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Covid-19 crisis brings opportunity to expand the autonomy of public universities

This crisis offers the rare opportunity to re-envision and expand academic autonomy in the public university space, to wrest it out of the moribund and over-centralised structures, to push the envelope on spaces for creative enquiry and engagement.

Written by Meenakshi Gopinath | Updated: June 10, 2020 9:21:21 am
Online classes, e learing , coronavirus, schools open coronavirus, schooling coronavirus, online education students teachers, This moment might ironically be the opening in the academy for teachers and students to become better co-learners. (Illustration by C R Sasikumar)

COVID-19 has shaken the landscapes of higher education institutes (HEIs) in tectonic ways. As they strive to reposition themselves in the context of social distancing for the unpredictable interregnum to a “new normal”, established modes of functioning have come asunder. It is not just the shape, size and form of the classroom that will change, but also what will be taught and how it will be taught.

While everyone awaits instructions “from above” with bated breath, the lack of clear and consistent communication has hurtled the 37.4 million student population into bewilderment and anxiety about the future. If crises offer opportunities, this is the time especially for the public university, to wrest the initiative, break free of familiar drills and re-imagine the academy. Policymakers may welcome out-of-box initiatives at a time when they too grapple with uncertainties. Admission processes, methods of evaluation, the nature of governance, determination of “merit” — all need to be put to scrutiny.

Most official mandates thus far have centred on “hardware” issues, reflecting undoubtedly genuine concerns around a return to “functionality” by September. There is the predictable stress on the “completion of syllabi” and the mantra of “learning outcomes” while ensuring student safety and welfare. In spirit, they focus on mitigation. There is little to invoke the transformative capacity of higher education to think afresh in a context-sensitive way.

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As universities scramble to put together their online infrastructure with insufficient preparation, learning from home has involved a complete rejig of the spatio-temporal dimension. “Distance education”, traditionally the less preferred sibling of the “regular” system, has moved mainstream in its tech avatar. The “new normal” will see several more unanticipated inversions.

The pivot to online platforms, including the UGC mandate to shift 25 per cent of teaching online for the future, must be carefully calibrated to avoid exclusions that dilute affirmative action initiatives on campuses. The uses of technology as an online resource for teaching-learning must not blind us to its propensity to exacerbate inequalities in the increasingly heterogenous higher education space in India. A combination of government policies — the Right to Education and reservations among them — has enabled a considerable influx of members from erstwhile marginalised groups.

Where education shifts from class to online, students with uneven access to technology, learning resources, internet connectivity and lacking in suitable physical space, will be disproportionately affected. Women and students with special needs, in particular, those from homes that are financially stressed, or where higher education is not a valued priority will be doubly disadvantaged. Those in dysfunctional families with additional caring responsibilities during the crisis will face particular challenges.

A new paradigm that includes asynchronous learning as a digital framework, can provide diverse learners with flexible access to study materials and connect them with classmates and instructors at their preferred pace and time. This will need a range of online resources. Agile and imaginative leadership must harness its potential, drawing on the experience of open universities.

In the complex ecosystem of higher education in India, comprising over 1,000 universities, approximately 40,000 colleges and around 10,000 stand-alone institutions, one size will just not fit all. For the majority of teachers, especially in colleges, the urgent imperative of COVID-19 has involved hurriedly switching from face-to-face teaching to the less satisfying, yet daunting terrain of virtual education and acquiring new skills in the process. This has required considerably more time for preparation and scheduling more one-on-one meetings with students. In many institutions, it has meant merely collating information from web sources disseminating lecture notes through WhatsApp, with a few Zoom or Google Meet sessions added on.

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Faculty have seen these largely as interim measures to meet a crisis, secure in the faith that in the academy where human interactions are deeply valued, the “virtual” communities of the electronic wonderland will not make committed and competent teachers obsolete.

Every educator has experienced the thrills of shared everyday epiphanies in the proximate classroom space — the flicker of recognition, the acceptance of an idea, the quizzical articulations. Such unmediated communication remains the authentic barometer of learning resonance, the ultimate spur of motivation. Technology has not yet crossed that Rubicon. The ruminative space of the tutorial too has all but vanished.

The intensity of co-curricular endeavour, the allure of the sports field, the camaraderie of cultural engagement, the life-changing interactions in hostels, the friendly sparring of dialogue and debate, the discovery of unfamiliar worlds, new calibrations of identity, autonomy and freedom and the tangible lessons in citizenship, bargaining and coexistence — are in suspended animation. The academy of our imagination stands interrupted.

Yet, this crisis offers the rare opportunity to re-envision and expand academic autonomy in the public university space, to wrest it out of the moribund and over-centralised structures, to push the envelope on spaces for creative enquiry and engagement.

At the core are substantive questions of our processes of knowledge production and dissemination — our epistemic structures. How hospitable are we to the multiple intelligences that diverse learners bring to the academy? How do we effectively break the hierarchies and silos of different disciplines and become sensitive to a genuine pluralism of ideas even as they cohere and collide? How open can we be to the uneven reverberations of learning? How do we encourage the easy flow of critical thinking, to move beyond “received curricula”? How “constructivist” is our pedagogy?

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Current structures of education are attempting to prepare students for futures that we cannot predict, given the pace of change. We are unable to accurately ascertain what new skills can now be learnt for the jobs of tomorrow. The ability to constantly learn and re-learn will be key to navigate the maze of the future.

This moment might ironically be the opening in the academy for teachers and students to become better co-learners and partners in knowledge production; for teachers to revisit their pedagogy, providing greater room to engage with dialogic exploration and rumination; for administrators to develop more deft and equitous internal mechanisms to meet contingencies; for young learners to acquire the mental and emotional skills to deal with the disruption and discontinuities that will likely define this century.

Yuval Harari cautions us that big data and technology will set the algorithms of living and being in inscrutable ways that impinge upon human autonomy and choice. This may well be the time to learn and teach how to access the gravitas of distilled KNOWledge and distinguish it from NOWledge — that seductive bounty of the world wide web — overwhelming us with a packaged assemblage of data and mostly unsubstantiated information.

The Proustian wisdom that the true voyage of discovery lies not in merely seeking new landscapes but having new eyes, points us in the direction of using the opportunity that the COVID-19 challenge presents to reinvent higher education along pathways too long blocked by apathy, hubris and intransigence. A collaborative effort that keeps the student at the centre of such engagement may well be the proverbial nectar that this churning yields.

This article appeared in the print edition of June 10, 2020, under the name ‘The academy we need’. The writer is Chair, Centre for Policy Research and principal emerita, Lady Shri Ram College

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