As we sit cocooned in the self during this pandemic, an age is silently slipping away. An age when classrooms and campuses defined the personal and collective dreams of a generation. A sensuous ensemble of colour and touch, of human smells of sweat and starch, of finding delightful flavours in humble shared midday meals, of vagabond tales and truant passions.
Classrooms are chronicles of time. Here, many wiped away another’s tears, shared pangs of hunger, or partook in desolate sighs and simple joys. Classrooms taught us empathy and humanity; there were verses under the trees, plays in the wind, and psalms in shared food, giving one life lessons in camaraderie. There were silences, punishments, humiliations and bullying, where we learnt to stand up for ourselves and others. But the continual discovery of bonds over differences, shared initiations and common agonies and ecstasies moulded the way many of us picked ourselves up and walked out of that immense gallery of life into the wide world.
More than teaching or learning, it was the sociality and the camaraderie, the tumult of togetherness, and learning to live with differences and commonalities that made classrooms a rich social space, a microcosm of human plenty. Finding that one cherished friend in whose company the world lost its desolation, celebrating and mourning in togetherness, learning to shed the rough edges of personal egos and privileges, were all precious legacies. In fact, as social beings, many of us were literally shaped by our classrooms. However fragile or tentative their educational value, classrooms are nevertheless clumsy communal blessings; and no matter how dark the setting, there were many unforgettable moments of affinity, fellowships of pride and humanity burnished with time and the exuberance of esprit de corps. At a time when the flags of our destinies were yet furled, with infinite lightness of being, with far more tenderness and far less cumbersome customs, we bonded over seasons of sun and rain and drank deep of the cup of collective life. Those classrooms that spiced the shores of our life with gregarious fragrances, while wearing the vibrant colours and aspirations of a supple youth and its ardent socialities, are soon to be a thing of the past. The COVID-19 pandemic has fossilised us in space, building islands of solitude all around. The classroom was a social space, a habitus, a network of individual and collective practices. It gave all its inhabitants, teachers and students alike, a wider scope of creating positions within practices, finding and locating oneself within the social. In that sense, even before the idea of the state, it was our first encounter with a polis, an organisation of people arising precisely out of acting and speaking together, a shared space of words and deeds.
The transition to the online makes many wonder whether the students of tomorrow will be Shakespearean soliloquies, characters who speak aloud to themselves; spectral beings glued to computer displays, strangers to the consolations of another beating heart, or the sweat of a burdened brow, or the gentle flow of another’s tears. The collectivism and organic nature of our traditional classrooms will slowly yield to the individualism and plasticity of the online. A teacher will probably never really know her students again, see the light of understanding dawn in their eyes, or discover through empathy the face of hunger hidden behind an uninterested gaze. Technology can, of course, magnify the boxed images of her students, but in the process, it can only transform a throbbing social world to digitally enhanced images and representations.
The rather hurried move to online in the name of the COVID-19 pandemic makes one wonder whether there are deeper issues at stake. At a fundamental level, one does not need any data or survey to understand how critical, multifaceted and complex the issue of digital divide is in India. All one needs to do is to think of the millions of migrant workers walking hundreds of kilometres from quarantined cities to their villages, even as the relatively privileged middle classes, who constitute about 28 per cent of the population, are safely ensconced in comfort to pore over their laptops or smart phones, working or studying from home. While governmental bodies, universities and institutions seem to be drafting policies to address the divide and include the differently abled and the dispossessed into the portals of online education, the distance between the cup and the lip is anybody’s guess, given the distrust of the fact that what had been insufficiently addressed all these years would be miraculously cured by the magic hand of the digital. With 1.17 billion wireless phone subscribers and 560 million Internet subscribers, India is the second largest Internet market in the world after China, but the fact remains that there are still 900 million people without any direct access to the Internet. This, further intensified by class, caste, religion, region, gender and sexuality, among many other factors, creates conundrums of the worst kind, posing serious obstacles in the transition to online education. It is easy for the 560 million, most of them part of a vast middle class, to be blind to the glaring economic difference between them and the 900 million, and the huge impact this digital chasm would make on the knowledge economy.
Access is not the sole issue at stake here. The advantaged and the disadvantaged do not respond to technology in the same manner and the need is also to understand the variance in behavioural models, especially in education, between the socially and economically disadvantaged and say, the privileged millennials with digital usage experience. Furthermore, within a digital economy, while digital literacy can be imparted over a period of time, what needs to be emphasised is the idea of digital citizenship. A citizen is a participatory member of a political community, and it is necessary to see the digital economy not only as the organisational logic of an economic community, but also one creating a social and political community. It is important that along with digital access and literacy a student should also be conceived of as a digital citizen, capable of creatively and critically engaging with and coming together over shared social and public worlds.
