Re-imagining University campuses without students and teachers is absurd and unrealistic

Lure of online classes cannot gloss over the digital divide, variable internet speed, low access to devices, erratic signals and the absurdity of trying to replace classrooms with online teaching

Representative Image 
Representative Image

Raziuddin Aquil

The sheer enthusiasm with which universities, sections of teachers, students and others involved in teaching-learning-evaluation exercise have sought to embrace digital technology almost overnight, is disconcerting.

Agendas dictated by market forces, one suspects, are driving governments and university dons. Conference-hopping professors, who must speak and move with the times, have quickly adapted and are holding forth from online platforms. Smart teenagers and children from well-to-do families are falling for the novelty and glamour of Zoom shows and Webinars as extensions of Instagram and Facebook live.

This is true for both first world countries as well as the third. This is despite the fact that the digital divide remains wide everywhere, with large number of households having no access to either the required devices or to stable and high-speed internet. With the paucity of telecom towers in vast parts of the country, it is hardly uncommon to read about students travelling 10 kilometres or more to get the signal; or about people climbing on tree tops to get better signal.

Yet, it seems as if educators were waiting to abandon regular classroom teaching and jump onto the digital bandwagon. Most serious teachers across the world have said, with few exceptions, that online classes can complement but not substitute the classroom. In universities, can any serious scientific research be conducted when teachers and research scholars do not have access to laboratories, libraries and archives which are shut? Fieldwork for data collection has also not been possible due to the extended lockdown and the necessity of maintaining physical distancing, which suggest that research scholars have not been able to properly work since late March.

Nevertheless, the universities and schools are determined to go ahead not only with online teaching, which often tend to be a complete farce, but also holding examinations without students working in their laboratories and libraries. Not surprisingly, thousands of assignments are being flung around as email attachments between students and teachers in order to meet the deadlines arbitrarily fixed by those in authority. Any complaints about this will be against the national interest, as it were. Not many are complaining either.

The ingenious Indian mind prepares itself to work around with what is famously called, jugaad technology. Assignments mailed back to teachers are often ‘scanned hand-written answers’ as attachments - sent from someone else’s email address. There is no way for has- sled teachers to verify if the students them- selves have completed the assignment or out- sourced the assignments to others. Hundreds of email attachments wait for teachers to assess but with no possibility of probing the depth of understanding.

Since regular examinations cannot be held, universities are devising online/offline modalities such as open book examination, which involves downloading questions and uploading answers of a particular paper all within three hours. Alternatively, assignments treated as end-semester exams entail take home questions and send answers by courier, if emails are not working.

Thus, irrespective of the pandemic, courses were ordered to be completed as well as examinations conducted (for terminal semesters of undergraduate and postgraduate courses at least) as soon as possible, and admissions for the next semester completed without much delay.

There is urgency on all these on a war- footing, and yet it does not appear merely as a temporary measure to tide over the crisis caused by the pandemic. It seems we are heading into an extended period of distant learning as the new norm in the universities. The fear of Corona and physical distancing has been used as a pretext to go all out for online learning modules. This means students will not be allowed to assemble on-campus, question teachers and interact with seniors or, for that matter, participate in on-campus activities and assert against authority and authoritarian regimes.

Reports from abroad, including the US, indicate teachers and students are looking forward to get back to the classroom; a few weeks of Zoom have cured people of the lure of online teaching. It is likely that the next semester will be delayed, and when started, it will be a mix of online (for large lectures) and in person (for smaller seminars) classes. That should be the way forward in months to come, and that too slowly, depending on the Covid-19 situation, rather than the desperate digital blitzkrieg we are witnessing at present.

One cannot lose sight of the business of education. Quite apart from the state sponsored institutions, there is a large network of private and for-profit institutions, which can- not afford to incur losses due to the crisis. For digital platforms, this is indeed an opportunity to cash on.

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.

However, as reports coming 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. It is as if it is an opportunity for them to embrace this abnormality as a new normal. The recent UGC advisory has also mentioned that the use of digital technology should be encouraged post-pandemic as well.

For a country like India, and backward states such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and a state like West Bengal which is devastated by the very severe cyclone Amphan, it is irrational 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, the question remains whether the faculty and students will be allowed to come back to the campus and resume their work as they did in not so distant past? Will university campuses no longer be centres of scholarly freedom devoid of any political or bureaucratic pressure and interference?

Since campuses have also been sites of protests and harbingers of change in society, will they remain out of bounds for fear of dissent? Is digital technology a device to defang vibrant institutions of their vigorous questioning culture?

Will the vast 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 smartphones, 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

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