22 September, 2020

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Free Education In The Time Of Corona

By Hasini Lecamwasam –

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

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  • 2
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    Not even developed nations have been able to reopen the schools yet in Europe. I think it is very important parents to become their own teachers at this curfew period.

    Not everyone is accessed to internet connections in the poor country – so the online teaching can only be a bless to the people who can afford it.
    :
    Buddhist temples and village level school masters, senior teachers and grama officers ( they are no longer Gramasevakas as I got lately) should get together and discuss how they coudl do their best in period on the suspended schooling of the island’s children. Plenty of time is left to them today being in their 4-walls. So why cant those teachers plan it for their village ? I think our people are masters at asking someone else to do the job – self-intiatives are far from their natures. It is high time, each and everyone to come together regardless of various barriers, if they really want to save their children becoming stupid idiots following this CORONA crisis.

    • 3
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      It is high time to stop overestimating srilankens. They should start accepting the critiques flowing from the outside world. Today, the nation being led by STUPID men, or a family – entire world has turned out to think about us so stupid.
      :
      Yesteday my friends in Europe and America questioned me, why GOTLER to emulate stupid TRUMP… who s volunatarily made him a clown to the WESTERN world. There are whole lot of americans stand against him. They just smirk when start talkiing about trump. .
      .
      Bandula Gunawaradhana leaves evasive answers to anything being question even if he is the official spoksperson for the stupid cabinet team in SL today. Those who learnt from him then may feel, how stupid Bandula Gunawardhana has become over the years, not being able to relinquish his abusive thinking. Why not the bugger think that the safety of the people should be kept above than anything else. His KOHEDA YANNE malle pol (if asked about where you going is being reponded with something toally away from that) like answers. ::: This shows the GROUND reality of GOTER’s govt

    • 1
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      Dear leelagemalli,
      .
      You’re doing a fantastic job, making sincere and constructive comments on almost all articles on CT. The one problem is that you’ve been away from us for too long.
      .
      When I was a kid, there still was a Village Headman. That was too feudalistic to continue. The guy we had, I remember as being particularly good.
      .
      It was fine replacing him with the “Grama-sevka”. Our current one is a woman – and a good one.
      .
      However, they wanted it changed to “Grama Niladhari” – the desired translation into English is worse than what you’ve given. It is “Official”. So pompous and self-important. Even my use of “woman” may be seen as a mistake by many Sri Lankans. It’s a dirty word! “Lady” is what is desired. The problem is with the expectations of our people.
      .
      There still are people with better values, but this desire to “rise in society” trumps all else. The village schools are withering. The desire is be in a town school with a “name”. Simple psychology should have ruled out “Village name + Maha Vidyalaya”. That school exists only for enrolment. It’s the “tuition-class” alone that matters to produce “results”. So, it boils down to “syllabus&exam”.
      .
      “Tamil Schools?” – this is brilliant wrting, but painful reading:
      .
      https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/indian-plantation-workers-experiences/
      .
      I don’t know the language at all, but I have interacted with well-nigh all the Tamil schools in the vicinity – at least forty schools, not in sufficient depth, you might say. There has been slight improvement, but the Sarvan-article still holds good.
      .
      No easy answers

      • 0
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        Thank you Mr SM as always. The sun is shining over here today. We are all very happy to have good weathers after long time though.
        .
        I have been adding my comments to CT for such a long time. Thank you to have noticed it. I think my start goes back to the years before you started to join in. this wonderful web site.
        At the beginning we had a commenter called ” LEELA” who was almost similar to the behaviour of current day ” Champa”. Since Leela had nothing but to defend Rajapakshe family rule ( I mean several years prior to 2015 election) hurt me that much and that is how my avartar came into being. Now you may know its history.

        Since then I have been posting me as “Leelage malli” – and the message being passed to nation is “5 fingers in an human arm are not similar in sizer. -මිනිස් අතක ඇඟිලි 5 ක් එකිනෙකට සමාන නොවේ.

        I checked myself the chart trajectory of COVID for Germany it is becoming better with the numbers. Today on, they the Germans reopen even fitness centres, cafes and various other places where people usually get together but with strict conditions. U know Germans in general would not cross at the traffic lights even if the road is dead. They are like programmed machines when asked to repsect the rule of law.

