India, undaunted by the raging Covid 19 global pandemic, celebrated its 73rd Republic Day on January 26, 2022 in the 75th year of Indian Independence. Even as we are going to turn 75, as teachers and learners, where do we stand? Education in India and the world over, is now countered by the escalation of new nationalisms, supported by populism and a digital pedagogy projecting an aura of infallibility that stands out for its audacity and scope. Mathematical models, the engines of the digital pedagogy are neither neutral nor an inevitable force. What is to prevent us from believing that a whole bunch of ‘social scientists’ from the stables of tech giants are not actively gaming the educational system?
Digital pedagogy and fairness
Education policy in India with adroit promptness has at all times incorporated the then – emerging technologies in appropriate measure for its promotion and propagation, for example, the digital learning platform i-GOT. India’s National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 promotes technology platforms to leverage, economies of scale and logistics. It declares,
To meet the needs of enriched teaching-learning processes for quality education, the use of technology platforms such as SWAYAM/DIKSHA for online training of teachers will be encouraged, so that standardized training programmes can be administered to large numbers of teachers within a short span of time (NEP2020, 15.10).
As India emerges as an exemplar of technology-led inclusion in the Global South, digital pedagogy touted for its adroit promptness, promising easy delivery of education to the doorstep of one and all, is at best is a seductive chimera, a pipe dream of most ‘educationalists’. Nuanced academic work on the specific and grounded histories of the diversity of Indian learners is bound to reveal deep fissures and limitations in the promise of the information society for inclusion of marginalized communities. Specific and grounded histories are vital to understand the actual learning practices of the complex diversity of our learners as individuals at spaces of home and study as they interface with information and communication technologies. Technology scholars have declared an emergency: attention must be paid to the inequality, marginalization, and biases woven into our technological systems.
It could be argued that the current misplaced adventurism in ‘online education’ is not unlike the sachets that engendered a consumer product boom in India in the early 1990s. Just as sachets almost always become a silent but dangerous environmental hazard – an entire layer in the soil in some places. The blatant hypocrisy of all and sundry parroting the right things while touting ‘products’ in the name of online eduction they know to be inadequate and irrelevant in the long run and the fraught practices of technology-enabled pedagogy certainly merit scientific investigation.
Even as good use of AI across digital pedagogic platforms redeems the learner from the traditionally attributed psychological assumptions about teaching and learning – confines of time, space and method, the making of teaching – learning more independent of the human factor – however, raises significant concerns. The need for more equitable structures of both knowledge production and dissemination is clear and present. The internet and social media have certainly opened up new avenues but they also bring with them fake news – unsubstantiated narratives and disinformation. It is mainstream Indian academics itself that must reform if authentic versions of truth and knowledge are to be widely available. We can no longer afford to be lulled into complacency by narratives of techno-utopianism, or even techno-neutrality. It would be naive to rest reassured by such soothing generalities as “human error,” “virtual reality,” or “the cloud.” We need to realize that nothing is virtual: everything that “happens online,” “virtually,” or “autonomously” happens offline first, and often involves human beings whose labor is deliberately kept invisible. The mathematician Cathy O’Neil cautions us on how some algorithmic models and technologies or social policies can be at odds with fairness. She writes: “Fairness is squishy and hard to quantify. It is a concept. And computers for all their advances in language and logic still struggle with concepts… Programmers don’t know how to code for it…” (O’Neil 2016, p. 305)
Consumers and Scale
Touted as a value-added model, digital pedagogy’s enormous power to affect what we learn, celebrates scale and consumers and delivers nothing more than commodity education. Scale, perfectly innocuous in theory, insidiously grows to become a national or global standard to create its own distorted and dystopian economy. ‘Building to scale building to last’ as an approach in education is misplaced enthusiasm, at best.
