Politics of online education & subaltern imagination

Colonial imprints are still embedded and layered within different political, and social realities across the boundaries of the curriculum that is taught within the social space of the classroom where some classes (the subaltern) are subsumed while others are applauded through the soft power structures. As a result, the question of equity and accessibility in education has garnered significant attention among scholars.

Despite the tremendous amount of transformation, we have witnessed through research in the social sciences, and their impact on the tactics of pedagogies; geographies of learning borders, and the robotic mechanical strategies blended with post-modern technology, the accessibility to education is still an improbable dream within the marginalised communities of India. Political speeches are loaded with the dystopian, and elitist possibilities of enhancing learning opportunities during this pandemic by invisibilising, and obscuring the ground reality in the capitalistic discourse which is already shaped by neo-liberal tools like a webinar, E-learning and the virtual classrooms, creating a nexus for the interplay of power and justice.

This western orientation of the possibility of continuing education through a virtual model might have worked within their context, but in the context of India, it permeates in some subtle and some more violent forms more inequality and generates new forms of social exclusion which ontologically questions the emancipatory position of education.

The fixated location of the education as an epistemological concept moves then into a certain kind of fluidity which nudges us towards the rethinking of its existentialist order taking into consideration the sensitivities and the specificities of the learning spaces. When viewing through the anthropological microscopic lens; such an intricate position reveals a different kind of micro-physics in the COVID-19 pandemic where the internet acts as a power grid that is accessible to those who are economically, and politically more powerful and dispossesses, disempowers, and degenerates those who don’t have political and economic mileage to reach its boundaries.

The current Kashmiri context is relevant here where fast internet is only accessible to urban, and rural elite classes often have strong political affiliations which also generates a new power structure at the localized level and puts at bay the majority of the population which has a limping mode of the internet. Such a context promotes an incongruous form of classification, categorisation, and the construction of learners where one is an insider, and the other is an outsider.

The soft forms of otherness in the Indian context are often concealed within the conundrum of virtual learning. The complex dynamics of such contextual and intersectional realities pose a question to this mode of learning which seems to be realistically intersecting with blatant marginalisation against specific socio-political-economic realities of people.

It raises certain questions like how to make teaching and learning possible among the students who don’t have access to the internet or even if they have, do they possess proper skills to navigate through the digital world? What is a possible way out in the social landscape of conflict where the state often snaps out the internet in the name of national security? Then what’s the imagination of education in such plural contexts which form dichotomies? Do these dramatic times challenge the pedagogies and reveal our incompetence in the concrete blueprints that are inevitably part of our intellectual spaces?

Modern states sustain themselves through sovereign power, or what in the Foucauldian paradigm is called biopower. The genesis of power is knowledge. The term ‘power/knowledge’ signifies that power is constituted through accepted forms of knowledge, scientific understanding, and ‘truth’. This is manifested through the mechanism of normalization and disciplining our societies through the process of subtle observation, judgment, and examination. As a result, it’s excluding those who have not reached their required standards and imposing upon them these precise norms and judgments by turning them into “docile bodies” and passive recipients in this whole process.

The weaving of normalcy and proceeding with the almost overnight shift to the online mode of learning during this pandemic by different schools is similar to what is called by Paulo Fiere as creating “False consciousness”- a matter of seeing the self, the world, and one’s relationship to the world in distorted ways or a complex often accompanied with the ambiguity. The interests of oppressors lie in changing the consciousness of the oppressed, not the situation which oppresses them. To this end, the oppressors use the banking concept of education where students are considered as depositories and the teacher as a depositor. In other words, the students are customers ready to accept manufactured knowledge, and the teachers are professional market sellers objectifying the whole phenomena of education into the commodity.

The system of online education and examination is the quintessential example of the power /knowledge nexus that connects the roots of historical observation to normalizing judgments where our politics and policies conveniently neglect the socioeconomic realities of those at the margins to favour the ones with power and dominance. On its surface, this online education system appears to be inclusive and promising with its flexibility. However, a closer inspection helps one understand how this mode of learning thrives on perpetuating the inequalities between different groups and is nothing but a privileged concept that aims to exclude those already at the margins. If anything, it has brought to light, or rather, magnified the disparities that form the core of our Indian society.

