggested that this will further improve academic results, is “true” democracy through transparency and that “privacy” is not a relevant issue as far as school children are concerned. With this, we are now firmly in a realm of action that has no evidence. We are also indisputably in the world of political gimmickry that derives from wilfully ignoring or misunderstanding the relationship between technology and society.
The first set of questions we must ask is: Would such a scheme of complete surveillance be allowed in elite private schools? Would parents in such schools believe that the most effective manner of improving academic results is through pervasive surveillance? Would the teachers agree to it? It would be instructive to carry out a survey of the schools where the well-off send their children and gauge their reaction to a such a scheme.
The sad fact is that when governments resort to gimmicks as public policy, it is those with the least power to influence it that are forced to be guinea pigs. Parents with limited means are naturally anxious to achieve the best schooling results for their children and may well support the CCTV scheme. However, do governments not have responsibility to base their policies on empirical research? Is there any study that suggests that it is saturation-level surveillance of students and teachers that improves educational outcomes? Poor parents will agree because of their desperation, but should private desperation be the basis of good public policy?
We may be hard put to find serious research that suggest CCTV surveillance improves academic results and children’s behaviour. However, there is plenty that points to the measures that AAP has so far been undertaking as contributing factors to a better school environment. These include special classes for academically-weak students, exams-practice, home counselling to improve attendance, better training for teachers and administrators and improved physical infrastructure. Though the results of such measures are likely to be uneven, they demonstrate serious intent in reducing educational inequality.
The AAP’s move is mostly the result of ill thought-out ideas regarding the relationship between technology and social change. In effect, it will only serve to reinforce the retrograde notion that “good” education exclusively results from “discipline” in the classroom, rather than imparting creative learning and a critical attitude towards given knowledge. CCTVs in classrooms may, in fact, further the aims of spoon-fed knowledge to acquiescent children who may fear censure if they come across as anything but entirely attentive at all times. Gaining good education is far more complex than this.
The AAP measure is part of a broader technology fetish where, for example, “smart roads” are being built in towns, where the most pressing problems are of sanitation and public transport and apps are touted as the answer to violence against women. Apart from the fact that we think there are short-cuts to social problems via “advanced” technology, we frequently forget that our cities are littered with government-installed CCTV cameras that, in the wake of expiry of contracts with private firms, are mostly non-functioning. A technological fix that furthers the idea of increased surveillance of those who are unable to object will not produce an improved government educational system. This can only happen through recognition of the fact that classroom strategies that are good enough for the children of the well-off are also the entitlement of those who are not.
The writer is professor of sociology, Institute of Economic Growth