The current Covid-19 pandemic has given the ruling class opportunities to increase its attack on people in different arenas and to speed up the pace of its unfinished agenda. Education too is not left untouched. The current emphasis on online education and examinations in the pretext of lock down is one such measure. The governments, both central as well as of different states, have resorted to this even at school level. The sudden lock-down has put students and teachers in many problems. And in this, the government has also found an excuse to push the agenda of National Education policy 2019, tailor made to the designs of WTO/WB. We shall briefly examine these.
Problems during Lock down
Let us see effects on education during lock down first. The lock-down was sudden and no preparation was done beforehand. It had come as a shock and no preparation could be done either by students or teachers or even by institutions. And social and economic problems that came with it have only aggravated the crisis.
As the lock-down was declared suddenly, many students were stranded away from home. Those living in PG/rented accommodation were worst affected. They have to foot the bill for their food and stay. It has put additional financial burden on them, particularly on those coming from not so sound financial background. The problem has been compounded by loss of job, lack of payment and agricultural crisis affecting the parents, and those sustaining themselves with odd jobs and tuitions too become jobless. They are forced to bear the threats and humiliation by landlords. Despite the Delhi government declaring that charging rent from students is punitive, most of the students live without proper rent agreement to seek legal remedy or complain. At times landlords are local influential people and students do not have courage to go against them. Instead of empty declaration, the government should have compensated the landlords.
The government chose to bring students from the private coaching centre of Kota, has shown no concern for common students. They too deserve a safe passage back.
The suddenness of lock down has put students in a state of shock. Board examinations of class X and XII were going on and suddenly they were told exams are postponed. Unsure of when the exams will take place, the tension that is built by our system regarding board exams has caused prevalence of continuous tension for these students.
College students, particularly those in final year have their share of anxiety by this. They do not know what will happen next. They all have an agenda of doing something next after final year. This could be PG, some other degree, some job, doctorate, NET. They may have to choose another university or place of study. If the next place does not allow flexibility in admission as per their university, what happens to their future career is a big tension causing question. Since all the universities will have different plans for examinations and entrance, the uncertainty will remain and so will remain anxiety.
The government emphasizing too much centralized control, must this time exercise central control to synchronize these events.
Throttling the voice
The present government has lost no opportunity in using the situation of lock-down to fulfil its communal fascist agenda. Jamia students were first and easy targets. Student leaders who led the Anti CAA-NPR-NRC movement were harassed on false charges. Many of them have been arrested on pretext of ‘masterminding’ the violence in north east Delhi or protest at Jaffarabad, where they had no possible role. It includes Meeran Haider, Shafoora Zaragar. People who raised the voice to save the multi-hued fabric of the country became targets at a time when protests are not allowed, courts are not fully functional, legal aid is difficult to get. This is a highly condemnable act and the government is also trying to give a message through this to the rest.
Taking lock down as a big excuse they have suddenly started Online classes and are now even trying to propose online examinations. Its implications and designs are multifarious. The impact of its sudden declaration, on both teachers and students, has exposed and widened the class as well as gender divide in education. There are problems faced by online education worldwide. Teachers were not told how to impart online education. They were untrained and were not trained later or given any proper guidelines. Even later, confusion was the only thing which was clearly happening.
Some engineering colleges have started following the time table strictly through online classes but that was not the case everywhere. The teachers of Delhi University were not even told what and how to take online classes. As a consequence, a lot of arbitrariness prevailed. They were not given any institutional support. Neither curriculum nor course was designed. Even teachers were new to the concept. So many of them just distributed notes, gave some assignments. Very few could start online classes.
And when they could, students could not be very receptive due to a variety of reasons. The most common reason was lack of connectivity or equipment. Many students do not have good enough smartphone/Tablet/Laptop to take these classes. There were always issues of network and connectivity. Network is not always good or continuous at many places. Even in the capital, there were problems with power supply, leave alone internet. Then data available was not always affordable for a large number of students to take many classes.
