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No, Corona is Not Why We are Forced to Attend Online Classes

Amid the disruption of regular teaching-learning processes in the wake of the COVID-19 lockdown, the process of learning has continued for over a month now via the 'alternative solution' of online classes. Delhi University’s OneDU initiative, among other administrative interventions, has adopted this 'alternative solution' enthusiastically, projecting it as a complete substitute for regular classes. It has retained the regular time-table of six-seven hours of classes and the attendance-marks system under CBCS as well as taking practical tests online.

Students have raised concern over the current e-learning process and demanded democratizing measures such as complete rollback of lockdown fees (as opposed to addition of data charges), reduction in class hours and elimination of the attendance-marks system. But the administration’s unwillingness to budge warrants a closer scrutiny of e-learning.

An expanded history of e-learning

Digital learning did not begin with the pandemic. It has been part of our neoliberal education model, attached from the very beginning with the hidden agenda of introducing private ‘internet-based solution providers’.

A visible paradigm shift where market ideology got the upper hand in education started with the Jomtien Declaration in 1990. At least on paper, independent India had so far claimed that education was a right for all Indians and a necessity for ensuring an independent future for our country. In 1990, the Indian government gave a hasty concurrence to allow international funding agencies, operating under the World Bank umbrella, to enter into the primary education sector as a matter of policy for the first time in post-independence India. A series of policy documents were issued during the following years, each violating the basic principle of equality enshrined in the Constitution. The post-Jomtien policy rapidly deteriorated the primary education sector and gave a free hand to the market-driven, private unaided school system.

An extension of the Jomtien Declaration agenda came in the Birla-Ambani Report of 2000, submitted to the Prime Minister's Council on Trade and Industry. Here, a government body considering “reforms” in higher education consulted a committee presided over by monopolists Mukesh Ambani and Kumarmangalam Birla instead of educationists, teachers and students. Unsurprisingly, it recommended that the entire higher education sector must be allowed to be privatized. The same report advocated for the greater involvement of technocrats, technological finance and MNCs such as IBM, Microsoft and Wipro in education. It proposed a “user pays” model in education.

In April 2017, the NITI Aayog's Three Year Action Agenda pushed forward Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) using channels like SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) under MHRD. It called for a three tier model where the top-most tier would enjoy “financial autonomy”, that is, the ability to set its own fee structure at market costs, while the largest and lower-most tier would consist of diploma-granting autonomous colleges, primarily for basic vocational training.

The next month, in May 2017, one of the largest finance consultancies and tech giants collaborated to bring out the KPMG-Google Report on Online Education in India. It projected that the online education “market” in India would grow eight times in the next five years. It also had a special section on online “standardized testing”. Lo and behold, a few months later the MHRD established the National Testing Agency, a specialized autonomous body for conducting standardized, computer-based exams.

Source: Dictionary of NEP; A handbook from COLLECTIVE

This process of the steamrolling in 'Digital-Distance Education' over the years has been finally concluded in the recently adopted National Education Policy 2020 which puts special emphasis on online education. Hence, the currently ongoing online classes and recently conducted online examinations are not isolated developments but part of a constantly accelerating, profit-driven neoliberal model of education. As a recent report on NEP 2020 that this writer was involved in publishing argues, it foretells a future where fewer and fewer Indians will be able to afford to continue to privatized higher research while the majority will be forced to enroll in ‘distance-digital’ education for basic skilling, with bleaker prospects of employment.

Inaccessible learning, lowered quality

In terms of access to ‘digital-distance’ learning, data shows that only around 8% Indian students have both computers and home-based internet access. The numbers are even lower in rural areas, among students who are Dalits, Adivasis and Persons with Disabilities (PwD). Moreover, existing social and economic hierarchies are amplified when the digital variable is introduced. For instance, the lack of conducive space at home for undisturbed online learning adds anxiety for students, particularly women who are expected to perform the greater share of domestic chores.

But what if there is an increase or, say, universalization of internet connectivity? Will e-classrooms ever serve as a substitute for regular classrooms? The answer would be a big ‘No’. Rather, universalizing e-learning would be hazardous for the future of education because it does not aim to universalize education—only the aspiration for acquiring uninterrupted internet access and ownership of appropriate gadgets is sought to be promoted. In other words, online education is not being imagined today as a complement to quality, in-person education for all but as a method to further hierarchize the education system.

Even within the tiny section who gets 'invited' to join virtual classes, the socially disempowered, less vocal invitee is further marginalized and disconnected. Interpersonal interaction and collective participation, as in the university campus, has real significance for generating a conducive, critical, creative teaching-learning environment. The complex and composite teaching community, which absorbs real-life experiences drawn from daily activities of teaching and learning, equips them to come up with innovative ways to reach out to the students and deliver education to the deprived and the marginalized in more effective ways.

Foreign finance capital today requires homogenization of learning and knowledge, for producing a cheap workforce as well as opening up avenues for its own profitable investment in a privatized education system, which ‘Digital-Distance Learning’ serves. It suppresses cognitive interest and develops conformism in thinking, diminishes creativity and eventually creates a political culture of silence and suppression of dissent.

Source: Dictionary of NEP: A handbook from COLLECTIVE 

The Looming Future

The government and corporate push for ‘Digital-Distance Learning’ will lead to commercialization of education and drastic cutting of government funds for physical infrastructure in public education. This will only formalize exclusion in an already crisis-ridden formal education system. Those excluded will be directed towards the Skill India route, given the minimum of basic skills demanded by foreign investors to join the ranks of a cheapened workforce. At a time when unemployment is at its highest in 45 years and even those employed only have insecure, contractualized jobs or internships, we must ask: who is this skilling for?

In 1968, the Kothari Commission had recommended a “Common School System” where scientific, equal and accessible education would be a right for all Indians, regardless of whether he was a billionaire’s son or a daily wager’s daughter. This had not seemed radical at all to a government committee then because of the dreams and aspirations with which ordinary Indians had just recently liberated themselves from British rule. Revolutionaries like Savitribai and Jyotiba Phule, Bhagat Singh and Babasaheb Ambedkar had argued that a robust, public-funded education system was a prerequisite for ensuring our freedom and liberty.