By Hasini Lecamwasam –
Covid-19 has forced us to re-think many of our lifestyle choices, socio-economic arrangements, and the very ideologies underpinning these. It has thrown into sharp relief latent social inequalities and the class differentiated impact of even natural disasters they warrant. Those in low-pay, informal working arrangements with no social security benefits are exposed to extreme vulnerability, while the others benefit from varying degrees of cushioning from the economic effects of the pandemic, with the 1% enjoying great immunity from most of its spin-offs. Amid myriad other complications Covid-19 has triggered, a crumbling system of free education is only less important than perhaps essential services themselves. I have been reflecting on the implications of the pandemic on our free education, particularly its tertiary level where I’m employed, for a while now.
And then we received the e-mail: Instructions from the UGC to start online teaching activities, seeing as universities are unable to resume ‘actual’ work in the foreseeable future. The mode and content of material delivered online is left to the discretion of the teachers, it said, and the question of assessments is still a hotly debated issue which, therefore, is yet to be decided upon. As the decision was made, two kinds of students became immediately discernible: Those who reached out to us asking for reading material and wanting instructions on various intricacies involved in navigating the online learning platform, and those who did not. The latter group of students are the ones whose names do not appear on the online course enrollment lists, because they have neither the financial resources, nor possibly even the network coverage, to access education online.
This turned my predicament, as someone teaching at a state university, from bad to worse. We are equally responsible for both kinds of students. To not upload any content at all, in the name of justice for those who have no internet access, would constitute a violation of my duty towards those who do, and more importantly, constitutes a justification of ‘doing nothing’. The flip side is also true, namely that continuing on with online education will amount to a breach of my moral responsibility as a teacher in the free education system, towards those who are supposed to be equal beneficiaries of my teaching. In this piece, I would like to reflect further on these issues, in relation to three questions emerging out of the pandemic situation, viz. 1) what do we do? 2) how do we do it? and 3) what will be the implications of these decisions?
Let us first treat the question of what we need to do to sustain free education during these trying times. As I understand, we are dealing with two distinct, and possibly contending, issues here. First is the issue of practicality, of ‘getting things done’ during a crisis that shows every sign of going on for a while. I personally have great sympathy for this cause, since being in limbo indefinitely is not going to benefit anyone in the long haul, including the students. To this end, online education seems to be the most viable solution. Second, and more important I feel, is the issue of preserving the spirit of free education through the pandemic, by ensuring equitable access to online education for students across the board. This speaks directly to fundamental concerns of justice, and the related values of free education. I have greater sympathy for this cause.
It seems, though, that you can’t have the cake and eat it too. If the online education agenda is pushed aggressively, no matter what happens to those who don’t have access, we end up violating the principles of justice and equity that free education draws from. In this scenario, the very existence of state-sponsored universities may well be called into question, and justifiably so. Does that mean that we should refuse to teach online at all? Will we then not end up in a deadlock that, again, questions our existence as those in pedagogy? Inaction, I feel, not only makes us redundant in this kind of situation, but deplorable. That we must do something, and that something appears to be online education at this point is, I think, clear. The trick, then, is to find a way to go about it in a way that minimizes injustices.
This brings us to the second question of how to do what we propose to do, i.e. online education? The fundamental issue of distributive justice involved here is for the government to address, as it falls well beyond the capability of the university system. Students should all be allocated a monthly data package, sufficient to meet the requirements of online education. Extensive outreach mechanisms also have to be put in place to identify those students in need of computers and such. This, again, falls beyond the financial capacities of state universities, necessitating government intervention. In addition, as has already been proposed by various parties within the university system, individual universities may, at their discretion, initiate their own internal reallocation of resources and facilities for the students’ benefit, to meet the needs of the new context.
As to the substantive nitty-gritty of online education, I believe this is best left to the good judgment of the academic staff. However, I believe that now more than ever before, we have to strike a fine balance between academic freedom and responsible teaching. We cannot, and should not, resist the directive to commence online teaching activities on the pretext that students don’t have internet access. What we must resist at all costs is any attempt to make online education mandatory for students without first making sure equitable access is facilitated. For teachers, I believe, the bar may be raised, if only to check the potential tendency of passing off not doing anything as doing something in the name of the students.
Third and last, the implications of online education must be contemplated. We must take care not to lose sight of what online education means in the long term. As many colleagues have pointed out already in various internal exchanges, online education has a history that well pre-dates the pandemic. It was introduced some time back as a tick in the box of international funding criteria for state universities, which in turn are simply responding to market pressures. In this scheme, ‘progress’ in education is measured only in terms of its tangible yield, such as the number of graduates who enter the workforce. These market dictates have no appreciation of the critical thrust of education that seeks to equip students with the capacity to ask the right questions. Increasing the online component of education in this context of encroaching marketization, will reduce the teaching-learning exchange to a simple process of structured lectures being repeated in equally structured exams, leaving minimal space for critical engagement and debate. Once this central tenet is taken out of tertiary education, what is left is the formal completion of coursework in exchange for the ‘qualification’ – the degree, in this instance. Another, perhaps greater, peril of online education is that it will gradually eliminate informal – and more effective – means of learning, such as through cultural exposure and peer support. When students no longer meet their ‘others’ in class, ethnic, and religious terms, possibilities for the ‘political’ to emerge will be eliminated, replaced by the cold market logic of targets and deliverables.
We know that the teaching-learning experience already encounters serious limitations in the restricted classroom space. For instance, recreational learning and field experience are no longer part of the regular pedagogical process. If we were to shift the better part of teaching to the online mode, as I have seen being speculated in internal exchanges, we would be further curtailing the means by which students obtain knowledge. My earlier point about informal means of learning lends itself to this argument as well. Therefore, teachers should strongly push back against any proposal to increase the online component of pedagogy, beyond the pandemic period. Technology cannot be permitted to dictate the boundaries of human cognitive expansion, and it will be a serious epistemological crime to allow it. We will gradually, as a result, be ripped off our critical thinking capabilities.
Doing nothing is definitely not the solution in this already complicated situation, but nor is blindly jumping the online bandwagon parroting the efficiency rhetoric. We need the commencement of the online teaching process to be a politically conscious decision we make, fully aware of its implications, and thereby fully equipped to counter any potential untoward moves by decision-making authorities to push different agendas onto the table in the guise of the health emergency. Any endorsement of the online education move, therefore, should come with heavy qualifications, not the least of which should be that it will not be made mandatory for students even during the pandemic, until and unless equitable access to online education has been facilitated for them all.
*Hasini Lecamwasam – Lecturer at the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya