Fears and Furies of Online (Mis)education - Lockdown and Beyond-II

By Maya John. Dated: 7/9/2020 1:19:41 PM

Let us begin with the social profile of the students who are caught in the margins of the university system and are dependent on e-resources/study material provided by ODL institutions. By and large, the ODL mode comprises of students from socially vulnerable and economically disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, in IGNOU there has been a continuous rise in the number of SC and ST students who enroll with the University. Similarly, majority of the students in Delhi University's SOL centres are SC/ST/OBC/Minority category students. Despite this fact, the UGC channelizes no funding for ODL institutions, such as SOL, which in turn contributes to the ill-equipped functioning of ODL institutions. DU SOL might be the biggest model of proxy private education under the garb of a government institution. Since July 1997, SOL has received no financial assistance or maintenance grant from any government institution. With zero financial contribution from UGC, the large establishment of SOL runs on the tuition fees collected from the poorest of poor students. Even the salaries and pensions of SOL directors, principals, teachers and administrative staff are paid through the money collected from students.
It is the sheer lack of seats in regular colleges that has made scores of students dependent on the poorly-run ODL mode. There is a popular misconception that students opt for the ODL mode not out of compulsion but choice; a presumption that smacks of victim blaming. Recent surveys among ODL students have shown that majority of these students, given the choice, would have opted for regular colleges. These students bear the brunt of the country's dual education model, wherein poorly-funded and ill-equipped government schools coexist with private schools; essentially putting up education for sale, such that those who can afford quality education simply purchase it through private schooling and expensive coaching centres. From substandard government schools, a vast number of the country's youth step into substandard university education in the ODL mode. Here they are condemned to learn and complete the syllabus with just a handful of sessions of Personal Contact Program (PCP), and without quality, peer-reviewed e-resources/study material.
In other words, while students from better educational backgrounds are made to complete their syllabus in regular colleges through 180 days of direct classroom teaching, students with a background of poor schooling are expected to complete their university syllabus within less than 20 PCP sessions! Many among the latter are first generation learners and a large section are actually products of distance learning imparted at the school level through institutions like the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS). In places like Delhi, recent changes in the criterion for admission to classes 10 to 12 in government schools have resulted in the flushing out of so-called under-performing students; compelling their families to enroll them in NIOS. Needless to say, such changes are the fallout of the prized Right to Education (RTE) policy, which erroneously restricts free, compulsory educational access only up to the age of 14 years or basically up to the upper primary level. Unfortunately, many critics of the current education policy tend to oppose enhanced privatization of higher education while remaining either supportive of the dual education model in schooling or silent on the issue. It is nevertheless important to recognize that the very nature of RTE allows enough room for governments to field exclusionary measures with relative ease. In line with such exclusion, the Delhi government's desperate efforts to project better class 10 and class 12 Board Examination results of government school students - irrespective of the continuing poor condition of majority of its schools - has fuelled detrimental changes in the admission criterion to the senior secondary level; pushing scores of weak, less privileged students into NIOS. Clearly then, for poorer students stuck in the endless trap of distance learning, the entire process - from schooling to higher education - constitutes as nothing but an educational apartheid.
Apart from inadequate PCP sessions, ODL students are also saddled with study material/e-resources of pathetic quality. The objectionable quality of e-resources/study material and their inadequacy in facilitating any quality self-study recently won the limelight when DU SOL imposed the semester mode along with the Choice-Based Credit System (CBCS) on its 1.5 lakh first-year undergraduate students in August 2019. Not only were the students taken by surprise - as the majority had sought admission in July 2019 on the basis of the annual mode with its older syllabi - but they were subsequently left ill-prepared to meet the requirements of the end-of-semester, i.e. December examination, and internal assessment stipulated under CBCS. This arbitrary imposition of CBCS-semesterization was fiercely resisted by majority of SOL students. While the unambiguous genuineness of their issues was recognized by the Delhi High Court in its November 2019 ruling, despite repeated letters of appeal sent by SOL activists to the Delhi University Teachers Association (DUTA), the teachers' collective body remained shamefully silent and refused to issue even a press statement in solidarity with the struggling students. So much for the DUTA's tall claims of opposing semesterization and CBCS in Delhi University!
Some illustrations of what gets passed off as e-learning/study material are worth mentioning. The quality of the study material is scandalous to say the least. For instance, in the study material provided for the paper "Western Political Thought" of the B.A. Political Science (Hons) course, the name of the German philosopher Karl Marx was misspelled as Marks! In the study material for the paper "Political Process in India" which was assigned to first-year students of B.A. (Hons.) Political Science, serious discrepancies were visible in terms of faulty pagination, faulty chapterization, provision of factually wrong information, faulty translation of Hindi study material, lack of information on the author who compiled the material, and of course, repetitive grammatical errors. On p.28-29 of this paper's study material, the following passage is worth noting (errors are highlighted):
It does not allow discrimination on the hands of state [sic] on the basis of people's religious beliefs…Sometimes, the ides [sic] of secularism practised even go beyond the constitutional vision which creates tensions…The western notion of secularism is different from what Indian secularism [sic]…Thomas Pantham in Indian Secularism and its critics: Some Reflections [sic], states that…The word secularism was not included in the Indian Constitution, neither did the founder [sic] fathers explicitly define the term…
