Online Education spells doom for generations to come

Discriminates students, promotes unbridled corporate capital-inflow, relieves governments of their responsibility : spells doom for generations to come  

The entire country of India is yet to recover from the disastrous Covid 19 pandemic lockdown. It is heart-wrenching to see millions losing their livelihood and increasingly facing starvation staring at their face. Economists opine that the economy will contract by minus 12.5%, which means some tens of million more jobs will be lost! Nobody knows how many years it may take for the Indian economy to recover! Words and deeds of the governments, the Union in particular as also those of the states, neither show to have a plan nor any will, to combat this deadly pandemic nor any plan to secure people’s life and livelihood during and after lockdown. Like other sectors, even the education system of the country and the academic calendar are in doldrums. When and how to start the academic session? How to conduct the classes or examinations by maintaining all safety precautions? – These are among the questions haunting people and academicians. It was the prerogative of various school boards, universities, educational institutions, and educational bodies to democratically discuss about it and evolve a scientific solution. It was expected that governments would oversee that such discussions take place.

It was shocking to see that the Union government including its MHRD, and the UGC acted to the contrary.  Unilaterally, they clamoured of stepping up online teaching- learning based on digital technology as a potential ‘new normal’ mode, as ‘every child craves for technology’ to earn skill and competence for global market. They issued guidelines to universities and recommended implementation of ‘Online Classes and Examinations’ as a regular policy.  (Source: UGC Guidelines on Examinations and Academic Calendar for the Universities in View of COVID-19 Pandemic and Subsequent Lockdown). In short, the Union and state governments have started trumpeting ‘Online Education’ or ‘Online Examination’ to be the only panacea during this lockdown, even afterwards and onwards! In this background it is pertinent to deliberate on this issue.

There are two aspects in the issue of online education vis-a-vis formal classroom teaching and related system of examination.  One is, how far feasible or practicable online education is, in our country. The second is the ethical aspect of the issue which is associated with a related question:  Between the two, practicability or feasibility and acceptability on ethical grounds, which one should we consider prior, prime and thus inalienable from teaching-learning process. To find the answer, we must also find an answer to: even if it becomes possible to provide adequate facilities for online education to overwhelming majority of students, if not all, can online education be considered to replace the time-tested formal classroom teaching and associated system of evaluation? The answer is an emphatic NO, considering all important role played by technology to modernize education. And precisely because of this, the ethical aspect of the issue wins the prior position to practicability or feasibility.  To explain, we may need details.  First the practicability.

How far practicable is online education in India?

Use of technology is always a welcome proposal, but the issue involves a number of questions. On 10 April last, senior officials in MHRD said ‘various e-learning platforms of the HRD Ministry have seen an unprecedented combined access of over 1.4 crore users since 23 March.’ Does it not prove the apprehension right that the Union government, in particular, was taking the cover of pandemic-induced lockdown to push through their agenda of e-learning or online education?  On 30 May 2020, the Union Finance Minister announced that the country’s ‘top100 universities’ would be allowed to conduct online courses “without having to get approvals from the UGC or the MHRD…..” “There was also a proposal to launch a digital learning platform, DIKSHA (one digital platform for one nation goes its slogan), and the DTH channel Swayam Prabha as a platform for students who are unable to attend school…..” (Source: Frontline: 19 June 2020; ‘Online illusion” article). The questions are: Are these technological innovations accessible to all?   What is the picture of ‘digital India’?  In our country the internet penetration is mere 36% and in the rural households it is a pathetic 14.9%. Let us not forget, 66% of our population resides in villages. A whopping 75% of our people do not have access to smartphone; mere 8% of households with members aged between 5 and 24 years have both computer and internet; 50% of villages do not have electricity for half of the day (Sources: Numbers from Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey and Survey by Ministry of Rural Development). If we take the quality and voltage fluctuations, practically for major part of the day, electricity is a luxury for people in rural areas!

Is it very different in cities? Be it in cities or in villages, over and above usual school/ college fees,   online classes bring in associated expenses, one time (e.g., buying a computer etc.) or recurring ( for example, internet and electricity charges) and some new charges for doctors, also recurring that have cropped up with alarmingly increasing medical hazards to students particularly with eyes and psychological strains. All these sum up to a fairly hefty additional amount in the family budget that becomes prohibitive even for middle  class parents. It is thus not unnatural that a daily wage earner father from a village in  Tripura with no work during the lockdown  could not make a way out to help his daughter with a smartphone and so ended his own life on 1 July 2020.

