Let us not normalize the online education!

As famous educationist John Dewey has once said, education is not a preparation for life; education is life itself. Education as an essential institution in society has a huge responsibility towards building the faculties that will allow the members of the society to develop nuanced understanding and reflective positions on different issues society might be facing. It prepares the youth for future leadership positions in the community.

Now, if we shall try to interrogate the current education system, there could be a lot of questions coming our way; is the system working efficiently, to the best of its capacity or is it entirely in doldrums. Of course, the answer lies somewhere in between. Neither we are super successful nor have lost track entirely, and indeed lot of efforts are needed to bring back the glory to the institution of education.

Coming to the current circumstances, education is badly hit. Can we imagine millions of students across the world have not gone to school for nearly eight months now? Governments, both national and state, responded with different interventions to overcome academic losses to. The educational institutions across the different levels were put on online mode, and to be fair to the governments, this seemed the only option, especially during the initial phase of the pandemic.

Now when we look back and reflect on the efficacy of the virtual mode of learning, we are probably better positioned to see the pros and cons of this learning mode. There is no doubt that we had minimal options, but we must be mindful that there are millions across the world who have had no fortune to attend any sort of online class because of many issues confronting each one of them.

The first and foremost issue with many of our student community across the board was accessibility to devices and the required technology. Research is available in the public domain, informing us that a healthy percentage of people have accessibility issues vis-à-vis devices and technology. We assume that just because we have switched over to online mode, everyone will join, while there are people who cannot afford a basic version of a mobile phone. In some cases even if they get a mobile phone somehow, can they afford internet connection. Then there are internet connectivity issues. These are some of the questions we need to ask and probably should take into consideration before initiating any debate on the efficacy of online education.

The tendency has been that one size fits all, without taking the ground level feedback. Unless an organization takes feedback from ground zero and analyses it critically, we cannot produce robust means of reaching the student community. We all are aware that we live in a society that is unequal and have many systemic issues. During the education process, we all should be mindful that we must make sure these gaps are bridged. But due to the overemphasis on online education and since people are not able to access these platforms due to reasons mentioned, we are widening these gaps.

By this mere standardization of virtual education, and by trying to completely replace the old face to face interaction, we are treading a dangerous path. Education is not merely listing to the boring lectures of teachers, whether online or offline; it is a socialization process; it means a particular student learns everywhere on campus, at the canteen, in the library, or simply chatting with a friend under a tree. By normalizing this online education, we could end up putting the millions of poor students at the margins, whereby they will not be able to learn the necessary skills of life. It is time we revisit our strategy to reach out to our students and let us have tailor-made solutions as per the specific contexts and help them overcome these difficult moments in their lives.

So far as evaluation and examination are concerned, the less we talk the better it is. Of course, there are ways to evaluate students online. Still, due to many reasons, our system of evaluation has become a mockery, and we have reached a stage where everyone in the system gets eighty to ninety percent marks whether he/she knows anything or not. We have arrived at a stage where the capacity of our examination/evaluation system to distinguish between different students based on their ability has been thrown to winds. We all need to ask ourselves a very question; do we have the necessary IT infrastructure in place for smooth conduct of online education, and examination. Second, whether the virtual mode of education can produce the desired learning experience or not.

I far once shall argue that we are not entirely ready so far as IT infrastructure is concerned, and so far as the second one is concerned, let us put this to debate, and let people, especially academia, reflect and come up with solutions. We are of the belief that saving a year or two of a student is not a bad idea at all, but this should not be at the cost of quality of education, because at the end of the  day our students have to face the larger competitive environment outside and for that it is absolutely important for an education system as a whole to revamp itself and devise a mode of learning which shall not only prepare these individuals for the world of competition.

Manzoor Ahmad Parey is Assistant Professor, Government Degree College Bandipore, Kashmir.