Fears and Furies of Online (Mis)education - Lockdown and Beyond-I

By Maya John. Dated: 7/8/2020 1:55:21 AM

"Moreover, there are numerous students who are completely handicapped by the lack of a smartphone and laptop. Even students who have smartphones have rightly pointed out that studying from these phones is nowhere comparable to working from a laptop, and many have also highlighted the severe strain on the eyes that long hours of reading/studying on smartphones has produced."
"Education is being presumed to have been imparted these past weeks and now the scam of examinations is unfolding. Following the release of the "UGC Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for the Universities in View of COVID-19 Pandemic and Subsequent Lockdown" (April 2020), the administrations of Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University have latched onto the recommendation for open book examinations in the online mode."

Under the condition of lockdown while we are confronted with images and accounts of the suffering of the labouring poor, and all around us there appears to be a pervasive social chaos, in our universities students and teachers are supposed to return to an atomized life condition, and essentially pursue academic work as if all is normal. Teachers and students are expected to simply ignore wider public responsibilities and recoil to their private window to online teaching-learning. The diktats of university bureaucracies that have been issued in the midst of tremendous socio-economic crisis reduce teachers to a role akin to those of musicians who continued to entertain on the sinking Titanic. Now, after the formalities of so-called online education have been fulfilled, a specter of online examinations haunts the wider student community.
Disappearance of education in the
online mode
The pronouncements of Delhi University (DU) regarding online examinations for its final year students of undergraduate and postgraduate (Masters) courses, have added to the anxieties of large number of students and teachers, who have been grappling with a disrupted semester in the wake of the lockdown, and the stupendous challenges of online teaching-learning. More or less, institutions of higher education across the country are facing this predicament. The grim situation warrants a close scrutiny of the concerns of teachers and students about e-learning and online examinations.
It is a fact that education as a process of passing on inherited accumulated knowledge, skill and wisdom to the next generation has always existed in some form or the other in all human societies, but examinations have not. It is only with the growing competition for the few seats in educational institutions and for the limited number of premium jobs that a distinct system of examinations evolved and became the tool for evaluating the so-called worth of a person. Drumming up this fact, university bureaucrats have been persistently projecting that if teachers fail to complete their syllabi through online teaching and if online examinations are not conducted then it is the students who will suffer. The so-called loss is largely being assessed in terms of the narrowing of prospects for students applying for higher education and for competitive government examinations. This 'justification' is being used to ram in the diktats of educational bureaucracies.
The fallout of this has been a significant amount of pressure being mounted on the teaching fraternity to try and run things as normal by adopting expansive methods of online teaching, using prescribed online apps, preparing and circulating e-resources, etc. Teachers have desperately tried to complete their syllabi through whatever means possible, despite many students struggling to cope with online learning. A lot of arbitrariness prevailed in so-called online teaching, with a majority of teachers simply distributing some notes periodically and giving out assignments. Very few could actually start online classes, and a majority of students could not be very receptive to online teaching for a variety of reasons.
Pushing aside the tangible apprehensions of teachers and students, university administrations have begun pushing through modalities for online examinations. Here it is important to note that the battle was already half lost with teachers' unions not calling for the semester to be adjourned sine die. Powerful collective bodies of the teaching fraternity, such as the Federation of Central Universities Teachers Association (FEDCUTA) and Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA) have failed to build any momentum and conclusive consensus on the need for teachers to steer clear of online teaching in the ensuing lockdown. The teaching fraternity's acceptance of online teaching as an emergency measure has been nothing but a sliding, slippery slope, with teachers proving incapable of defending the rights of students, who now have online examinations thrust down their throats. There is now emerging realization of the fact that both incumbent and prospective batches of students will be victims of inadequate education in the e-learning mode.
In the current extraordinary situation educational bureaucracies, in the name of innovation, have projected e-learning as a viable substitute for completing the syllabi in educational institutions; ignoring of course the basic ground realities. The university system comprises of an extremely varied demographic profile of students; many of whom are battling disadvantages stemming from the axes of caste, class, gender, religion, linguistic, tribal, regional identities, or physical disabilities. A sizeable number of students of central universities are out-station students, who had left for their hometowns during the mid-semester break in early March. Stuck in their native places, they are now devoid of their books, notes, etc. and are struggling to cope. A significant section of students are locked down in regions where there are internet coverage issues. These include Kashmiri students, who have no access to broadband and 4G mobile internet due to the August 2019 censorship imposed by the Government of India on Kashmir. In the region of Kashmir, only 2G internet services have been allowed since January 2020, and Kashmiri students have thus been unable to connect to online classes or download books and other material given the poor state of internet services.
