【by Meera Baindur, Dec. 2021】
In my 9th standard, I read a short story by Asimov written in 1951 called The fun they had. In that story, two friends Tom and Margie living in the year 2157 take lessons from a mechanical teacher in their own homes. One day, Tom finds a real paper book in his house, which is about real schools. Tom and Margie are surprised that children study together and learn from a real person. “A man! how can a man be a teacher?” asks Margie, surprised. She knows that men cannot be as clever as machines. The story is prophetic today. I remember my teacher telling us in class when she did this lesson “You’re all lucky you’re coming here to school and sitting in a classroom. One day everyone will be in their own homes and learning from screens. They won’t be playgrounds, sports, or even a school day.”
We were already heading towards the technological innovation of learning from machines. The pandemic has accelerated this process. Usually, technology leads the way and humans adapt to it, but now, in contrast, humans are requiring technology to function and adapt to this new situation. The model of online education was already seen as something innovative and accessible to all public even before the pandemic. This model is based on a concept of education that is private. What does it mean? I mean that education, in this model, is considered to be the transmission of information systematically to an individual student. It is the technical definition of education, the core of which is transmission of packets of content and skills efficiently. The assessment is individual, the learning is individual, and soon even the lesson plan can be customised to the learning outcomes of the student as it was for Margie and Tom in Asimov’s story. Initially, there will be preferential access, many people will struggle to access technologies and there will be exclusions. Newer technology however will eventually win, and so the technology of campus learning will be a thing of the past, as we see antiquated typewriters or even the large desk tops we used earlier.
However, what is missing in online teaching is the process of social learning, or as Asimov puts it “the fun they had.” The fun in a campus classroom was being with my peers in a space that was not home, not my family. In the classroom, I fought with my friends, shared lunch, and argued with the teacher. I was punished as a member of a class and was also punished individually. I learned that you can be punished even if you are right but your group makes a mistake. I was a part of the drama club, I got to read aloud before my classmates beaming with pride because the teacher said I read well. Performance was something I learned to do with my body in a classroom. I learned about injustice, unfairness, and nepotism. In college, I knew more about my classmates’ love affairs than I did about my siblings’. All these seem very insignificant activities when you consider that nothing of the content of learning disciplines came through these experiences. Yet the social, learning about the everyday social, has been a vital part of my education in life. I learned to be political and ‘be with’ people with whom I did not agree. I learned to negotiate and adjust to other’s needs. I learned to sit in uncomfortable chairs and still create for myself a comfortable space to learn.
Even the new education policy in India lays stress on online courses and learning. Education here becomes private not in the sense of being elitist and not accessible to the public, but private in the sense of the ‘individual’ as opposed to the ‘social’. Already, I see the batches of students who joined the undergraduate program in 2020, who have never attended class in a campus, continue to be school students in their attitude. They are divorced from the process of adapting and expect the same kind of teaching-learning that happened in school. They are also more entitled than earlier students whom I have taught for many years. We are creating a generation of isolated students, not social individuals.
The future of education in India must look to create opportunities for the pandemic batch of students, programs after the isolation, perhaps social boot camps, to help these graduates adapt to social life or we will end up with a generation of private individuals with minimum social skills. While there are systemic practises that can be put in place, as educators we need to bring in reflexivity to examine our role in creating social cohesiveness and trust, even as we practice physical distance. The only way we can work successfully in a crisis is if everyone stands together for the betterment of education. That means moving the idea of learning from remembering and informing to thinking, sensing, listening, voicing, and creating.
Meera Baindur, Manipal University Jaipur, India