Higher education in India has indeed been in dire need of new directions, Covid or no Covid. But the arrival and continued presence of Covid-19 has added to these and also given new direction to the challenges themselves. Technology has emerged as a major aid and suddenly technology aided classes have become the norm not only in universities and colleges but also schools and even pre-schools in certain cases.
Although it was in the air, the lockdown was formally declared with no notice (four hours cannot be counted as a notice period – it only caused panic and chaos), and like most others, educational institutions were caught unprepared. And the Indian education system coped with it like many other sectors did: introducing measures without much thought to the needs of the poor and marginalized sections. In that sense, this was not very different from what happened to migrant workers – their existence was invisible and cramped living conditions unknown to those who planned sudden lockdown with insistence on adequate physical and social distancing.
In addition, education sector responses largely did not pay much heed to the principles of ‘good’ teaching and learning at respective stages of schooling either. Online classes became the main mode of delivery not only in private but also in public institutions, largely driven by the pressure of ‘completing the syllabus’ and in the private profit-making sector, also by the need of ensuring the ‘value for money’ to its students (read customers). Most higher education institutions were no exception. Nevertheless, we need to acknowledge the efforts that teachers took in easily molding themselves to this mode, which they had hardly used earlier and also that it worked for some with access to computers, laptops or smartphones with ready internet connectivity.
However, the very fact that educational institutions either conveniently forgot or were indifferent to the diverse socio-economic-linguistic background of students shows that there is something deeply wrong with the system. Also, it is not only about access to technology but also about reconceptualizing education if it has to be delivered differently.
Two facts are worrying in this context, I will discuss those one by one. The first is that the knowledge on access to technology being a major barrier already exists and is not a new phenomenon. The research on open and distance learning (ODL) systems in India shows that it has rarely been designed by taking the structural bottlenecks marked by issues of gender, caste, location, illiteracy, linguistic-diversity, income-levels and the consequent powerlessness into account.
This can be elaborated by taking examples of our national ODL institutions at both school and university level: National Institute of schooling (NIOS) and Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), which are heavily technology dependent for all their processes: admissions, teaching support and examinations. These rarely pay any attention to the fact that this becomes exclusionary for many sections of the society. Girls, for example, are denied access even when the household may have smartphones. It has also led to the emergence of unscrupulous middlemen who thrive on exploitation of aspiring students and parents who themselves cannot access or maneuver technology (Jha et al, 2020).
The second worrying development is that it is not seen as a stop-gap arrangement during or post-pandemic response. The Indian higher education system seems to be moving towards embracing this mode as an important means of delivery. That is how it looks like if one glances through the latest version of the New Education Policy, which lays disproportionate emphasis on the use of online for various purposes including vocational education with reference to an imaginary ‘global quality and standards’ without defining what it means, and also without reference to relevant research. That literature is full of evidence about thresholds of illiteracy, poverty, social position and powerlessness play an important role in success or failure of online education but that concern does not find any mention in the document.
In addition to the access, pedagogy and learning resources are equally important and as complex issues in the context of ODL based teaching and learning. Most modern learning theories identify the role of socio-cultural environment and dialogue as critical and intrinsic to learning at all levels. The ODL literature identifies transactional distance as a major pedagogical constraint for the system. In the Indian context, with deep-rooted hierarchies in place, transactional distance plays a negative role even in face to face classrooms, which gets magnified in online classes where opportunities for expressions and dialogue are fewer and far more rigid. At times also completely absent. Lack of peer interaction opportunities makes it worse. It is also much more difficult for teachers to intervene in such situations even if they want to as compared to face to face classes.
For science education and research, where laboratories and close interactions play an important role, it is obvious that online teaching is hardly an option. However, irrespective of disciplines, subject areas or streams, education is a process of co-creating values, skills and knowledge – and online education is limited in its potential for facilitating this co-creation, especially in countries like India characterized by high levels of social, economic and gender inequalities.
The success of the technology enabled education systems is also linked to autonomy and motivation of the learner. Therefore, it has worked well in the context of those where the learner is highly motivated with access to diverse learning resources: books as well other forms of learning tools. The ability to access and negotiate diverse resources and contexts play a critical role in its success. That is why such means and mediums are successful in helping those who want to upgrade their knowledge or skills as a supplementary or complementary mode as an autonomous learner in contexts where otherwise the access to school education and technology is fairly universal. It has been successful for that segment of Indian society as well. But it is severely limited in its potential to work as a primary mode for higher education in the Indian context where less than one fourth of the relevant age group attends higher education institutions.
Higher education is important for an individual in our context not only for seeking and expanding one’s knowledge, skills and information, and attaining degrees that are expected to be valued in the labour market or for further studies but also for its socialization effect. The need for such socialization is greater for lower income groups or girls but to a lesser extent applicable to all. Technology enabled education systems fares poorly on these counts.
For example, for a large number of young people in India, especially women and those coming from poorer families or rural / small town locations, education institutions are also the only places where they meet others, make friends and form alternative micro social systems of their own, which is otherwise not accessible for them. Teacher-student and peer relationships often go (or at least it is supposed to go) beyond classroom teaching and open new paths and newer ways of looking at the world. In other words, sheer participation in higher education institutions has a potential for widening the freedoms in a manner that technology enabled education systems can rarely do.
So, ultimately, it is important to realize that education at all stages is inherently a political process but much more so at higher education stage, where values and ideas are discussed and debated, and the very choice of a course, a research problem or how these are chosen, framed and delivered, is reflective of these ideas and values. Online education, even when delivered effectively and with rigour, is limited in its potential for fulfilling all these objectives of education. Important to acknowledge that most higher education institutions are not necessarily centres for enabling new ideas and creativity but greater dependence on online or technology-based education is definitely going to make education merely a technical exercise rather than a transformative process of co-creation of knowledge and widening of freedoms.
It is also important to point out that even in situations like the present ones, where distance education becomes the only choice, it needs to be reconceptualized taking the alternative mode of delivery and unavoidable distance into consideration rather than using the same face-to-face pedagogy and teaching-learning materials. For instance, many students, especially girls, may not have the same freedom at home to be present in an online class at designated time, they may not have access to libraries or even internet to enable searches, they may have various other pressures to deal with if living with families, and therefore, it may be misplaced to have ‘regular’ online classes.
The very nature of distance education needs reconceptualization in terms of how to engage students and engage with students while allowing flexibility in terms of time and openness in choosing the pace. Even in the short run, online or distance education cannot be delivered effectively using a rigid frame, and it is indeed not a replacement for face-to-face higher education. It can provide a flexible alternative, as mentioned earlier, for supplementary or complementary education but that too needs to be designed with adequate attention to both access and suitable-pedagogical issues to be effective. New does not necessarily mean novel, and novel is not always noble.
Jha, Jyotsna, et al. (2020); Open and Distance Learning in Secondary School Education in India, Routledge, London.
Jyotsna Jha works as the Director of the Bangalore based think tank, Centre for Budget and Policy Studies. 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.