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[Interview] We Need Appropriate Technologies & Neighbourhood Learning Spaces To Deal With Current Educational Crisis

What I think is, at present we can start micro neighbourhood learning spaces (micro schools) in our mohallas and localities. These schools can be voluntarily run by one or two persons interested in teaching and supported by the government/private school teacher’s community.

Representative image/ Azad Jain

As countries have announced lockdowns to fight against the novel coronavirus, the classes in schools and colleges have been suspended. So is the case in India. The timing of class suspension is crucial. This is the examination time. In the initial days of the lockdown, classes were completely shut and students were left confined to their homes. Their presence in a physical classroom was halted. Nonetheless, as the lockdown was extended, many schools and colleges have shifted to online teaching mode, via Zoom, Google classroom, Whatsapp and other platforms. Ever since, the discourse on online teaching has been narrow. Much of the critique on online teaching has emphasized on the great digital divide in the country, and lack of affordability of accessing education online, which is however true. It seems, the critique has a blind appreciation of the existing school/college/university system. Kashif Mansoor from The Companion talks to Mujahidul Islam, a faculty at Azim Premji University. He is an Edtech specialist and works on the digital ways of learning. Kashif talks to him to understand how best teaching can continue amid such a pandemic, what are the ways of reaching out to the students constrained by digital accessibility (& affordability), and philosophy of education.

Kashif Mansoor (KM): In recent days, online teaching has been the buzzword. It has been criticized too because of digital inaccessibility and affordability, among other things. Do you find online teaching as an alternative to teaching-learning objective in current times when students can’t go to their schools, colleges and universities?

Mujahidul Islam (MI): There is a blind assumption about the current ‘physical classroom’ education being a better form of education in the present day discussions and debates. This is problematic for me. I have a concern with the way people look at education. Maybe, school education or university education is a trap from which people are not able to come out. Hence, they look at online education’s inability to accomplish that. In this manner, the question of online education is reduced only to the question of access, or the digital media is contrasted as an inferior media than the pre-digital ones.

Also education as an institutionalized system often gets trapped in the agendas between the nation state and the corporate markets. This makes us forget about the underlying philosophy of education, which runs these institutionalized education system(s). As a result the debate becomes stuck only in what form of mediation in learning is better – pre-digital or digital? The romanticism with the brick and mortar form of school (ized) education does not allow you to break out of this entrapped teaching-learning processes which rely blindly on physical interaction. This is the reason you don’t want to answer the most important question at this moment i.e. with all the constraints how do we engage with students, so that they continue to learn in a situation like this which spans for a longer period?

People are only talking about the limitations of online teaching, as you pointed out, like accessibility issues, and its marketized form which is driven by large corporates but no one is talking about the possible solutions. Currently we need a quick workable model to engage with the students when they aren’t physically available in the physical learning spaces called schools and colleges.

KM: You are raising a concern on the educational philosophy, which is least spoken about. In your view, the debate has been reduced to mediation- digital or non digital, and the question on philosophy is not discussed. So what in your view is the present educational philosophy? And how does it work?

MI: COVID-19 has opened the Pandora’s box of the broken system we are living under. It has exposed the systemic problem which exists with education in our country. There have been many education policies and they look great, especially the National Curriculum Framework, 2005, but the reality is the State in India, not limited to the present government alone, has never been serious about implementing these education policies. The demand for six percent of GDP to be spent on education has been very old, has it ever been realized? If you take RTE (Right to Education, 2013), it is no more than a “Trojan horse” which derives its strength from the neo-liberal agenda of Education. In the name of education for all, it strengthens the ongoing assault on the public and communitarian nature of education. Consumerism wins and Communitarian ideas lose.

What is the underlying educational philosophy behind these kinds of policies? I am not not talking about NCF, 2005 but the policies and willingness to implement them and also about people’s perception about education all around us. At the grass root and in the minds of the majority of us Education is still behaviorist and consumerist. This is the reason in our subconscious mind, we still feel that private schools are better than public schools, madrasas are an inferior institution of education. We still feel high fees, examinations, competitions, rewards and punishments drive education. When there’s a problem at the root, you keep cutting the diseased branches but will the disease ever go away?

