Published: 07th May 2020
Why the COVID-19 pandemic is a boon for trading education online like a commodity
Are market forces and tech companies using the ongoing COVID pandemic as a chance to peddle their wares to a country that is unprepared for it?
The crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been beyond the imagination of humankind. While ‘lockdown’ has been a strategy followed by policymakers to prevent the onslaught of the disease, the world is simultaneously engaged in finding solutions to eliminate it once for all. Of course, the pandemic has eliminated the privileges once enjoyed only by those who are economically, socially and politically advantageous. This unprecedented vulnerability has shackled the status quo of the economic order and thus attracted a huge response from the neoliberal forces, which are at the helm of economic affairs. What is staggering is that it did not leave education out of it.
Education is the first sector to have been paralysed since the start of the pandemic as social distancing, by all means, was not at all a possibility on campus. The higher education campuses are not only places for delivering a predetermined curriculum but also grooming the youth in response to contemporary developments and requirements posed by the society. What the youth need to learn during this overwhelming situation is how to overcome this crisis, how to stabilise the mind and streamline their thoughts.
Policymakers, law makers, educational service providers and people at the helm of affairs of the state all have been voicing for continued teaching and learning through the internet while the students and teachers are being locked down at home. Learning online while being at home should be a welcome idea provided it provides the liberty to students to choose the topic, does not discriminate between the haves and have-nots, rural and urban, privileged and under-privileged, and does not violate or impede the curricular norms.
Soon after this exercise, the world has quickly come to realise that it is not a solution because the world has yet to come out with a full-blown online learning mechanism that would replace the real physical learning process. Even well before this crisis, a survey of leaders of prominent global universities from 45 countries, in 2018, revealed that ‘online higher education would never match the real thing’.
A consortium of several entities like publishers, media and industries have come together to offer free educational assets like books, videos, journals, assessment tools and counselling services. No doubt that online services and resources might certainly contribute to matters of instruction and improve the learning experience of students, but, will these offer a foolproof all-round learning opportunity to the learners?. All their concerns were centred on only one thing; that educational institutions should complete their academic schedules, including examinations, regardless of the difficulties caused by the pandemic. People argued that students and teachers are idle at home and that salaries are being paid.
These arguments are nothing but empty thoughts of neoliberal economic forces, which see everything through the market-driven value system that preaches principles like ‘time is money’, ‘value for money’, ‘cost to corporation’, ‘smart services’ and so on. As ‘time is money’, the academic year cannot be extended even by two months even during the pandemic period, because, who will bear the ‘cost to company’ caused by the service rendered during the extended period.
Learning experience will be enhanced only when all relevant pedagogies are practiced. To the great philosopher Noam Chomsky, the right pedagogy is the one that fosters an impulse to challenge authority, think critically and create alternatives to well-worn models. To Paulo Freire, pedagogy should liberate the minds of the learners and enable them to think critically and thus reflect with their own insights.
Virtual learning rarely gives any chance of applying suitably these pedagogies, and virtual technology, according to Chomsky, is always neutral and it might be harmful or useful, but its success lies in the frame of reference under which one uses it.
Taking advantage of this situation, several online service marketers are haunting the education sector with their products/services. Secondly, the governments of the third world countries, in response to COVID 19, took decisions on the conduct of education predominated by the bureaucrats who are at the helm of affairs. The decisions and directions of these governments and their agencies have the mandate to fulfill the demands of the different pressing commitments, treaties and dominant forces.
One of those commitments is what the government of India’s offer of its higher education sector to the demands of the WTO-GATS as early as 2005. One of the demands of the WTO-GATS is to allow the educational business online across the sea. The author is compelled to state education as ‘educational business’ because the WTO-GATS had already brought education as a commodity under trade to which the government of India had also subscribed. At the advent of the lockdown, educators, academicians and policy makers of the subcontinent have expressed a relentless desire for online learning and were so thrilled, enthused, and delighted for having used online learning services in their campuses, and some of them were publicly beaming that they have been treading this period of crisis successfully through smart digital learning with the newly found technological saviors of education like Zoom, Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams and so on.
This will enslave education and the process of learning. How? First, it will lead the higher education sector towards brain-drain in the long run by making it dependent on online sources and materials and domesticate the higher education sector. Pedagogical limitations caused by the online learning process would also limit the learning experience of the learners. Second, the intelligence being drawn from such voluminous data through the internet as personal information, course materials and research materials will only help the technology power houses to set the agenda of both education and evolution of society in conformity with the agenda of the neoliberal world. If this is allowed for some time, it will then be too late to bring the epicentre of education back to society.
Neither the market forces nor the nation-state should be allowed to set and control the agenda of education, but society, as it is the only entity that has a unique learning curve in its evolution, has the right. Nation-states and economic forces are temporary and transient in nature; they are subject to split, merger and acquisition but society is permanent and its transformation is cumulative and organic. In other words, education should democratise society by cultivating and synthesising unsegregated human experience regardless of caste, creed, religion and race and thus should have the amplitude and capacity to provide equal opportunity.
The ‘Fathers of education’, on their part, have all suddenly started vying to be known as the original progenitors who made their institutions the smart houses of learning. Of course, this race would give them an edge in marketing their education business. However, in this coveted race, the voice and thoughts of the so-called academic leaders like Vice-Chancellors and Directors and seasoned professors are largely unknown. This could be because of two reasons; either it is a matter of survival so that they do not voice fearing the worst from their masters or they are simply downtrodden.
How about the student fraternity? It is the ever oppressed mass under the context of the aforesaid ‘conformity’ kind of education, and as such, it cannot play any significant role to liberate itself from these clutches. They are forced by the neoliberal world to go online against the fact that most of them lack digital devices, data plans and net connectivity. Especially, regardless of these lacunae, online examinations are illogical and fundamentally against the philosophy of learning assessment.
The foregoing discussion at least indicates one thing that the current trend of online learning and assessment did not simply arise out of the COVID-19 crisis. but it has been a collective plot of several national and international institutions, agencies, and market forces. However, the long term repercussions that this will create will be disastrous to humankind as it will further commoditise education, increase the gap in education quality and further exacerbate socioeconomic equality, reduce educative capacity of the society.
As the lockdown caused by COVID-19 is only temporary and the world has seen several such pandemics and survived over them as well, humankind this time will also survive so will education. Why to urge, shiver or compete with dangerous options as if COVID-19 will kill education. Let us save education from the plots of the vested forces, which is the only thing if at all the society should do to education at this time of crisis. Otherwise, the alternates being imposed these days would be habituated and one day these will become norms of education.
The writer is Vice-Chancellor, JSS Science and Technology University, Mysuru, Karnataka