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Sunday, September 20, 2020

Online classrooms: Covid lessons for public education

Covid-19 should not be made an excuse to erase our underprivileged students from our classrooms, sealing it off as a market and technology driven paradigm, in the process destroying its organic fabric, and its civil and egalitarian engagements.

New Delhi | Updated: April 28, 2020 8:42:23 pm
If the true test of a healthcare system is whether it can protect its most fragile, underprivileged and vulnerable, the same applies to education too.

Written by Meena T Pillai

In a global market economy, the Covid 19, more than anything else has taught people all over the world the perils of switching over to insurance driven health care systems, where corporate giants and pharmaceutical companies might call the shots on a nation’s priorities regarding public health. If pecuniary interests and profit rule the pandemic, social justice and inclusivity might not exactly get the prioritisation they demand, especially in many vulnerable situations such as that of India where a vast majority of the nation is too poor to afford private healthcare systems. This holds much relevance for public education too.

Under the looming shadow of a raging pandemic, all schools and universities in America, as in many other parts of the world, have switched on to the online mode. What does this portend for a country like India where a large number of students in our public educational institutions would neither have the technology for this transition, nor the economic or social capital to bridge its inequity? Would technologically driven classrooms end up furthering both social and economic distancing, in the process unwittingly conjuring the remnants of our half-buried feudal pasts to come back and haunt the portals of our learning? For example, how would the daughter of a Dalit agricultural labourer from a remote village in Attappadi overcome this hurdle? How would the digital divide, exacerbated by class, caste, religion, gender, region, and rural/urban locations, complicate the availability, accessibility and affordability of our public education?

These questions are born out of a certain anxiety. Even in the many months preceding the Covid 19 we had seen instances of how populist politics could be propelled at the grassroots level to undermine public institutions. Moreover, many middle and upper class Indian ‘taxpayers’ had evinced strong desires to purge the educational system, especially the public funded universities and bring them completely and solely under ‘nationalist’ imperatives and agendas. This does not augur well for free thought and rational critique in the country and could be on the way to sound the death knell of independent research. In the context of the rise of private schools and universities where the neoliberal market seems bent on imagining the student as a consumer, such populist ideas around education bark right up their alley, helping usher in a market model of education in its most surreptitious form. This is where it needs to be emphasised that the Covid 19 should not be made an excuse to erase our underprivileged students from our classrooms, sealing it off as a market and technology driven paradigm, in the process destroying its organic fabric, and its civil and egalitarian engagements.

One can already see many private players advertising their new ‘online’ courses and online vocational training programmes along with e-payment links, peddling the idea of publicly accessible education for everyone, ironically enough over platforms and budgets that are not necessarily accessible for all. Once the teaching modules are recorded, such universities could run these courses for many years to come without even the need for teachers. The teacher will thus slowly become an expendable commodity, to be paid once for the recording and then conveniently dispensed off with after signing off the intellectual property rights.

At another level, how would an online classroom ensure the privacy of both the teacher and the student? The classroom ideally should be a safe space for critical thinking, rational debate and difficult dialogue. In a world where we know that no knowledge can be neutral or apolitical, online platforms can bring in surveillances that could rip apart the balance of creative and critical pedagogies which make teaching and learning proactive engagements with social justice and democratic values.

Therefore, it is with informed caution and empathy that we should seek to enter into online modes of mainstream education. We need to be extremely sensitive to technological, financial and cultural gaps and barriers that pose challenges to social inclusivity and equity. Introducing pass/no pass evaluation systems instead of strict grading, ensuring the free availability of all reading materials, having open book exams that relieve the student from technological intrusions in the test taking process, could all be measures to be taken until we tide over this crisis.

If the true test of a healthcare system is whether it can protect its most fragile, underprivileged and vulnerable, the same applies to education too. It is by keeping the differently-abled, the socially marginalised and economically challenged students at the forefront of our visions of change, granting them equal opportunity and access to the highest levels of learning that our ‘online’ classrooms can fall ‘in line’ with our professed aspirations for a democratic and egalitarian society. May public health and public education be our most worthy investments in these crisis-ridden times, institutions that will hopefully nurture more compassionate, sensitive and ethical human beings for life, work and citizenship.

Dr. Meena T Pillai Professor, University of Kerala Fulbright Visiting Professor University of California, Los Angeles

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