Education is one of the sectors which has been severely impacted by Covid-19. Perhaps the only silver lining in this crisis was online teaching, which some affluent schools and universities took recourse to using platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft Team, Google Classroom, etc, along with YouTube and WhatsApp.
Online teaching is now being seen and recommended in some quarters as the key to all the problems our education system is facing. Are these virtual classrooms a solution to all the educational needs of the country? Are they an adequate replacement for classroom instruction? Also, importantly, is online teaching compatible with the Indian milieu? To answer these questions, it would be useful to understand what the objectives of education are.
According to the Indian thought tradition, education has three major objectives: personality and/or character building, social welfare, and creation and progress of knowledge. It is germane to know to what extent online education achieves these goals.
In the traditional face-toface classroom setting, apart from exchange of knowledge, an indirect process of personality building goes on simultaneously. Students inculcate values of mutual co-existence and cooperation, sharing and caring as well as a healthy tolerance for different viewpoints. Along with this, a good teacher often serves as a mentor to his students which can have a profound life-changing effect on them. Then, on a college campus the interactions among students of diverse socio-economic and subject backgrounds play a huge role in creating well-rounded individuals. Co-curricular activities, an essential part of any school and college experience, grind and polish one’s personality further towards perfection.
In the online method, such ‘personality education’ is simply impossible. Students may attain knowledge here, but psychologically they will be more close to a robot. In this current age, where virtual world and social media is already isolating children and youth from society, online education will be a further obstacle rather than a contributor in the development of social skills or an equitable temperament. Personality and/or character building, the first goal of education, thus, will remain unfulfilled.
Welfare of society — the second purpose of education — is closely linked to the first. Individuals are the building blocks of society. If the bricks are messy, rough and ill-formed, the predicament of the building can only be imagined. In other words, if virtues like tolerance, collectivity and mutual co-existence, vital for societal life and welfare, don’t evolve properly among people, even if a society prospers materialistically, it will have several anomalies giving rise to terrible social problems.
The third objective of education — creation and progress of knowledge — can also only be partially realised in the online method. Borrowing from Kabirdas, the famous Hindi poet, in online learning, only “Kagad Lekhi”, that is, bookish or theoretical knowledge, is possible, depriving students of “Aankhan Dekhi”, that is, practical and applied knowledge. Teaching of disciplines such as the sciences, technology and medicine without practical training can prove disastrous. The supposed virtual labs can’t be a proper substitute of the real ones, thus depriving the students of in-depth knowledge. Besides, there is the issue of duration and degree of attention in online mode, adversely affecting the learning and knowledge attainment.
In modern times, another goal of education is employment. A pure online degree will not prove to be very effective here either. In the current era of multi-tasking, social skills and practical competence are valued higher than purely theoretical knowledge. An online education system will only reinforce social inequalities privileging the influential in the job market. Moreover, in India, getting a proper online education in itself is problematic with weak Internet connectivity, computer in-accessibility or power disruptions, etc.
Further, assessing students’ knowledge online can be a tricky business. Online examinations generally follow objective formats, where a comprehensive evaluation of students’ cognitive competence and their analytical and synthesising abilities is not possible. The ‘Open Book exams’, supposed to be a descriptive and conceptual one, to be conducted by University of Delhi has been mired in controversies.
Despite these limitations, if online education is being promoted as a panacea, it is due either to a half-baked understanding, or a profit-making mindset that views education as business. It is not without reason that the biggest advocates of online education are private institutions, coaching institutes and some others with vested interests.
The academic world has largely been lukewarm and cautious in its response. In fact, even in the US and Europe, where digital literacy and reach is substantially higher and quality online learning platforms of prestigious universities like Harvard, MIT, Stanford like “edex”, “courser” or “udacity” exist, the common student dreams of getting a regular classroom education, despite the very expensive costs of higher education.
Should online education be rejected in toto, then? Not at all! In fact, online education is very beneficial for working professionals, self-employed or business people who have constraints in attending regular courses. Online programs would help them in promotion or fetching newer jobs. For regular students too, pursuing traditional education, various online courses from around the world, as ‘add-on’ courses will further add and diversify their knowledge and skills. Additionally, for students from poor or remote backgrounds, not exposed to good teachers or rich libraries, online study material prepared by the best institutions will be a boon. Elearning platforms designed by the Ministry of Human Resource Development from school to university level like “Swayam, Diksha, E-Basta, Shodhganga, Vidwan, e-PG Pathshala” are very useful.
Besides, online education will help reduce the demand and supply gap of higher education, catering for a substantial number of people who want to have a moderately good quality of higher education, just to gratify their socio-psychological needs. This eventually will enhance India’s Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER), which is currently less than 30%, in a cost-effective way.
During the ongoing pandemic and lockdown, online teaching is undoubtedly a necessity. In normal circumstances, however, it will prove to be most useful mainly as a supporting tool to traditional classroom education and not as an alternative.
Niranjan Kumar is a Professor in the Department of Hindi, University of Delhi. He has taught earlier in various US universities.