The current craze for online education (OE) reminds me of the wall graffiti advertising sex clinics that are visible across urban north India. These ads promise guaranteed cures — shartiya ilaj — for all kinds of ailments and afflictions. Today, OE is being force-fed to Indian education as a miracle cure — at all levels (school, college, university) and for all tasks (lectures, exams, admissions) — not only for pandemic conditions but for the future.
Readers may have already decided that I come to bury OE, not to praise it. They are half right. I believe that the incredible synergy unleashed by information and communications technology (ICT) is the best thing to have happened to education since the printing press. Indeed, higher education today is unthinkable without some form of the computer and some mode of digitised data transmission. As products of this revolution, online methods of teaching and learning deserve our highest praise — but only when cast in their proper role, which is to supplement, support and amplify the techniques of face-to-face education. The moment they are proposed as a substitute for the physical sites of learning we have long known — brick-and-cement schools, colleges, and universities — online modes must be resolutely resisted.
Resistance to OE is often dismissed as the self-serving response of vested interests, notably obstructive, technophobic teachers unwilling to upgrade their skills. But these are not the only vested interests involved. Authoritarian administrators are attracted by the centralised control and scaling-at-will that OE offers. Educational entrepreneurs have been trying to harvest the billions promised by massive open online courses (MOOCs) — think of Udacity, Coursera, or EdX. Pundits are now predicting post-pandemic tie-ups between ICT giants like Google and Amazon and premium education brands like Harvard and Oxford that will launch a new era of vertically-integrated hybrid OE platforms.
Whatever the vested interests, ultimately it is the perspective of students that should be decisive. Is OE a viable alternative to traditional educational institutions (TEI) for the typical Indian student?
Proponents of OE offer misleading answers to this question by making biased comparisons. Since no one with access to an elite TEI chooses OE instead, we know that OE always loses in best-to-best comparisons. Favourable impressions about OE are created mostly by comparing the best of OE with average or worse TEIs. But is it true that the best OE is better than the average college or university?
To answer this question, we must examine the implicit claim at the heart of the OE project, namely, that the goals of TEIs are achievable without the latter’s physical location or forms of interaction. In other words, OE claims that neither the campus nor face-to-face interaction are integral to education. Since the comparative evaluation of virtual versus face-to-face pedagogic interaction needs more space, the campus question is considered here.
How does the typical student’s home (where most would access OE) compare with a typical TEI campus? Census 2011 tells us that 71 per cent of households with three or more members have dwellings with two rooms or less (74 per cent in rural and 64 per cent in urban areas). According to National Sample Survey data for 2017-18, only 42 per cent of urban and 15 per cent of rural households had internet access, and only 34 per cent of urban and 11 per cent of rural persons had used the internet in the past 30 days. It is true that many TEIs (both public and private) have substandard infrastructure. But these data suggest that the majority (roughly two-thirds) of students are likely to be worse off at home compared to any campus. The impact of smartphone capabilities and stability of net connectivity on OE pedagogy also needs to be examined.
But it is as a social rather than physical space that the college or university campus plays a critical role. We have long ignored the vital role public educational institutions play as exemplary sites of social inclusion and relative equality. In Indian conditions, this role is arguably even more important than the scholastic role. Though many ugly blemishes remain, the public educational institution is still the only space where people of all genders, classes, castes, and communities can meet without one group being forced to bow to others. Whatever its impact on academics, this is critical learning for life. Women students, in particular, will be much worse off if confined to their homes by OE.
Its unacceptability as a substitute does not diminish the indispensable part that OE can play as a supplement to on-site education. It can use content and methods that are hard to include in the normal curriculum. It can put pressure on lazy or incompetent teachers. It can provide hands-on experience in many technical fields where simulations are possible. And it can, of course, be a powerful accessory for affluent students able to afford expensive aids. But it is fraudulent to suggest that OE can replace public education, the only kind that the majority can access.
Such bluntness may seem unseemly. It is necessary today when governments are using the cover of the COVID-19 emergency to push through regressive “reforms” — such as anti-worker amendments to labour laws — that would face vocal opposition in normal times. In this context, there is a real danger that OE is being groomed to play the role played by the “cashless economy” during the demonetisation crisis, but in reverse. The mirage of a cashless economy was a retrospectively invented justification for a catastrophic autocratic decision. OE could be the proactive trojan horse smuggled in under pandemic conditions to abrogate the state’s commitments in public education.
The best last-ditch argument for replacing TEIs with OE is to first undermine the former to the point of collapse, and then innocently point out that, after all, OE is better than nothing. This cynical argument works only if we are somehow persuaded to be complicit in the destruction of public education. Unless we resist such persuasion today, OE is exactly the kind of “shartiya ilaj” that we may be coerced into buying tomorrow.