Not long after the declaration of a nationwide lockdown, ostensibly under the National Disaster Management Act (2005), due to the coronavirus pandemic, voices from the MHRD, various state governments, private schools and universities began to propose and implement online mechanisms for teaching-learning. The justification for this push has been pegged upon two assumptions: the need to maintain academic continuity and the obvious availability of technological means to obviate the crisis of educational institutions being shut down. While these assumptions are deeply flawed and problematic, we wish to focus attention on another argument aligned with justifying the online push and one which has been made use of directly or indirectly in leading up to the present context. This concerns the near-obsession with ‘demonstrable learning’ at the cost of almost everything else which is meaningful in education. Taking recourse to distance or online mechanisms is expected to limit the loss of education/learning which, given the likely prolonged closure of schools, may otherwise become overwhelming for children and schools. The ‘crisis of learning’ among school students has become a constant and common refrain for all kinds of interventions by all kinds of organisations, from international funding and policy-setting bodies like the UNESCO, World Bank at one end and private organisations, which are increasingly being provided policy-level space by governments, on the other. Indeed, the Sustainable Development Goals include the achievement of a certain level of age-appropriate learning for all children by the year 2030. A more topical illustration of this focus is provided by ”Framework for reopening schools”, a document brought out by UNICEF, World Bank and the World Food Programme in April 2020. The document has been visibly prepared as part of the efforts of the Global Education Coalition ‘to support governments in strengthening distance learning and facilitating reopening of schools’. The first question this slender document addresses under the section, ”When, where and which schools to reopen?”, refers to assessing the essentiality of classroom instruction ‘to achieve the respective learning outcomes…and developing foundational skills’. Under the section ”How to reopen schools”, it emphasises that the ‘response should serve as a catalyst to improve learning outcomes.’ It is clear that a lack of adequate learning is identified as a crisis and then sought to be solved by identifying and instituting appropriate learning outcomes for all grade levels. A few preliminary things need to be remarked about the current learning crisis and the learning outcomes discourse before we comment further on the recent developments in India.
One, the ‘outcomes’ discourse limits the idea of learning itself to certain minimum levels, most often understood as literacy and numeracy. Two, the public education system is often the object of focus within the ‘outcomes’ discourse, hinged, in particular, on the alleged lack of sincerity among government school teachers and the failure of government departments to supervise and regulate their work. Aspects like teacher absenteeism, abuse of power by teacher representative/union bodies towards forestalling administrative and other ‘reforms’, find special mention within the discourse, significantly overlooking policy-level, systemic and resource-based factors impeding quality of education in many public schools. Nor is there an appreciation of the sociology of knowledge which comes into play in terms of the language of education, hidden curriculum and cultural capital and enables/disables children from particular groups to access school and appropriate its transaction. Three, the emphasis upon learning in this discourse is itself derived from a claim which blames poor skill sets among school graduates for the social crisis of unemployment and low wages. In fact the much cited objective of ‘holistic development’ of the child, constantly featured across policy documents and the education discourse in India seems to be side-stepped and replaced by a singular focus on ‘learning outcomes’ and ‘foundational skills’. We posit that the push for online classes in these times of COVID-lockdown induced closures of schools and institutions of higher education is a logical consequence of this discursive shift in the objectives of education.
The language and stance of the official policy advocacy documents in recent times are an evidence of the widespread acceptance and adoption of the ‘outcomes and accountability’ discourse pushed by the policy advocacy networks. It is reasonable to infer that they have been successful in influencing bodies like the Planning Commission, Niti Aayog, and the MHRD. The draft NEP 2019 itself puts special emphasis on designing the curriculum, syllabi and texts to ensure particular learning outcomes at all grades so as to overcome the ‘learning crisis’ as reflected in achievement tests or assessments. As a result, we have come to see schools and their administrative heads pressurised to focus singularly on the achievement of scores by students on the regular exams as well as the benchmark tests looming before them in order to assess the ”rank” of states, districts, schools and teachers. The fact that India has signed up to participate in the international PISA regime from the year 2021 onwards brings an added urgency to this policy slant. The obsession with learning outcomes has been reflected in the APARs or Annual Performance Appraisal Reports (earlier known as ACRs or Annual Confidential Reports) of teachers where their annual performance is also judged and marked on the basis of the test scores of their students. Much has been commented on not just the futility of this exercise but its counter-productivity as well. This focus, now turned into an obsession, is seen to narrow teaching and school objectives, leading to shallow testing, encouraging the gaming of tests and eventually may end up punishing the weakest among communities accessing schools by pushing out their children to keep the scores up.