Our educational systems and practices are driven by the exclusivist ideology of Schoolized Education. This is the reason, any learning technology just strengthens the deeper educational malaise. Don’t you see that blackboard as a technology, classroom as a technology, printed book as a technology, all of this at present complements the behaviorist and exclusivist nature of our education system?

Take examination for example, this itself in its present form is problematic. So whether you do it online or offline, or whether you talk of access to online examination, it is problematic. This whole examination system is so deceptive about education and learning, it is so exclusionary that it should be completely abolished.

KM: Why do you think examination system is exclusivist and why they should be abolished?

MI: Examinations are conducted to assess children in one way and that is – how good you are in mugging and vomiting and at one time of the year or the month. Or how good you can perform in an artificial kind of pressure, where your only motivation is to pass or fail. These examinations can never replicate the real life situation where you use your learning for your own self discovery, or to apply your knowledge in solving problems you face in your life and in this world.

Then there are two kinds of examinations, one which is done to pass and certify the majority that they are educated, although they aren’t and another the competitive entrance examinations to make you feel that you are unfit. The way you are schooled is to make you docile and agree with this kind of exclusion also, and this is the reason most of the people don’t resist this vicious cycle of exploitation which starts so early in your life.

What I want to say is the whole system of schooling is to filter out those who can run the present exploitative systems and institutions. It’s all based upon the assembly line, where you pass them through different stages of manufacturing, test at each stage and then reject those who can’t get moulded into the frame in which you want to manufacture them. The only difference between a conventional assembly line and this assembly line is that the efficiency of this industrial mode of education rejects more and accepts very few because that’s what is their goal. This game of exclusion starts from the school itself when children are made to feel that they are not good at this and not good at that. There’s only one student in the class who can get 1st rank – and the whole motivation of learning is based on reward and punishment (behaviorist).

KM: If examinations are abolished how should then there be the assessment of learning? There should be some way of evaluating whether students are able to learn or not.

MI: Once we come out of the deceptions of the modern examination system we will start thinking ways in which we assess learning. Assessment needs to be continuous and not one time to pass/fail human beings as if they are industrial products. Then there shouldn’t be only one way of assessing because children learn in different ways, in different languages, have different interests and motivation levels. For example assessments and learning both should be based on problem and project based approaches, done individually as well as in group and should be more under real life situations. Their motivation shouldn’t be pass and fail, competition, hiding knowledge from others – which is what it is in the present system. How do you call this a healthy learning culture where everyone is motivated to hide their knowledge so that they get better rank?

KM: Suppose for a moment, we have abolished the present mode of examination, and replace it with the mode of assessment as you are suggesting, in the existing school system, will it then solve the problem?

MI: At present, a large proportion of children have access to school, but has it been able to solve the problem of education? When we start criticizing digital technologies, and more so in the wake of this pandemic, as not being a solution, we start romanticizing the school and classrooms and consider them being able to serve the purpose of education. No, they are also not able to do so. They have failed, and this is the reason, you aren’t able to find a proper way in this pandemic situation. That’s why I say that be it online education or any kind of mediation you use to reach out to your students, it won’t be able to solve the problem, until and unless you are ready to accept the deeper malaise and treat that.

NCF, 2005 is a powerful document in shifting everything but it has not been successful. Why? On one side the state comes up with great policies and thoughts like this and on the other side it does nothing to bring them into life. Why? And what role does the citizens have in all this? Why has there  never been a public movement to force the state to allocate 6% budget in Education? Why no Civil Disobedience to pressurize the government for this in the last 70 years? Problem with the public is they think education is either the state’s responsibility or they can buy it from the market. This is the reason public demand on education is so superficial. Then there is now an industry of NGOs whose market are these demands – keep doing symposiums and seminars, employing people, running events and spending and showing that everything is happening and make the masses feel like things will change.

KM: Okay, now let me go back to the previous question on the exclusive nature of the modern education system, and   intervene here to ask you what do you mean when you say the school system is behaviorist and exclusivist. You have explained to me about the examination, but I want you to expand on this.

