Examinations need to be decentralized, with teachers given autonomy to frame syllabi that would be based on their experiences with the student body of their institutions, independent of the University Grants Commission (UGC). It is time the UGC realized that a centralized system of education cannot work, especially in the middle of a global crisis.
Education is the kindling of a flame, not the filling of a vessel, Socrates is reputed to have said at the advent of the Republic. The great philosopher was of the opinion that it was the responsibility of the state to educate citizens to contribute towards the progress of civilization rather than to serve as mules. The prevailing education system in our country seems unaware of such ideals, and indeed seems unwilling to adapt to the changed times. It is important to note, though, that the fault lies more in the way it is being laid out for the benefit of students rather than on what is being taught.
This pandemic has the capability to give the Indian education system the jolt that is needed to modernize. Over the years our Universities while doing little to further actual innovation in education have perfected the process of rigid examinations throughout the year. How can one learn, adapt and evolve in an atmosphere such as this? We have long needed pedagogy based on experiential learning, allowing a student to educate her or himself by interacting with the world outside the classroom while keeping academic discipline in mind. This approach might not be possible to implement just now during the pandemic, but this might be just the revamping that our education system needs post COVID-19.
Teachers across India have been plunged into the uncharted and unfamiliar territory of online teaching. Although this mode has been viable technologically in our country for almost a decade, many professors of our universities did not really see the need to switch to online teaching from the usual format of classroom teaching. Opportunities were lost – even though there are several economic, political and geographical factors at play in creating an atmosphere convenient enough for online education. Not every student is socially and economically capable; many of us do not own personal computers with a decent internet connection. It would have served us all better if teachers had explored new pedagogic approaches before the crisis.
Practical issues in online education in India
In order for me to discuss the feasibility of online education in India, it is simplest for me to discuss practical issues from my own personal experience, namely in terms of the institution I am presently a student of.
- So far, the impact of moving online (since March 2020) has been minimal. Teachers have used Google Classrooms for the online submission of assignments and other tasks to be completed in order for internal assessment, but the completion of the term’s syllabus did not take place. This was mainly due to the fact that prior to the pandemic, the institution itself did not (could not?) take measures to educate the professors or students on the modalities of online education.
- There is no dedicated IT cell in the college to provide technical support. It would be useful if such a cell existed so that experts could create a centralized hub for students and teachers to visit in order to access notes, library books or resources of any sort. Even after two months of lockdown, there is no such expertise in College, and the situation in other institutions is likely to be no different.
- Even if the above could be taken care of, there is the matter of feasibility. It is simply not possible for all the students in a class to own personal computers or a smartphone.
- There is the related issue of proper internet connection. Students – including me – typically survive on a daily ration of 2 GB data or less. With online education this would be barely sufficient. Recharging or going for bigger data packs may be affordable for students from privileged backgrounds. This would affect students from economically weaker backgrounds since with the lockdown, many of these students’ parents could have lost their jobs, making it even more difficult for them.
Digital education may well be the way of the future, but that is a future where all the groundwork has been laid, and no student is negatively affected. In today’s India, online education is not really feasible, even if it is a measure adopted by the education system as a temporary method of coping with then pandemic.
Experiential learning: A solution?
Higher education in India has not changed since independence and still bears the colonial imprint. Although Indian society has changed with the times, it does not stand to reason that we still have to learn according to a curriculum set decades ago and not according to what the future demands. The 21st century is the stage for global pluralism and it is up to us to equip ourselves with the right tools to tackle the issues of a secular society. The pandemic has provided us time to reflect on the best ways of moving forward.
Experiential learning has existed in India since the ancient times in the form of the gurukul system where the student benefits from partaking in various open activities, eventually learning through daily chores and lessons mediated by their teacher. This helped in a person of learning contributing to society in his own right. Although this may not be feasible in the present situation (or generation) the same concept was adapted by Rabindranath Tagore in the founding of Visva-Bharati University. Tagore abandoned the colonial education structure and created a curriculum based on the basic principle of harmony with all existence.
In the present situation, opting for an experiential mode of learning offers some advantages. Attending classes is not essential, and one can instead “work from home”. The teacher is not there to impart knowledge but more to direct the student from time to time, reducing the workload of the teacher while giving the student the liberty to choose his or her own path to reach their destination.
Paradoxically, examinations have always been a major barrier to learning. The question-answer mode is not the best way for grading every student: some are simply not able to display what they have learned in this format. There is a better chance of every student qualifying in their own right if the ‘One Size Fits All’ restriction is removed. Examinations need to be decentralized, with teachers given autonomy to frame syllabi that would be based on their experiences with the student body of their institutions, independent of the University Grants Commission (UGC). It is time the UGC realized that a centralized system of education cannot work, especially in the middle of a global crisis.
Truer words have not been spoken than by Albert Einstein, “learning is experience, everything else is just information”. The journey, the pursuit of knowledge, is built upon facts. Experience helps one move along and build the way oneself: that is when it truly becomes a journey. Otherwise, it is all just a big block of information waiting to be decoded.
K. Prahalad is a BA History (3rd Year) Student at the Madras Christian College. Views expressed are personal.
This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.