This is not a panegyric for the traditional classroom, nor is it an invective against digital classrooms, which, in all probability, are here to stay. The need of the hour is to think of ways of devising a healthy balance between the two. Digital tools and e-learning have enabled many teachers override the narrow physical limitations of the classroom and acquire new kinds of mobilities, both in terms of content and in terms of methods. There seems to be an attempt to force an unnecessary binary between traditional and online classrooms, pooh-poohing all attempted critiques of this shift as technophobia and laziness, which barks right up the alley of the market and its corporate dreams of technocratic education. There is no discounting the fact that the old order changes, yielding place to new. Irrespective of wishful encomiums, we are in the digital age and digital technologies are pivotal in producing and disseminating knowledge to large numbers of people, making it a priceless asset in harnessing the democratising potential of technology to the higher purpose of education. Moreover, for nearly a decade now, education in India has indeed been digitally oriented and enhanced. There has been a wide prevalence of digital tools and techniques along with e-books and e-reading. Information and Communication Technology (ICT)-enabled classrooms became a requisite for education, with the University Grants Commission (UGC) making it mandatory for teachers and institutions to incorporate such practices into the curriculum for their promotions and accreditation respectively. However, the lacuna was that even as the shift to the smart classrooms happens, many teachers who belong to the old school have not been trained sufficiently and “smartened” to the use of ICT.
As the pandemic forces a hasty move to the online mode with fears of this being the new norm, one should learn from past mistakes and train teachers in new uses of technology. However, this shift must not be reduced to attempts at mimicking or replicating a virtual model of the physical classroom but also strive to recreate it with new possibilities and pedagogies that would enable more imaginative interactions, from flipped and blended classrooms to more collaborative and interactive learner-centric models and templates.
There should also be a concerted effort for academic audits and feedback from students, making their voices more audible in the portals of education. Another imperative is the need for rapid digitisation of books and resources and the online availability of these digitised materials. It is indeed amusing to think that many libraries in India have wonderful digital archives, but there is a studied reluctance to make them available to researchers other than through physical access, which defeats the very philosophy of digitisation.
India has one of the most outdated examination systems in the world. Other than encouraging the propensity of learning by rote and testing memory, our traditional closed-book examinations can boast of little else. The open book exam, which allows students to access notes, texts and other academic resources while writing an exam, tests a student’s ability to find the right information. It also helps the student interact with such materials in a scholarly and ethical manner, thus creating a dialogue between existing knowledge and one’s own creative and critical engagements with it, bearing in mind contexts and positionalities while attempting a rigorous and socially charged critique. This would also mean training the teachers in asking questions differently.
Three students from the Chuna Bhatti slum area have filed a case in the Delhi High Court against Delhi University’s decision to implement open-book examinations, citing unequal opportunities in the proposed mode. The petitioners cannot be more correct when they say that there are differences in circumstances with regard to home environments, access to devices and Internet connectivity for different students, all of which affect how a student writes an exam. It is true that a steady and fast Internet connection is a remote dream for many Indians, and therefore solutions like take-home open-book exams, where students can attempt answering at a more convenient time and pace, could be implemented. But as pointed out by the petitioners, many students come from environments not conducive to home-learning or home exams, not only in terms of space but also with regard to emotional and affective economies.
One needs to rethink the concept of a homogenised ideal home where learning could be undertaken at peace. For many, homes could be spaces of violence, repression and struggle, and they therefore conceive of classrooms as safe spaces of more egalitarian interaction and bonding. Moreover, a lecture of one hour requires at an average about 500 MB of data/hour. For a family with two children attending three hours of class daily, the data requirement would be 3 GB. This is in addition to two computers or smartphones, headsets and webcams. The petitioners in the Delhi High Court have argued that such gadgets and their quality will give an unfair advantage to economically well-off students. How many Indian households with agricultural labourers or migrant workers as earning members can afford high-quality learning gadgets? How many girls would find their education sabotaged because making technology available is, at worst, a gendered process in a land torn by patriarchies which are compounded by caste and class?
Internet as a basic right
In a networked society, where the idea of space and time, along with economy and governance, have undergone paradigm shifts, so much so that the enjoyment of all fundamental rights seem linked to information technologies, the government could, of course, try to make Internet access a basic human right. Communication technologies have become crucial to marginalised people all around the world in their need to express opinion and their right to freedom of speech, as also in exercising other fundamental rights, especially given the slow ousting of traditional media by new media.
Just as the underprivileged and dispossessed have a right to public spaces, they have a right to digital spaces, information highways and networks, and participation in e-governance, which are today as much linked to lives as to livelihoods within what should ideally be a digital democracy. All this calls for an urgent need to address the almost impending prospect of a monopoly in the Indian telecommunication market, a national moral obligation as never before to strengthen the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Limited (BSNL). One cannot emphasise enough the need to revive and resuscitate India’s largest public sector telecom operator, the only viable option in providing telecom services to commercially non-viable areas, instead of playing into the hands of private players who might initially make huge offers and discounts but end up as monopolies at the peril of the underprivileged consumers.
