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Julian S Das Julian S Das
13 Sep 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

Now that many of the parents have begun to look for the long-forgotten school bags and badges, skirts and scarves, shirts and socks, there are chances that the schools too have begun their part to sanitise the classrooms and common facilities to welcome students after about one-and-a-half years. Apparently many states are feeling acutely the non-learning caused by the prolonged pandemic and the lockdown. Some of the states, which have opened the gates of schools for higher classes, from class nine to twelve, have not regretted their decision, and that is enough encouragement for other states in the country to follow suit.

There are not many who would believe that the pandemic had wrecked the education of our children. Even the urban poor have been left behind in the craze to modernise education by going digital. For the daily wage earners, who have been robbed of their livelihood, thanks to the lockdown restrictions imposed by the states, purchasing a smartphone to enable his or her son or daughter, and keep recharging the mobile phone month after month is not an easy task, and very seldom would we come across the government or non-governmental organisations come to the rescue of these left-out of our society.

Those who had not been blessed with a mobile phone or those whose teachers have not been adequately initiated into the art of online classes have been left behind in the rat-race, as a recent national-level survey by SCHOOL (headed by Nirala Bakhla, Jean Dreze, Vipul Paikra, and Ritika Khera) points out. The same was reiterated by the survey results conducted by Oxfam in 2020, which held that 80% of the government school children did not learn anything during the lockdown. Thus educationists and parents at large are welcoming the idea of opening the gates of schools, so that there may be at least some learning. There are cases where the children have not touched a slate or notebook ever since the Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared nation-wide lockdown in March 2020.

As the country is forging ahead with plans to implement the ambitious new education policy, we need to make sure that the foundation is strong, and we are not aspiring to build multi-storey buildings on baseless foundations. This calls for a relook at the National Education Policy 2020 with fresh perspectives and changed scenarios in mind.

The School of Unlearning

When it comes to the educational scenario during the pandemic and the resultant lockdown, everyone on the board was utterly clueless and helpless; the college and the school managements trying to keep their expenditure at the minimum, in order to manage the lion's share of the 80% of the tuition fees on salary to teachers, parents finding ways and means to keep their children indoors (an herculean task for school-going boys and girls to be locked up inside the house day after day), and teachers struggling to innovate themselves to teach things which are hard to explain online, and the best of B.Ed colleges had not prepared them for such a predicament.

Digital learning is what education scenario in the country and in general across the globe is gearing towards. With the gates of schools and colleges shut temporarily, the students have been locked up within four walls, with the tiny cellular phone to be their via medium between themselves and the teachers, and even beyond.

Fortunately the government and several educational boards have come to the consensus that no student would be failed and the automatic pass of all students has also brought in another unprecedented factor; students now know that until their classes are held on campus, they need not take trouble to study their lessons, because they would be passed in any case, whether they get through the Multiple choice questions examination or not.

Even if we go through the ambitious National Education Policy 2020 of the Central Government, it is only an utopia which can be compared to a pie in the sky, out of reach for most of the learners, who do not have the basic means to get through even the elementary schooling, leave alone the technical studies and areas of specialisation.

Setting the ball rolling

The Karnataka Government is the first in India to set the ball rolling as far as the NEP 2020 is concerned. The state government had announced that the ambitious policy of the central government would come into effect from 2021-22. Telangana and Andhra Pradesh are also gearing to join the bandwagon. Andhra Pradesh is also said to be setting up six types of schools as part of the implementation of the NEP.

Perhaps the southern states may be in a better position to set the ball rolling in comparison to the northern states, where the literacy rate is still dragging backward the national average, particularly Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, to name a few.

On August 31, 2021, the Delhi University approved a four-year under graduate course as part of the NEP 2020 implementation. The new policy has recommended a multidisciplinary approach in  the degree courses, so that students have a broader perspective of the learning, to better equip them for job opportunities later in life. The four-year course also provides the students with choice to discontinue after one year with a certificate, two years with a diploma, three years with an undergraduate degree, but the four years with a 'research'.  

