Now that the trajectory of the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming visible to all and sundry, it is time to pose the right question on all matters of our lives – especially those concerning education and the way it is being imparted for the time being.
In a knee-jerk reaction, following the West and the diktats of corporate, I-T companies and internet service providers, our educationists as well as the state, with all good intentions, went about town advocating online teaching and education as an antidote to this novel coronavirus-induced situation. There was very little discussion and thought that went into its effectiveness and ramification before being rammed down the throat of success-hungry parents and naive students, justifying this form of education as the new normal and the way forward.
However, on hindsight one feels that in the name of changes, we are going too far to make the ‘new normal’ as ‘the normal’?
Besides the economy, the biggest disruption because of the COVID-19 pandemic has come in the education sector throwing into disarray what we call academic calendar, calibrated by authorities to traverse the annual experience of formal education in sync with the mind, body and soul.
But one can sense that the response of authorities has not been impressive. One cannot blame them for not trying but it seems that experience has given way to haste created by an overdose of panic, frenzy, and mob psychology.
The idea of online education is not so powerful whose time has come in a country like India. No less than a scientist of the calibre of Prof CNR Rao has jettisoned this idea.
No matter how we rate ourselves in terms of sale of smart mobile phones or mobile connection, but we must not overlook the fact that we have an abysmal telecom infrastructure compared to any developing country. May be because of the sheer size of our population, but the fact remains that internet speed is nearly one-fourth of what is being promised by service providers.
Hence, the idea of government authorities and private educational institutions of keeping children busy with online education has stratification writ large on it, as is being belatedly recognised, and acknowledged.
Students and teachers in urban areas will have and are having better experience thus far than those in the hinterland. Hence, the schism which is already there in place between the education ecosystem in the cities and the village and between the caste and class will get wider now more than ever.
The idea was pushed through vigorously by private players to begin with without any concrete and well-crafted strategy from respective educational boards. The intention may have been somewhere between good and commerce or a mixture of both but it was always going to be a losing proposition in the overall scheme of things.
Media reports abound with even the minimal infrastructure required for online education missing across the country. Surprisingly, and disturbingly, not many teachers have the experience and knowhow of imparting online education. For a huge majority, online education is to appear before a laptop or desktop or mobile screen and blurting exactly the same language what she/he had been teaching all this while in a physical classroom. Neither eye contact nor the psychology or even the ‘attention deficit disorder’ that most children have is taken into consideration. What these teachers report to their respective heads of institution at the end of the day is the number of attendants, and the syllabus covered, and no more.
Without doubt, online education is a wonderful tool to complement offline education, but this has to be done as part of a cohesive strategy and not as a measure pushed through in haste to be repented at leisure.
In the current scenario, this will create untended minds bereft of the pleasure of education. Needless to say, rather than making students fall in love with their studies, it will simply drive them afar.
A word of caution for parents as well. Majority of them have simply acquiesced to the idea mooted by their respective institutions in order to engage students somehow in something productive. Most of them have not even weighed the pros and cons of it. These are the same set of parents who had hitherto been yelling at their wards for engaging with their mobile phones citing loss of memory, eyesight and being corrupted by content not suitable for their age. Lo and behold! These parents are now appreciating the fact that their sons and daughters are looking at the small screen for hours together in an experimented setting.
They are yet to realise whether the fundamentals of the subjects taught have been grasped by this 6-16 age group so as to navigate the future seamlessly. It may also be the case that parents looking for some space for themselves during such times have made them resigned to their fate.
Studies conducted globally warn against binge-watching of mobile or even the laptop screen for even adults, not to speak of children. An hour or two is alright as a form of engagement with the society, but one would find it difficult to approve of a wholesale engagement with a medium that is being pushed overwhelmingly by manufacturers, advertisers and content creators.
Also, what happens once we return to normalcy as we know it? Will students be able to take in their stride this shift immediately? Playing with children’s mind because of our inability to see the immediate future is not a good idea for any society.
The respective boards, be it the state education boards or the Central Board of Secondary Education or the Indian Council of Secondary Education, needed to have been doubly cautious. What will happen once schools reopen? Where will these schools start from? Will some of them start from the very beginning or from where they ended the last online class? If so, how will the rural area schools compete with those in the urban areas? What happens if some towns or cities reopen while others cannot because of the pandemic? Will other schools join a mad race to complete the syllabus in less than half of the time allotted in a normal year? Are students ready to calibrate their brains to grasp all that is being taught or shall be taught to them once schools open? These are questions that demand careful consideration.
But playing with students’ psyche would be suicidal for all times to come.
These and many obvious divides exist in the country. However, if the underlying idea of the state and the central governments is to push online education in sync with the draft New Education Policy, then it is a different ball game. That, however, will bring in sharp focus the raison d’etre of the existence of over 700 government universities and more than 20,000 government colleges and millions of schools. Are we as a society ready to accept this new reality?
Views expressed by the author are his own.