Digital technologies with adroit promptness enable measuring models produced by an algorithm – an opinion formalized in code – that incorporates convenient proxies focused on opportunistic outcomes, justified as ideal for scientific experimentation. Mathematical models cloaked in code and behind imposing firewalls and an endless spiral of destructive feedback loops prop up automated systems, stuck in time. Digital technology enabled big data processes codify the past. They do not invent the future. Therefore automated systems, stay stuck in time, turning a blind eye to skyrocketing tuitions and fees and the diversity among citizens as collaborative learners. The convoluted process does nothing for education. Some, no doubt, are selling little more than snake oil and undermining democracy. “Educational excellence” on the other hand is enduringly elusive and defies the constricting confines of ‘variables’ and ‘proxies’ purporting to stand in for ‘what matters most in education’.
Digital pedagogy is energised by an ecosystem that celebrates – the age of the algorithm. Increasingly, the decisions that affect our lives are being made not by humans, but by mathematical models. Theoretically, this ought to lead to greater fairness and bias eliminated. Mathematical models, however, as the engines of the digital pedagogy are neither neutral nor an inevitable force. Many algorithms, particularly the predictive algorithms, slaves to the inequalities of power and prejudice are insidiously shaping and controlling our individual and collective destinies.
Even as digital pedagogy seeks mainstream traction and becomes viewed and accepted as a rational, objective alternative to the arbitrary teacher work that reigned before, we’d do well to critically investigate mathematical models supporting digital pedagogy that pervade modern life and threaten to rip apart our social fabric. With inequality rising and the latest growing tyranny of an arrogant establishment focused on an insular vision, smug with ‘exact knowledge’ of a preferred future. It is the moral imagination that drives the human and humane to interrogate the systems around us and demand better, to deconstruct a growing dystopia.
The Indian Constitution as the way ahead
Digital technologies reshape not only every phase of the pedagogical process itself (by providing new ways to access, to share and preserve relevant information) but also the activities of other stakeholders, from solidarity networks, philanthropic and non governmental organisations, to the powerful regulatory role of control agencies. In doing so, digital technologies create a whole new set of ethical and methodological challenges for pedagogy: from data access to data interpretation, privacy protection, and research ethics. Mathematical models, the engines of the digital pedagogy are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable. Worryingly, they reinforce discrimination, shrivel diversity, mitigate against transparency, user control and undermine the democracy. What would it take to re-imagining teaching and learning in India now trapped in the maws of digital pedagogy? A rediscovery of the Indian Constitution, empowers us to ask the tough questions, uncover the truth, and demand change. The socially progressive Constitution that governs Indian democracy, although, in its original form, did not include education as a fundamental right has been suitably amended to envision education rooted in equality, social justice, and gender justice.
Undeterred by the disconcerting fact that education systems like every system, can be gamed, our resilient moral imagination refuses to abandon hope and continues to recognise education as arguably the most important in terms of securing a better future and that it cannot be left entirely to the whims of the powerful regulatory role of the government or algorithms that privilege profit ahead of fairness. Each one of us is morally challenged to become more savvy about these models that govern our lives. As we go about charting a path beyond the pandemic it is urgent and necessary to explore collaborative pursuits to creating big data models that follow the ethical lead, explitly embed better values into algorithms that privilege fairness ahead of profit. At Princeton, for example, researchers have launched the Web Transparency and Accountability Project. They create software robots that masquerade online as people of all stripes – rich, poor, male, female, or suffering from mental health issues to detect biases in automated systems from search engines to job placement sites. Similar initiatives are taking root at universities like Carnegie Mellon and MIT.
Education in India is a fraught enterprise between grooming regimented citizens and nurturing autonomous individuals. Learning with adroit promptness for instant gratification confines teaching and learning to the narrow constraints of grooming and churning out the regimented citizen, which is undoubtedly an annoying burden for children (ABC), instead education rooted in equity, social justice, and gender justice agenda that seeks to nurture autonomous individuals is bound to celebrate teaching and learning that soars above and beyond the call of duty (ABCD).
Anthony Joseph is a Doctoral Scholar at CIE, University of Delhi.