In the capital itself, in a recent survey conducted by DUTA (Delhi University Teachers’ Association) during this lockdown to which more than 50,000 students responded, close to 50% of them reported that they could not access the study materials supplied by teachers because of their inability to access and other technical reasons. In the same survey, only 28% of the students reported to have been able to attend more than 50% of online classes. In a report prepared by two former JNU teachers’ association (JNUTA) presidents, it was revealed that over 70% of 131 teachers who participated in a survey at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) said online education cannot replicate classroom learning. Virtually similar is the condition in most prestigious universities or colleges of India. Then one can easily imagine the difficulties faced by  the millions of students residing in towns and villages. When such is the ‘digital disparity’ with socio-economic conditions depriving millions from access to technology, to proclaim ‘one nation, one online education’, is out and out anti-people and inhuman!

The results are apparent in two ways. On one hand, there is a series of pathetic suicides of students, 4 girls and 1 boy so far,   from all over the country (e.g., Kerala, Punjab, West Bengal, Gujarat and Assam) where the hapless student could not avail of online classes for want of proper smartphones  or other requisites due to the pecuniary difficulties in their families. As mentioned, even a parent committed suicide for having failed in providing his daughter of Class X, with the all-important smartphone.  The series is likely to extend if and when online becomes the so-called new normal. And this is what even the high-ups in official levels also apprehend. A  distinguished fellow at the Research and Information System (RIS), a foreign ministry think tank, thus held that  the online mode makes education unequal, given the inequalities in households’ access to electronic gadgets. Even the agencies like UNESCO or UNICEF,  which are basically appendages of the imperialist controlled UN, issued warning in April 2020 against any large-scale shift towards online education, saying it would deepen socio-economic inequalities. UNESCO even released key recommendations from an independent Futures of Education Commission, which said: “It is an illusion to think that online learning is the way forward for all.”

Replacing classroom teaching by online education will be disastrous for the country

Notwithstanding all technological innovations enriching education system and process, the prime utility of education for mankind is in its man-making, character-building role. This is the ethics, which education defends, nurtures and enriches. And it is not the technological aspects of science, but genuine scientific education which establishes scientific methodology in thinking, in action, in social-individual interactions, which only can develop this kind of ethics of education to its desired height. Thus, the modern education system is built on the firm foundation of secular and scientific principles. And that is why a school is considered as a place wherein a teacher not only imparts knowledge; he/she scientifically prepares a child’s mind to venture into the treasure of world knowledge and courageously face problems of real life! A teacher is a living character to be emulated; he not only moulds the thinking, but also nurtures finer culture in every pupil! That’s why it is said “the destiny of a nation is decided in the classrooms of the country.” Universities are considered as ‘seats of universal learning.’ It is a place where teachers and students from diverse backgrounds assemble and exchange their ideas and engage themselves in the pursuit and cultivation of knowledge and culture. So, a school, a college or a university is not a mere concrete building; the culture of cultivating knowledge and the educational ambience makes an educational institution.

It is precisely for these reasons, a vast section of academicians opine – ‘online education’ can never be called a comprehensive education model, it can at best become a “monologue or one-way online lecture model” without any effective interaction. Online lecture can only aid the formal education and can be a tool to engage the students, but if it replaces the time-tested formal classroom teaching, it will be disastrous. It is a foregone conclusion that ‘online teaching’ without formal counterpart seriously jeopardizes the very process of teaching, learning and cultivation of knowledge.

We end here with two quotes. Kasturirangan who was the chairman of the Committee which framed the widely discarded DNEP 2019 of the BJP-led Union government could not but admit himself, while opposing online education, “Fundamentally, the physical and mental connection with children directly is extremely important.” And Rabindranath Tagore, the towering world-renowned poet-cum-litterateur of the yesteryears opined that ‘only from a human being that a man can learn….in the way life can be induced only by another living matter.  It is through a wholesome kinship and interactive relationship, between a teacher and taught, a guru and his disciple, that educational activities can run like ever-flowing bloodstream of a living body (a free rendering of his words: works, v.16, p154).  