A survey conducted by University of Hyderabad is truly revealing in this matter. A team led by Prof Vinod Pavarala and Prof Vasuki Belavadi at the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, designed and administered an online survey among the student population to elicit information about access to the Internet and their views on online classes. About 2500 students responded to the survey. Though about 90% of students had mobile phones, only about half had laptop access. While 90% agreed having some kind of internet access, most of them (75%) were doing so using mobile data package. Only 37% of students emphatically agreed for online classes if offered, 45% said they would be able to attend ‘infrequently’ and 18% said they cannot access at all. About 40% students said that the most concerning aspect is ‘reliable connectivity” and 30% “cost of connectivity”, whereas 8% said they have a problem of power at home. It must be noted that many of the students have gone home, which is also true for Delhi university students. They also expressed concern that apart from poor power and network, taking notes, going through PowerPoint presentations is very difficult on mobile phones. Then students having practical courses requiring laboratory or studios wondered how they will benefit from these classes. It was also raised by some that students could be having mental health issues, living in small, cramped places and the anomalies it could create because students come from different social backgrounds. Fortunately, this university surveyed before starting online classes, and though did not exclude e-learning from future curriculum, has decided not to impose online classes now.
According to another survey done among Delhi University students reveals similar findings. This was done after the University decided to conduct online examination. About 75% of students said that they will not be able to take online examinations. 72% of students could not even take online classes due to poor connectivity and about 11% of them due to financial crunch.
Above surveys clearly indicate the futility of Online education in India. This survey may not be comprehensive but surely give hint of reality. It shows that the majority of students do not have either appropriate equipment like smartphone/laptop/tablet or have very poor internet access if at all. This will mean that online education will ensure that a large section of students will be pushed out of the education network. Since it will be unlikely that these students will be given regular classes in future, this would mean that they will be without any sort of classes but will be expected to know it, and the institutions will consider the duties fulfilled. At best this is just completing the formalities and filling in the record books that tasks have been done while in practice remain unfulfilled. This is a digital divide. A DU faculty reportedly told Edexlive. “Some students have gone back home to remote areas (small towns and villages) where the internet service is not good enough. They have to rely on just the written notes and articles which are not enough.”
Students of Hindi medium are in even worse situation. Online classes are mostly in English. Even if teachers explain briefly in Hindi, there is no Hindi material available. Neither teachers are able to provide nor it is available online. Hindi books in library cannot be accessed. So most of these students are virtually without classes. Universities have no plans for them.
Online examinations are bigger problems. Firstly, most of them have not been able to attend the classes and hence are not equipped to take examinations of any kind. Secondly, many of them will not be having internet connectivity, then how can one expect them to write the exams. Last but not the least, even teachers are not properly trained to design online question papers.
School students have bigger problems. Apart from age and immaturity to take online classes, there are many other issues too. The availability of smartphones at most of the households of government school students is a very big issue. Many of them do not have it at all. NSSO data says only 8% of all households with members aged between five and 24 have both a computer and an internet connection. In households where smartphones are there, it is not always free at the appropriate time. Parents too need it. If there is more than one sibling, the problem is just compounded. Small cramped houses are not at all suitable for taking classes and when there are more than one student to take it, it is nearly impossible.
There is a gender issue too operating here. This is both in case of teachers as well as students. The general discrimination that prevails in society operates here. When there are limited facilities, boys get preference. Since girls are sitting at home, they have to help in household work, even if it is class time they may not be able to leave it. Same is true for women teachers as well. The patriarchal order does not permit them to take classes while at home because some household work is waiting, or men in the house are using the equipment. At times, when ration is being distributed, it becomes more important than the classes.
In the schools of Delhi government, no time table is being followed for these classes. There are no proper announcements, and very few classes are being taken. Even teachers were not aware of what to do and how to do. Most of the time students are given some notes in PDF format, images of written sheets, and some assignments. In the initial phase of lock-down, students are not able to buy books and other stationery items. Since they were promoted to new classes they needed new books and stationary. As a consequence, they could not make any fruitful use of the material given to them, since most of the material was in the form of a worksheet for assignments. And off course, there is no planning for courses having practicals. This is worth mentioning that in many schools girls are forced to take Home Science as one of the subject, which has a large part as practicals. There was no planning by the government and these online classes were imposed just for propaganda and to show concern without actually having it.
Closing down of schools has also closed down mid-day meals. Mid-day meal schemes are a big relief to students from underprivileged backgrounds to get a healthy meal a day. It had helped in increasing enrolment rate in schools. But now, already unemployed parents, parents in a deep financial crisis will have an additional burden to feed their children.