        • 0
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          Unlike the americans, Germans in general dont publish much about the progress of anything but when it goes to new therapies they are among the leading countries. since Donald Trump had ulterior motives to work with CureVac- the german govt is little silent on the issue.
          CureVac is the company that could bring the first vaccine against COVID-virus in the months to com é and they are fromm south germany.
          :
          Schools are not yet reopened – they have been planning to start with Alevel/Abitur students first and allow the younger pupils later.
          :
          They the Germans can go for reopening with their recovery numbers becoming 83% as of yesterday.
          :
          The comparable numbers in SL is not even 28% and many neigbourng countries to Germany are now strugglling to get the cover flattened… Uk – the favourite of their colonies is the worst hit right at the moment, they cant even estimate how many would recover in that population….. can you imagine ? We know that UK lead in medical research but their health care system is even worst than that of the US. Germans are forced to pay their medical insurance like 300 -1200 Euro/month. So why cant they maintain the best medic insurance in the world ? Regardless of you being sick or not, this installments are deducted almost every month.

  • 1
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    I Quite understand your predicament Hasini.
    All are not equal when it comes to resources, even when resourceful!
    The Corona Virus has made the gap between the Haves and the Havenots wider all round.
    I AM PLEASED that you have addressed your mind to those students who have no access to the Internet.
    ON-LINE teaching under the present circumstances may be the only way out.
    GOD-FORBID! if we end up with on-line Ragging!

  • 1
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    PART ONE
    .

    Dear Ms Hasini Lecamwasam,
    .
    Yours is a well-thought-out article;
    you are right to have ruled out “do nothing” using equity as an excuse. You have also been perceptive enough to understand the qualitative difference between learning lots of testable facts on line and learning in real situations – outside of even classrooms. I read your article many hours ago, and then made this ponderous move to make some comments worthy of your article. I’ve already announced that I intend doing so.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/a-tale-of-two-epidemics-malaria-1930-1960-and-covid-19-2016-20/
    .
    However, the question is how many will think seriously about what you have said? I’m a retired teacher myself, so I’m conscious of some of the dilemmas that you are faced with.
    .
    There was this terrible article of mine that was collecting comments on either side of the Presidential Elections. It was written and submitted in a hurry. My cobbler and his daughter, Manel (so I called her) figure prominently in it.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/two-categories-of-presidential-candidates/
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    Well, I got another pair of shoes heeled by him last week.

    .

  • 0
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    PART TWO
    .
    I haven’t yet met Manel.
    I offered once more to turn up with a dongle (they’ve now heard of it!) to explain how to get on the Internet. No, he said. There was a young guy who knows all about computers (I’m sure that he must be more adept than me) but their main concern right now is food.
    .
    Their two basic phones are on the blink, he said. And next, it will be tuition – including English! Few in Bandarawela feel that I could be providing them useful practice in conversation, or show them the websites that will benefit them.
    .
    To fully appreciate the hopeless situation where the State had given this Dell Laptop retailing at around 80K to 65 kids of Bandarawela M.M.V. who got nine O. Level “A”s in 2018, you must necessarily go back to that mess of an article, and see the comments made by some pundits. Cogitating thereon will help you understand why, despite so many apparent technological advances that we have witnessed, critical thinking is lacking.
    .
    How much more to say? I could, but I don’t expect many readers to look at it, although some educationist may.

  • 0
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    As forecast by me, not many views have been placed before us. I’m at a loss to suggest what else to do and say. Hasini, you have to get lessons across to Political Science students. But your writing shows that your interests are wider, including the teaching of children in your own family, etc.
    .
    From what I received six months ago, you may have realized, that in the minds of most Sri Lankans, it has all got commercialized and there is an obsession with having the best and latest in technology, and wondering about possibilities of employment within technology, rather than using these resources for accessing various fields of knowledge. World-wide the use of Desk-top computers has lessened owing to the versatility and ubiquity of smartphones. I wonder if you have realised that Internet cafes have almost disappeared.
    .
    It would help, Hasini, if you could intervene and indicate in which areas you’d like us to make our observations known. Comments have now to come in within seven days.
    .
    The authoritarian organisation of schools is what has been causing me most concern recently.
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/challenging-three-cheating-thomian-pharisees-and-not-doing-it-from-behind/
    .

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