Online education opens ruthless profiteering by corporate houses and private managements with governments washing their hands off 

When this is the reality and when online education can never substitute time-tested formal methods, it is deplorable that the men in power are using the situation created due to lockdown as an opportunity to ‘thrust online education as unavoidable reforms in higher education. And their outlook is reflected in Union FM’s announcement (17 May 2020; Press Information Bureau, GoI) which holds education as investment in human capital that helps investment in productivity and prosperity of the nation.  However, this outlook and the present hype on ‘online education’, neither is any isolated phenomenon. While NPE’86 introduced by the Congress government came about to designate education as a ‘unique investment’ sure to give return, as people go beyond their limit to get their children educated, the present BJP-led Union government views education as investment in human capital to enhance productivity and prosperity of the nation, rather of the ruling monopolists and their corporate houses.   

Besides, in the name of reforms in education, attacks in different forms are going on, upon the education system of the country since independence. In essence, these attacks  are characterized by three prongs : One, discrimination against common students particularly belonging to the poorer section of the population, whereby education tends to go beyond reach of  such students, irrefutably overwhelmingly majority in number. Two, rampant privatization- commercialization particularly following the prescriptions of imperialist globalization-liberalization which  further curtails education from the majority students. Three, curbing of autonomy of education and education institutions and democratic rights of students-teachers-employees. With this grand design of attacks on education going on since independence, the present hype of online education, however much it may be claimed as a ‘new normal’, is nothing but a part and parcel of this heinous design. It has already been indicated above how online discriminates against poorer students.

Now some relevant facts and figures which speak for themselves. In the name of bringing reforms in education, all that the governments are doing, headed by the Union government of India,  are obeying the dictates of imperialist globalization dished out  by the World Bank, WTO and the GATS  only to make Indian education a ‘global commodity.’ ‘The FDI (Foreign Direct Investment) inflow into India through the indirect route is Rs. 16,802.45 crores; and India is projected spending is Rs. 6.43 lakh crores. (Source: Economic Survey 2019-20). It is to be noted that the major amount of FDI is invested in ‘e-learning, smart classes, etc.’ According to IBEF (India Brand Equity Foundation, a Trust under Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Report; April 2020) Education sector in India is estimated to reach US$ 101.1 billion in 2019; India’s e-learning is second largest in the world, with 9.5 million users is projected to be US$ 1.9 billion worth market by 2021. All this reiterates the fact that our education has virtually been made a ‘commodity’; and thus ensure the loot and plunder our people. Lockdown is being effectively used by the governments to aggressively push people towards ‘online classes’, thus sending a favourable signal for global investors to invest in India. The private schools and colleges with an eye to collect donation and capitation fee are conducting ‘online classes.’ All exploiters are amassing profit on the misery of people; ruthless is capitalism!  Education is simply tending to recede further from the poorer section of people, who make the overwhelming majority of population. When people are grappling with a breakdown of education system because of the lockdown, the governments have become facilitators of ruthless profiteering by corporate houses and private managements. 

Lastly, as has been mentioned even by educationists that the online mode will not only be brought in teaching-learning-examination processes.   It will also creep into administration. And once administration takes help of online, it will help the authorities avoid facing masses of resentful students-teachers- employees and will thus definitely squeeze the democratic space for protest by students-teachers –employees, acting as the third prong of attacks mentioned above.

The Union government plays a treacherous role subservient to corporate houses 

But a discussion on online education cannot end without a few words on the role of the governments, particularly the Union government. It has been mentioned above that the reality is far from the rosy picture that the Union government caters about the digital India. Is not the government then lying and thus cheating people? Besides at each step, the government exposes its own hypocrisy. It speaks of promoting digital India. But the Union government itself has reduced MHRD budget for digital e-learning from Rs 604 crore in 2019-’20 to Rs 469 crore in 2020-’21. On one hand, its responsible ministers, including the HRDM or FM, speak for promoting India’s traditional knowledge or Vedic education. Next moment they clamour for digital India. How do they tag the two together? Now the PM himself boastfully ask people to be atmanirbhar (self-reliant). At the same time from behind the curtain they allow the education sector to be flooded with unbridled  FDI. Once and often the PM reminds his countrymen how mindful of people and their problems, his government is. At the next moment it trumpets for online education which means for the government, there will be no responsibility of founding schools and colleges, no allotment for budget funds, no question of bothering about student unrest, teacher-employees demands and so on.  It will only gift away everything to the corporate houses, befooling people with the phrase that his government is for sabka saath (with all). Is it not hypocrisy to the extreme? And all these it is doing now, when it thinks that it has chained people into the lockdown so that they cannot protest.

Hence this hype on online education once more proves that with a totally subservient government in charge of the country, capitalism, which promotes it, is more deadly a virus than Covid 19! While Covid 19 affects the present generation, through online education, capitalism spells doom for education of generations to come!!  

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