Interestingly, these problems are not unique to India. Even one of the most developed countries, the United States of America, is facing such problems. In the May 12 issue of Popular Resistance, Belle Chesler, a visual arts teacher in Beaverton, Oregon, who is now teaching from her home in Portland, narrates the travails of online teaching in her school. She used to take courses like painting, drawing, ceramics, and film-making in three different studio classrooms. She said “..There, groups of students ranging across the economic, ethnic, religious, racial, and linguistic spectrum sat shoulder to shoulder, chatting and creating, day after day, year after year. Music played and we talked….” but Now, on one hand there is no studio and on the other hand she cannot see the body language in expressions of the students. Some of her concerns were similar to that in India that there are privileged ones, who have stable Wi-Fi and other equipment at their home, well-stocked foods and other items and on other hand there is a huge section of students who do not have all these. She further argues that “If schools are closed, so is the critical infrastructure that helps keep our nation’s children fed. Aside from SNAP (the food stamp program), the National School Lunch Program is the largest anti-hunger initiative in the country. It feeds 29.7 million children on school days, with an additional 14.7 million children fed thanks to the School Breakfast Program and more than 6.1 million via the Child and Adult Care Food Program.” Students from different cultural and economic background attending the same class facilitates not just the cultural exchange rather imbibe empathy among priviledged ones by closer exposure of issues of under-priviledged ones. Online education system will lead to withering away of all these values and people will become alienated from each other and eventually more selfish and much wider class division.
II. MOOC and online education
Online education is in question worldwide for a quite some time. Distance education was started with the idea of imparting education to those who have no access to regular higher education. It was meant for those who are in a job, for housewives bogged down with household work after marriage but want to continue education. This was not visualised as a replacement for regular education. Regular growth in this education world has been going on at a very slow pace. It progressed with the advent of radio (1922 Penn State University started a course through radio), television (1968, Stanford University started a course with instructions on TV), 1976 computer assisted education started and 1994 saw the first fully online course by CalCapmus. But these were not to replace regular education.
Came in WTO in 1995. One of its treaties GATS considered both health and education as tradable services. The picture began to change. It has given special emphasis to distance, non formal education in the name of cost reduction and structural adjustment. GATS specifically recommended Cross border delivery i.e. delivery of education services via the internet. Online education became a priority in policy. In 1995 itself 19 US governors founded Governors University to maximize resources in open distance education. By 1999 many new educational tools began to appear like e-Blackboard e-College etc. By 2003 81% of US universities had at least one online course. 2007 saw first Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).
Though projected idea was to provide open and free learning, business sharks plunged on to opportunity. Many business groups and startups jumped in. They saw it as low cost business and lobbying began.
Pedagogical and other problems
But all this does not speak of Success of MOOC. A study conducted by MIT and Harvard showed that about 95% of students enrolled for MOOC dropped out. Most common reason given by the students is there is no live teacher engagement. Even universities offering free online courses, only 10% completed the course. These figures are for well-structured MOOCs where pre-recorded video, other material is available with the click of a mouse and it can be self paced. Some of The problems faced both by students as well as teachers are similar. No face to face interaction, no exchange of ideas, no development of thought, no visualization of body language. This does not promote different thoughts and discussions. Teachers cannot visualize the learning trajectory of students to be mended while learning. For students too apart from no interaction with teachers, no interaction with peers, no discussion, just mechanical learning. Even if some platforms offer some live interaction, it is practically impossible to have any meaningful interaction with more than 500 students participating simultaneously.
In short, MOOCs have not been successful as learning tools anywhere. The shown heavy enrolment is not indicative of its success as evident by poor completion rates. There are many more questions, but only prominent ones are kept here. MOOCs are not free, even if they are low cost they are not at all equivalent to regular courses. And these studies are from the USA, where facilities available with providers as well as with students are probably better than elsewhere in the world and definitely far better than India.
III. WTO agenda being pushed
In the current scenario, it looks like online education is the only option left. But this idea has not come just for lock down. Long back, when GATS had declared education to be treated as tradable service, it was proposed to replace conventional on campus education with open distance learning and online education. The new National Education Policy (NEP) 2019 puts specific emphasis on this. It goes further to imply that gradually Open Distance Learning should be the mode of learning for both schools as well as higher education. It specifically mentions Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) to achieve this. The Government is using this opportunity to push this agenda. At least experiment with it. It will pave the way for the future. NEP implies that to increase enrolment ratio open distance learning is the most suitable option. The PM has already stated that NEP should not wait for parliament and the cabinet should approve and it needs to be implemented fast. Former president of DUTA Nandita Narain said, “There is no system in place. A lot of students have no access to a steady connection. The university is using the pandemic to push an agenda that they had for a long time.”
It is clear that lock-down is being used as a pretext for both, implementing its communal fascist agenda as well as kowtowing to imperialist masters. The government is doing so in every sector and education is not untouched. It has to be opposed by the entire education fraternity- teachers, students and other staff with broadest possible unity and spread.