Moreover, there are numerous students who are completely handicapped by the lack of a smartphone and laptop. Even students who have smartphones have rightly pointed out that studying from these phones is nowhere comparable to working from a laptop, and many have also highlighted the severe strain on the eyes that long hours of reading/studying on smartphones has produced. This apart, there are many students who have had difficulty coping due to contingencies stemming from malfunctioning smartphones and laptops which they have been unable to repair during the lockdown, the inability to easily navigate new apps, among several other challenges. In an online survey conducted by a team led by Professor Vinod Pavarale and Professor Vasuki Belavadi from the Department of Communications, University of Hyderabad, to gather information regarding access to internet, gadgets and views of students on online classes, showed that the majority of the 2500 respondents felt that there are rampant problems with online education. Recently, one of the most premier colleges of Delhi University, Lady Sri Ram College, conducted a survey among its students, which revealed that even in a college where majority of the students come from affluent sections of society, the students found online learning tedious and were wary of the prospect of online examinations. Furthermore, the introduction of totally impractical online examinations makes one dread the consequences it would have on the socially and economically marginalized students who are concentrated in open and distance learning mode of various universities.
The stark lack of e-resources in Hindi for teachers to share with large numbers of Hindi-medium students is another crippling problem conveniently ignored by university bureaucrats. With literally no books to consult, how will they take an open book examination? There are in fact many students who come from poorer households where the sheer lack of physical space within their home disallows for quality, uninterrupted learning. One shudders to think at the thought of how they will struggle to write an open book examination, given their home environment. It is also necessary to factor in the special needs of students with physical disabilities, who do not have access to technology which supports extensive online learning, and instead, depend heavily on special resources and infrastructure provided within campuses of educational institutions. Likewise, we cannot overlook the specific obstacles faced by a large component of women students, who have had to increasingly share the burden of routine household chores in the ensuing lockdown.
In such a context, the growing talk of online examinations has only enhanced the individual level of anxiety and stress, particularly among the majority of students whose diverse household conditions do not support a suitable environment for self-study, and who invariably lack sufficient access to properly functional computers or smart phones. Without proper imparting of education through direct classroom teaching, evaluation of students' learning through examinations - whether online or offline - will definitely translate into a fiasco. The irony is this - even if we come to accept that examinations are an intrinsic part of evaluating the learning of students, when there is no proper education imparted, how can we even think of any form of evaluation, let alone online examination?! In conditions of inadequate learning, such as during the ensuing lockdown, any evaluation would just be farcical and enactment of a mere bureaucratic formality. Are we also supposed to ignore the fact that in the midst of all the socio-economic and biological crises, an average student is not even in the mental or physical frame to pursue studies? Indeed, why should we assume that continuing education in a situation like this is the priority of an average student?
Education is being presumed to have been imparted these past weeks and now the scam of examinations is unfolding. Following the release of the "UGC Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for the Universities in View of COVID-19 Pandemic and Subsequent Lockdown" (April 2020), the administrations of Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University have latched onto the recommendation for open book examinations in the online mode. Such decisions have been taken despite the ambivalence of the UGC committee itself on the question of the modalities of examinations. The open book examination (OBE) in DU has created a furor; especially considering how a large numbers of students who have been struggling with internet and other technology-related issues are being expected to make themselves available at a specific time and date to receive the question paper online, upload their answer sheets, among many other tedious procedures. The digital divide among students, i.e. the differential or no access to technologies that support online teaching-learning and online examinations, will simply further reproduce inequalities already present within student communities.