MI: I say the present school system or our education policy is exclusivist, because the whole education system is, as I said earlier, shaped according to state agenda/ideology. Based on the industrial economic system, it filters out people. The system is either politically motivated or  profit-driven and both try to indoctrinate and make you docile. Like examination system is a filtering out mechanism as I said earlier. It is behaviorist because it treats human beings like animals. Students, by the behaviorist idea of education, can only be educated on the basis of rewards and punishment. The education treats students as empty boxes which are filled, into which things are deposited. It works in one way in a  didactic mode, where teachers (depositors) come and fill the empty boxes. This one way lecture based learning system happens in physical classrooms and online as well. The failure of online education or any form of distance education isn’t because of the technology only but the underlying philosophy and the market forces which drive it – you are trying to replicate the same physical classrooms which already have issues through a different mediation and technology, that’s the only difference. Another issue is the marketized nature of these newer media, but even the brick and mortar forms of education are as marketized as online platforms.

KM: To me, it looks that online teaching has been criticized unidirectionally, i.e. in terms of accessibility. It looks as if we were to provide everyone with access to digital technologies, it can solve the problem of education. What do you say on this?

MI: Even if you provide 100% access to digital technologies, you will never be able to solve the problem of education we are grappling with. Reasons I have explained earlier but reiterating over what I said is – as the physical learning systems have failed due to the underlying educational philosophies and goals in practice, and the state’s disinterest, agenda and market’s greed, just by shifting them to a different media and technologies can only worsen the problem. Worsening because of the issue of accessibility and because of the present didactic, rote, boring learning culture. But I also feel that all this can bring the underlying problems more at the forefront especially for those who want to understand this honestly.

KM: So you are saying we can solve the problem without the aid of digital technologies?

I am not saying that we have to reject technologies. We can’t blindly say that access to technologies is not going to solve the problem. What matters is appropriate technologies – technologies which are already there, or which can be easily created by the local people or the community. As per my understanding appropriate technologies does not exclude modern technologies but looks at them from a very social lens not only from the market lens. For example, we need to ensure that technologies do not become behaviorist and consumerist. Technologies in education should not only mean smart boards, smart classrooms, videoconferencing, apps, applying artificial intelligence to scoring etc etc.

For example, had there been the idea of community radios, community internet, community driven social media, idea of commons and open practices, it would have been able to address the issue of accessibility we are facing to reach out to students in this pandemic time.

KM: Let’s come to another important part of our conversation. How do we solve the problem of access to education amid such a time? I am not talking about the government, but about the civil societies working in the field of education and those people who are associated not with the government.

MI: This pandemic and lockdown should make us rethink about our conventional ways of teaching-learning process – the underlying educational philosophy which is in practice and believed by the masses. We should realize again that children are the active learning agent and now that we are physically not engaged with them what should we do to help them reclaim their agency of learning? On these lines teachers should engage with their students using tools and ways which are in their hand at this moment, like home delivery of learning materials, telephonic calls, television/radio broadcast and internet. This thinking is on the lines of appropriate technologies by which I mean what technologies are possible locally and easily and can be driven by the community. For example community radio, community internet, idea of commons and open practices, community driven neighbourhood learning spaces. The proposal for neighbourhood schools isn’t new, it was proposed almost fifty years back, but it has never been realized. Neither the government nor the people have been serious about this idea.

What I think is, at present we can start micro neighbourhood learning spaces (micro schools) in our mohallas and localities. These schools can be voluntarily run by one or two persons interested in teaching and supported by the government/private school teacher’s community. Like in a small locality like a mohalla there can be a room where a few kids (5-10-15-20) come for at least 1-2 hours and collectively learn under someone’s guidance. The volunteers can keep getting guidance from the teachers and teacher educators community, i.e. they can take advantage of the online teacher education and teacher professional development ecosystem. Special courses can also be designed for them. They can access thousands of online available open educational resources and use them inside these micro schools. I feel if the community starts taking the responsibility rather than outsourcing it either to the private or public, this idea can work really well and within the access constraints of digital technologies. And this whole idea is not just to address this pandemic situation but to start reforming education and learning systems and make them resilient to these kinds of emergencies.

KM: Thank you for having this conversation. I would like to say it was an enriching discussion with you, and truly inspiring for at least the case that we all can be a part of community/neighbourhood learning spaces.

MI: Thanks. Well, we need to raise these concerns and try addressing them with all our available resources and newer ways of thinking rather than being constrained by the situation, as people often complain.