Likewise on p.40 in the same paper's study material, we find the following error in spelling: 'Jawahar Lal [sic] Nehru and Subhas Chandra Boss [sic], the two stalwarts…' In another paper, "Constitutional Government and Democracy in India" of the B.A. (Hons) Political Science Course, on p.3 of the study material we come across the following phrase "devide[sic] and rule". Large portions of the same paper's study material seem to have been cut and pasted from another source. The plagiarism is so evident that even the underlining made by the so-called author of the material has not been removed! Similarly, we see obnoxious translation reflected in the Hindi-medium study material uploaded on the SOL website (E-Pustakdwar School of Open Learning) for the B.A. Program paper "History of India: from the Earliest Time to 300 CE". The faulty translation begins with the very title of the paper. The Hindi translation of the paper's title "History of India: from the Earliest Time to 300 CE" is "Bharat ka ItihaasJald se Jald toc. 300 CE Tak" [sic]! In the same material, the phrase Sangam Age (referring to the period from the 6th century BCE to c. 3rd century CE) has been translated as Sangam Ayu [sic]! Not surprisingly, DU's regular colleges' teachers have rarely given SOL study material any weight, and have refrained from prescribing it to their regular mode students.
For a few weeks, regular mode students have tasted the bitter pill of e-learning, lack of direct classroom teaching and delayed external examinations which lakhs of ODL mode students (many of whom are first generation learners) have been struggling with. In certain ways, this exceptional moment is akin to the return of the repressed; revealing the stark class-bias of the existing trade union movement of university teachers and ossified 'Left' student organizations. It is an undeniable fact that scores of guest teachers employed by ODL institutions like SOL and the Non-Collegiate Women's Education Board (NCWEB) of Delhi University represent the most vulnerable segment of the teaching community. 'Atmanirbharta' in education: using lockdown as a launch pad for New Education Policy 2020
While the majority of the labouring poor have contributed their labour to the running of the economy and creating wealth and affluence for the upper classes, it is they who have borne the disproportionate brunt of the unprecedented crisis. For them the Government's relief package remains a complete hoax. On 12 May, PM Narendra Modi proclaimed that the stimulus package announced by the Finance Minister would lead to growing self-reliance (atmanirbharta) for Indians. For the majority of Indians, this simply meant that they have to fend for themselves. The logic of this atmanirbharta was duly extended to the education sector that was already reeling under gross inequalities structurally built into it. The Union Finance Minister's announcements on 17 May, detailing the final tranche of the Rs.20 lakh-crore COVID relief package, reflected clearly what lies in store. The Minister's pronouncements made it amply clear that the Government will actively facilitate the top 100 universities and 'institutes of eminence' to start running online degree courses without any prior approvals. These HEIs are encouraged to collaborate with private tech-providers in a public-private partnership format, which is a provision spelt out in the New Education Policy (NEP), 2020, under the program named National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT).
In a sinister vein, the current dispensation is using the crisis of pandemic-cum-lockdown to roll out various provisions of an education policy which has not even been deliberated in the Indian Parliament to this day. Moreover, this should also be seen in the context of the long-standing orientation of successive governments to invite private investments in higher education. In the past few decades a consensus has been gradually emerging among the major corporates of India and the world, which are eager to earn profits through investment in the education sector. Further, inclusion of education in the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) is indicative of how the ruling elite of different countries are reaching a consensus on the need to further the scope of profitable investment by domestic and global corporates in the education sector.
Grabbing the lockdown period as a launching pad for National Education Policy, the MHRD, UGC and various university administrations are making e-learning an integral component of university education. This is evident in the recommendations tabled by the Professor R.C. Kuhad Committee constituted by the UGC to examine academic concerns stemming from the lockdown. In its April 2020 report, the Committee stated that the Covid-19-induced imposition of digital learning and evaluation is part of the design to ensure that 25% of the academic workload will be handled online from now onwards! This current promotion of e-learning has basically acted upon the already prevailing mood of top-level bureaucrats and corporate lobbies, and has active support of PM Narendra Modi himself. On 1 May, the Prime Minister whilst commenting on the so-called reforms needed in the education sector emphasized the need to promote online classes, education portals and school education through dedicated education TV channels.
With e-learning steadily becoming a paradigmatic policy discourse, there is a palpable fear among a section of teachers and students that a format of teaching-learning which was pursued under extraordinary circumstances might become the new normal in the near future. Needless to say, the threat that was looming large in the margins of the university system is now increasingly getting generalized. The disrupted teaching-learning process has brought mainstream university communities uncomfortably close to the educational crisis in ODL institutions, which has been continuously sidelined by the majority of university democrats. Whether the interests of current students and teachers in the regular mode will be swept aside or not, it is high time the teaching fraternity and progressive students' groups recognize that they represent a sinking island in a sea of inequality, discrimination and broken dreams. As someone has aptly stated, "The chain is no stronger than its weakest link". The sooner we realize this, the better. (Kafila.org)
The author teaches in University of Delhi, is an activist, and wants to acknowledge the valuable assistance of student-activists Md. Bilal and Harish Gautam in formulating the arguments.She can be contacted on maya.john85@gmail.com

 

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