Beyond the melodrama of chest-thumping and thali beating, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the administrative fractures that are rooted in the education system of the country. As digital learning accelerates, it sheds light on India’s digital and social divide. Students from rural areas or the ones from disadvantaged communities lack not only the resources but also the means to enjoy the benefits of online learning. These online classes are limited to the privileged few as a large number of students do not have access to resources such as computers or smartphones. The statement released by UNESCO argues that half of the total number of learners (about 826million or 82.6 crores) away from classrooms at the moment does not have access to a computer.

Also, about 43 per cent (706 million or 70.6 crores) have no internet at home. This is at a time when digitally-based distance learning is used to ensure educational continuity in the majority of countries. This system of online education neglects the socioeconomic realities of its learners, treating them as passive beings in this whole process of learning. The idea behind online classes is to help children continue their learning, but we need to question ourselves if this knowledge is worthwhile if it fails to teach empathy, cooperation and compassion. Notably, children with disabilities suffer disproportionately.

There is a deep correlation between disability and poverty. Most of the students do not possess laptops or computers. Even if some of them do, they require special software support such as Braille readers, screen readers, etc. to access these online lessons. Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disability (under the Ministry of Social Justice and Welfare) has recently released Comprehensive Disability Inclusive Guidelines for the protection and safety of persons with disabilities during the pandemic. While it talks of providing essential services and assistance to people with disabilities, it nowhere takes into account the educational needs of children with disabilities.

In addition to this, a nuanced observation comes on the table that teachers too are facing challenges. Not only are many of them digitally inept, but a significant number of teachers also have never even used an online teaching environment. Ideally, teaching an online course involves planning, such as drawing up a lesson plan and preparing teaching resources such as audio and video content. This has presented many teachers, mostly female, with new challenges along with the burden of household chores as reinforced by social rules and gendered roles of domesticity.

With the world crumbling down to the pandemic, online education also seems like the last nail in the coffin for the concept of critical pedagogies as it negates the culture of collective learning by limiting the interactions among students and teachers creating a sense of alienation and isolation among them; rendering the whole process as nothing but a reductionist activity by destroying the organic space of limitless dialogues and discussions between different stakeholders forcing cooperative teaching and excitement within the classroom to die a slow death. This profit-making privatized view of education has also failed to seize the opportunities to address long-pressing issues and debates in the education sector with regards to the idea of “worthwhile knowledge”.

It has instead focused on providing an instant two-minute solution in the form of online education under the veil of continuity of learning by not only pushing the realities of people that are unrepresented and underprivileged under the carpet but also increasing their supposed failures.

Apple reminded us that in this Neo-liberal regime ideals of education are in coherence with the ideals of conservative modernists where “What is public is seen as necessarily bad and what is private is seen as necessarily good, the thin democracy of markets replaces the thick democracy of participatory forms.”

This new power block that has been formed under the forces of the neoliberal regime is in a constant tussle with the secular and democratic ideas of education and just wants to focus on the preservation of their ideals to preserve this culture of hegemony and their middle-class sentiments. The middle class has always been committed to values of accountability, standardization, measurement rather than the goals of social welfare and inclusion which tends to devalue the cultural milieu of marginalized sections and their epistemologies creating a culture of “silence” about their lives and subjective experiences.

The current situation is, of course, an unprecedented one. However, we should be careful of the realities of the people before making a transition into different modes of education which are not only inappropriate but inegalitarian, and violently discriminatory to deal with it. We need to include everyone and make inclusion a reality rather than playing with anxious and panicked minds.

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Author: Neha Wadhwa & Ruhail Andrabi

Neha Wadhwa is a PhD scholar at the University of Delhi and Ruhail Andrabi is a research scholar at JMI.
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