The enthusiasm with which university administrators, sections of teachers, some students and others involved in teaching-learning-evaluation exercise have sought to embrace digital technology almost overnight amidst a devastating Covid-19 pandemic is disconcerting. It borders on a weird kind of irrationality.
Agendas dictated by market forces are driving governments and university dons. Conference-hopping professors, who must speak and move with the times have quickly fashioned themselves to hold forth from online platforms. Smart kids are falling for the glamour of zoom shows and webinars as extensions of Instagram and Facebook lives. This is becoming as true for the so-called first world countries as the third ones.
The digital divide remains a big issue everywhere where many households do not have access to high-speed internet or requisite devices. Yet, it seems as if educators were waiting to abandon regular classroom teaching and jump onto the digital bandwagon.
Is this particularly true for those in social sciences and humanities, where a lot of laffazi, shabd-lila or word-play, is possible in front of the camera? Can any kind of serious scientific research be conducted and transacted when teachers and research scholars do not have access to laboratories, libraries and archives which are shut at present?
How are the universities going to ensure online teaching and examinations without students working in their laboratories and libraries? Are they going to be abandoned altogether in a hurry, or is it a temporary and desperate measure to tide over the emergency we are faced with?
Or, are they going to ensure that a wholly depoliticized, distant learning will be the norm now, Corona or not? Will fear of Corona and social distancing become the pretext to go all out for online learning modules? Will students be not allowed on-campus - students who were asserting against the authoritarian regimes everywhere?
It is also surprising, inconsistent, and contradictory that teachers who are otherwise resisting and opposing online teaching and examinations are at the same time suddenly over-active in webinars and instagram shows. Are a few minutes of fame in front of a live camera so attractive that the long-term repercussions are not being considered?
In older, saner times, the onslaught of a terrible pandemic would have meant educational institutions being closed for an extended summer vacation, waiting for the calamity to subside and things to return to status quo ante. This is what some better informed medical and engineering colleges have done - declaring early and more extended summer vacation and planning examinations only after they are in a position to open and work normally.
If the pandemic continued to take its toll and social distancing became something of a norm over an extended period of a full-term or more, turning to online lectures for short phases would have been a logical move, despite understandable privacy concerns in the use of web-based platforms. However, as reports trickling from even the best of institutions indicate, university administrators and their political backers and enthusiastic supporters, do not want to wait for the situation to change for the better. Is it an opportunity for them to embrace this abnormality as a new normal?
For the present, the situation is worsening. People are getting infected and dying in larger numbers. Privileged, well-to-do, upper sections of the society will not be affected as much as the poor and the jobless; people who have nothing to eat - forget about having smartphones, laptops and high-speed data.
Under the circumstances, to exploit the situation to push for fanciful digitalisation and online classes to be started automatically is a case of misplaced priorities and wilful ignorance of ground realities.
Improving health infrastructure, saving lives, helping the poor with both cash and ration, and opening of the economy should be the measures taken on a war-footing. For a country like India, and backward states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and a state like Bengal which is devastated by the very severe cyclone Amphan, it is sheer madness to think of continuing with academic and scholarly activities on the so-called strength of the availability of digital technology.
Even after this calamity is over and the situation normalises, will the faculty and students be allowed to come back to the campus and resume their work as they did in the not so distant past? Or, will the digital danda become the norm? Will university campuses no longer be centres of scholarly freedom devoid of any political pressure? Since campuses have also been sites of protests and harbingers of change in society, will they remain out of bounds for fear of dissent? A device to defang vibrant institutions of their vigorous questioning culture?
Thus, will the vast built infrastructures of academic institutions which have taken decades, in some cases even centuries, to create and shape be abandoned for one-room teaching shops, with smartphone or web cameras and fast internet data? Or will those buildings be auctioned as prime real estate to market forces for malls, offices, and condos for corporate honchos?
One is reminded of the dotcom boom which rose and crashed just about twenty years ago, but some people do not learn from the mistakes of the past. Will calamities, coupled with malicious political moves and abominable corporate greed, consume everyone - the privileged ones included?
Undoubtedly, the ruined sites of urban megapolis Harappa and Mohanjodaro are reminders of the decline and fall of even the best of urban cultures. Will the cities of today survive without the poor who create and sustain them? Pliant digital beings cannot be an alternative solution.
Let schools, colleges and universities resume their work conventionally and professionally when the pandemic recedes. A few lost months of an academic calendar is not such a big thing for institutions of longstanding academic excellence or for the students for that matter.
Educational institutions are sites of learning, reading, of discussion, of experimentation, of exchange of ideas, of debate, of questioning, of dissent—all crucial parts of any education system worth its name. Let students and teachers return to the campus when the situation improves.
Digital sources are excellent aids to education, or they can be so if used intelligently, but they are not a substitute for face to face interaction, teaching and learning. The sooner the authorities and society realise that, the better.
(The author teaches in Delhi University. Views expressed are personal.)