Efforts such as those initiated by the government of Kerala to get free Internet to two million poor households through the Kerala Fibre Optic Network, a joint venture of the Kerala State Electricity Board (KSEB) and the Kerala State IT Infrastructure Limited, are exemplary in that they envisage Internet as a basic citizen right.
Implementing the idea of “Teaching Commons”, which brings together high-quality open educational resources including open access textbooks, course materials, lesson plans, multimedia and more from leading colleges and universities, curated by librarians and their institutions, could be an immense help at this point of time. A blended system of online and offline classes may be an option until we tide over the pandemic. But the looming doubt in the minds of many is whether the pandemic is a pretext to hasten the technological takeover of the classroom for a booming knowledge industry.
The world over, there seems to be an eager readiness to embrace the online uncritically, which creates a nagging suspicion of whether the neoliberal market is fuelling a desire that aims to transform public education into a feeder service for corporate capitalism. A techno-market rhetoric which speaks of all the educational achievements of postcolonial nations as the democratisation of mediocrity creates an aspiration for “elite models” which then quickens to the fulfilment of that ultimate capitalist dream of a knowledge-for-profit revolution. For the thriving middle and upper classes of countries like India, this would mean the great pride of educating their children in “world-class” institutions through new global educational services enabled by the digital, while the less privileged might be systematically erased as collateral damages in the course of fulfilling such magnificent class dreams.
That this might even come at the expendability of the “guru”, who could be eased out by pre-recorded lectures and contract tutoring, does not seem to dampen the spirits of many who had once upon a time waxed eloquent on the holy covenant of guru-sishya relationships. Market models would strive to maximise profits through minimum expenditure. The greatest educational expense is, of course, the teacher, and what better way to cut public expenditure on education than by making one-third of them redundant in the shift online, as estimated, and then slowly eliminating them from the system.
Massive customised programmes like MOOCs [massive open online courses], while helping mass education, have often been considered as failures by universities in the West in that they are more prone to the forces of economics than education, and also owing to the huge dropout ratio, and mostly weak pedagogy. While culpable of creating a “star” system within academia, MOOCs also need to be rethought within frameworks of interactiveness, and higher academic and research goals.
A classroom is a safe space not just for the dissemination of information and knowledge, but for critical thinking, difficult dialogue and scholarly debates and dissent. Along with the question of data protection of teachers and students, the fear of digital surveillance to silence dissent is a concrete issue that begs for immediate attention in that technology requires ethical and transparent policies to be the bedrock on which humans transact with it. The United States, for example, has a first amendment of the Constitution which guarantees freedom of speech and ensures that students or teachers “do not shed their constitutional rights at the schoolhouse gate” and have every right to engage in symbolic speeches of protest. This is the reason why people like Noam Chomsky are able to write essays like “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” from within the U.S. academia. The citizens of many countries in the world do not have the same luxury of freedom of speech as an absolute right, or they might have other fears to reckon with, like sedition laws that might hang like the sword of Damocles over the right to free speech and thought. In the wake of surveillance states all around the world, this could pose threats to the supposedly limitless intellectual domain of a classroom, where ideally all knowledge needs to be questioned in the quest for new and unconsidered modes of thought.
One need only think about that ancient teacher Socrates who was killed by the state of Athens in 399 BCE for asking politico-philosophical questions of his students and talking to them about new gods. While science streams grapple with worries over virtual laboratories and dummy experiments, the humanities and social sciences have to reckon with such new fears. Under new “omniopticons” where everybody is surveilling everybody else, will a teacher be able to refer to queer politics in a class on gender and sexuality without a moral majority baying for her blood? The death of the social potential of classrooms through surveillance, compounded by distancing, could mean the death of critique and the silencing of dissent, which would be a dream come true for corporate, neoliberal forces. This could also be a requiem for the teacher as an organic intellectual and the student as a social agent in a civil society.
But even amidst this transition to the online, where many seem happy to uncritically accept the fact that states of exception might soon become the new norm, the resounding question is one that predates the virus, one that is probably as old as civilisation itself: “What is the function of education?” How we answer this question will determine how deeply the virus has dehumanised, desocialised and depoliticised us.
Rest in peace, our erstwhile classrooms and vibrant campuses which made many of us who we are today. May the flights of angels lead you on your way and martyrs greet you after death’s dark night.
Dr Meena T. Pillai is Professor, University of Kerala and currently Fulbright Visiting Professor, University of California, Los Angeles.