In crisis: Governance and Education
Now it is near certain that at least the MHRD is not going to call for opening the schools anytime soon. Nevertheless, it is important to juxtapose the initial eagerness to both open schools and conduct online classes and exams with the failure of India’s parliament to hold any sittings during a national crisis and the refusal by the parliamentary standing committee to arrange for online meetings of various standing committees charged with significant oversight responsibilities. The fact that confidentiality privileges of these committee meetings have been put forward as factor against holding what may amount to be unsafe virtual proceedings, could have sounded more plausible had we not been served with the idea of technology as a panacea and exposed to pretensions of technological advancement. Moreover, similar concerns about the privacy of young people being forced to ‘attend’ online classes through unsecured platforms have unfortunately been missing. Indeed, it would have been much more sensible and sensitive for the MHRD and state level education departments to provide inputs and training to students and teachers on the issues of data piracy, privacy, identity theft, cyber bullying etc, before pushing them to go online. The push for holding online classes for primary grades to university level courses has cut across states, though it seems to have been stimulated by the virtual rush in private schools and some high-fee charging private universities. While the Karnataka government has taken the decision to prohibit online classes at least till grade 5 and these classes have been challenged in the Madras High Court, in spite of consistent and strong protests by university teachers and student organisations and critical reporting in sections of the media, overall there has been a complicit silence on this issue in the corridors of power. Had Parliament been in session or standing committee meetings being conducted, one presumes that questions would certainly have been raised about the tragic deaths of a woman in Delhi and a 14-year old child from Dalit background in Kerala, both of whom committed suicide due to the pain and frustration of not having smartphones which were needed by the former’s child and the latter herself for ‘attending’ online classes. That much of the reaction from the state departments and bodies has not been thought through is exemplified by the fact that while in Delhi a survey to find out the number and proportion of students having electronic devices and connectivity was conducted only after the distant-mode classes were over, some confusion about the policy continued to prevail in Karnataka even after the education minister’s statement on the matter. Nor has the much-vaunted IT-enabled structure of e-governance and digital India proved itself in delivering timely scholarships in these tough times, providing MDMs to children not attending schools and ensuring that all those children who were forced to journey or walk back to their familial villages get age-appropriate and hassle-free admissions in their respective neighbourhood schools. Truth be told, these top-down and centralising mechanisms of governance and education are acutely incapable of addressing the daily, fundamental and urgent needs of the marginalised in whose name, ironically, these are being implemented in the first place. On the other hand, it may be instructive to look at the private commercial entities gaining from this shift to the electronic medium and the delivery of pre-determined content. That this threatens to limit the professional autonomy of and intellectual demands upon teachers, thereby facilitating uniformity and centralised control in education, is an issue serious enough to merit a separate discussion. It can be said that the twinning between the outcomes narrative and distant modes in education serves well the overall intent to centralise and homogenise the content of education on the one hand and give greater play to private entities in its delivery on the other.
While the online juggernaut rolls ahead, we are left wondering as to what is to be made of the provisions of the RtE Act, a law which declares education till the age of 14 (or grade 8) as a fundamental right. For example, with online classes becoming a part of the normal routine and provisioning of schooling (letting aside the policy-setting proclamation that this platform will constitute 25% of the total engagement in higher education), it is not clear what will become or remain of the legally and pedagogically mandated PTR norms in schools. Likewise, whether these classes are made to count in the curriculum and assessment or are claimed to be optional, in the absence of any publically-funded provisioning of both the devices as well as the data requirements for online classes, the promise of free education as a fundamental right falls flat. These questions go to the root of our constitutional principles and merit close and urgent attention by the legislature as well as the judiciary. What is of concern is that the School Management Committees as well as the state level Commissions for Protection of Child Rights, both legally mandated bodies charged with guarding children’s holistic welfare and guidance of schools, should have remained conspicuously silent on these grave issues in these times of distress. We have yet to come across any SMC or SCPCR taking suo moto notice, leave alone action, on either the denial of the right to education to the majority of the nation’s children owing to the fact of digital injustice or addressing above-mentioned concerns around the provisions of the very law they were set up under. To then hope that these bodies will look into the question of physical and mental health risks posed to children by early, continuous and long exposure to electronic and digital devices is perhaps asking for too much. The silence of these and even the environment protection and pollution control bodies is especially galling considering the long history of the green movement and the raging climate crisis agitations led by people like Greta Thurnberg, all of which have shown the way to take responsible action in the light of the proven linkages between ecological harm and the proliferating production and use of electronic devices. It seems that the same model of governance which is pushing online classes is responsible for keeping these bodies, which should ideally have been watchdog institutions, tamed.
A worrisome prognosis
Meanwhile, a new fault line has surely been unravelled within the hitherto more-or-less common classes of our public schools. Thanks to the provision of free textbooks and copies to all students till grade eight, there has been very little visible inequality of academic resources among classmates, even when not all of them may be coming from financially equally placed families. This low-level disparity among classmates in terms of minimum material support for academics has been a consequence not only of state-policies and laws regulating the provision of essential items to students but also owes itself to the similar economic class character of those accessing public schools at the present juncture. We are unhappily confident in conjecturing that the introduction of online classes which require the possession of digital devices along with paid-for data needed to run the device to access and appropriate the teaching-learning process, is bound to create unhealthy dynamics and peer culture within classrooms. Once schools reopen, there will be a group of students sharing their online experiences excitedly, while many others will come face-to-face with their financially deprived status. This may lead to a sense of inferiority, introverted behaviour, frustration and loss of self-esteem. The complementary and corresponding superiority complex among a few would be equally if not more unhealthy for children’s development. It goes without saying that such emotions and experiences can be decisively life-shaping for anyone, least of all young children. This is not to say that presently, before the onset of online classes, our classrooms have been like paradise. Nevertheless, it cannot be denied that, howsoever one looks at it, whether pedagogically or from the health and ecological perspective, we are rushing and pushing our students into murky waters.
Firoz Ahmad is a research scholar at Department of Education, University of Delhi and Dr. M. K. Chahil is presently working in the field of education.