The contrasting socio-economic conditions from which students come, and their differential learning capacities can only be properly addressed through teaching, learning environment and socialization nurtured in real classrooms, and not through teaching on virtual platforms. Direct classroom teaching creates a public space in which understanding can grow through collective participation of diverse individuals and groups. In contrast, e-learning tends to shift the entire burden of education on the individual, isolates the learners from a real public space, and makes them overtly dependent on digital technology and gadgets that are synced to homogenized modules of learning, and indeed of knowledge itself. E-learning is an obvious part of the project for growing commercialization of education and drastic cutting of government funds for education. While successive governments have tenaciously pursued such policies, the current Government, in a more aggressive vein, is freely collaborating with the corporate sector to facilitate privatization of education at breakneck speed. Its actions of facilitating the growth of private universities, expanding e-learning and creating a profitable education market for corporate producers of digital technology and gadgets are winning accolades from a section of mainstream media owned by big corporate houses.
The margins strike back: the perils of ignoring the growth of distance education
Ironically, this unfolding crisis appears as a mirror image of a long-standing crisis already brewing in the margins of the university system. In a country that continues to be ridden with distinct social and economic inequalities, education is being seen by many as a tool for moving up the social ladder. In this context, aspirations for higher education have steadily grown, and this is reflected in the increase in student enrollment in universities during the past decade. According to the AISHE Report 2018-2019, the gross enrollment ratio in higher education has increased from 21.5% in 2012-13 to 25.80% in 2017-18. However, the majority of this enhanced enrollment has been concentrated in the open and distance learning (ODL) mode. In a university like DU alone, over one lakh students enroll in the School of Open Learning (SOL) every year. In fact, SOL, which was started in 1962, has been the mainstay of higher education in Delhi with over 65% students of DU enrolled in it. This large figure has been noted even before the increase in the last decade (Pokhriyal, 2008). There are nearly 279 institutions across India, which provide education in ODL format. This includes IGNOU - a leviathan with 28 lakh students enrolled; many state-level open universities (SOUs); and correspondence course institutes (CCIs) in the conventional dual mode universities that include premier central universities like University of Delhi, University of Hyderabad, Jamia Millia Islamia University, Aligarh Muslim University, University of Allahabad, University of Madras, Punjab University.
This apart, the current Central government has been pushing forward with distance learning, using channels like the Swayam portal to host Mass Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are purportedly meant to make education accessible to the larger masses. The model is borrowed from the Euro-American context. Nonetheless, in the US itself where general access to newer technology is much higher, e-learning brought graduation rates down to one-eighth of regular classroom courses. In India, of course, the introduction of online courses will become the great Indian institutionalized drop-out story. Importantly, MOOCs have been in existence for some time now, with many faculty of higher education institutions (HEIs) being roped in to prepare these courses. MOOCs are being actively pushed into the forefront by linking it to the career advancement or promotions of university teachers. As per the most recent UGC notifications, the preparation of MOOCs for the Swayam portal has been provided as an option in lieu of actual attendance in a refresher course which is required for promotion in the teaching promotion.
Such 'open online' courses are seen by policy-makers as a way of minimizing the Government's expenditure on education, and further opening up the education sector to private capital. It is not a coincidence that these courses are being launched whilst the Government is steadily decreasing funds in the higher education sector. Neither is it a coincidence that in the intense competition for the limited seats in public-funded universities, it is the more deprived students from poorly-run government schools and small B-grade private schools who are excluded, and are consequently pushed into pursuing such petty online courses. It is nothing short of a farce that the poorest of the poor students who most need face-to-face teaching and access to the best educational resources so as to overcome their inherited disadvantages in schooling, home environment, etc. are basically shown the door and pushed down the path of self-study when they seek entry into higher education. This bitter reality is well encapsulated in the tongue-in-cheek suggestion of the radical educational theorist, Ira Shor, that college applications should ignore the qualifying test scores altogether and just ask students to enter their family income. The results would be the same because, with relatively few exceptions, the same people (from comparatively affluent backgrounds and better schooling) would get admitted into college.
At present educationalists who are concerned about the recent boost in e-learning need to engage with the longer trend of its institutionalization within the hierarchical university system. The current vocal opposition to online teaching-learning is a welcome development, but one can no longer afford to blinker out the fact that online teaching is/has been equivalent to open and distance mode learning offered by our universities for years now. Indeed, can one sustain the critique and opposition to online teaching-learning without bringing to the forefront the miseries of the ODL mode? It is then crucial to expose the façade of education that has been imparted through MOOCs and the ODL mode way before the lockdown.
--To be continued



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