Policy with potholes

The National Education Policy 2020 of the Union government has been acclaimed as one of the most comprehensive and forward-looking policies of the present incumbent at the helm of affairs in New Delhi. Though it tries to point the nation’s education policy towards the digital domain, it also drags its roots to the forlorn ancient Sanskritic foundations of the so-called Indian civilisation. There are subtle attempts to promote the time-tested one-nation one-religion and one-culture policy. There are also attempts to hijack the cultural identity of the nation as something that is totally based on the Aryan view of life, downplaying the Dravidian and indigenous cultures, which are historically pre-eminent to the Sanskritic roots. Thus excessive emphasis on Sanskrit may blow a death knell to the non-Sanskritic traditions, especially the indigenous adivasi and subaltern traditions, which are unique to this land.

No doubt, the government is in a hurry to implement the NEP 2020, so that it paves way for the nation to forge ahead on the digital highway unhindered. While introducing the new education policy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hoped that the new initiative of the government would help in "nation-building". 

But there are fewer attempts on the part of the government to test the ground before launching the mission. The pandemic has brought to fore a crude reality: the rural India is not prepared for the digital education or e-learning. Even the urban poor who attend the corporation schools do not have access to the smart-phones (whether these gadgets make the users 'smart' is another issue altogether!) to attend the online classes, leave alone the constant recharge of the phones to access the video lessons, which are megabyte-hungry.

Start with Unlearning

One of the most difficult tasks that teachers have today is helping students unlearn what they have routinely and mechanically gulped, without realising what they were actually doing.

The Brazilian philosopher and author Paulo Freire had authored The Pedagogy of the Oppressed to show how the oppressed themselves can become agents of liberation through a pedagogy which is authored by them for them. Doyon of media studies in India, Jesuit Father Gaston Roberge, wrote fondly about ‘the pedagogy of the media oppressed’, and today we hear scholars proposing such meaningful, relevant and timely topics as, the pedagogy of the digitally oppressed, and if we have the time and patience to look at the plight of the digitally oppressed in our country, then we would realise how the lofty and utopian ideals enshrined in the National Education Policy 2020 are merely clanging symbols.

Father Gaston looked to the Natya Sastra to find ways of liberating oneself from the oppression of media and the digital world, and the work of Bharata Muni also helped him to rethink about what our media literacy and education should be all about.

Yawning Digital divide

As a famous saying goes, only nothing can come out of nothing, a digital education in a country can only remain a concept unless it is shown in black and white, with a possibility of even the last and the least of the population is able to have free access to it. The three pillars of digital education, as envisaged by the ambitious project of the Ministry of Education in India upon which is built the SWAYAM digital platform (www.swayam.gov.in) -- access, equity and equality -- show that this is a dream that will take decades for the sub-continent to achieve in a country, even chalk-and-talk education system is in shambles.

The leaders of the nation would like to compete with the best of world nations in the field of digital teaching and learning, and therefore they think merely passing an ambitious Bill in the Parliament would suffice to change the scenario over night. It is alright to have an ideal before our eyes so that we move towards them, but before setting ideals, we also need to set the route map to reach the ideals. In this regard, we seem to be groping in darkness. 
One of the most important tools to boost any new initiative is the field study and research on the reality on the ground. Unfortunately the data we have in hand in order to set up lofty ideals in the sky may only do harm to the future of the nation, rather than helping our young men and women to be prepared for the new world that is emerging before their eyes, a world that is so very different from the one that we all had gone through, and wish the same be handed over to the next generation. True liberation, Paulo Freire had noted, should emerge from the oppressed and for the oppressed; it cannot be designed by the oppressor and given on a platter to the oppressed.

Changing Scenario

The very concept of education is fast changing, accelerated by the pandemic and its resultant lockdowns; educationists believe that after we emerge out of the long stretches of lockdown, the scene would not be the same as the pre-pandemic days. Though the NEP 2020 also recommends the need to explore the hybrid teaching-learning methods (online learning interspersed with offline on-campus learning), it is hard to predict how this would turn out to be.

It may be time that we revisited the National Education Policy 2020, in order to make necessary changes in the light of the pandemic and the emergent digital literacy or online mode of teaching and learning, so that the next generation is not caught up in the quagmire of traditional chalk-and-talk mode, but be prepared to face another world, not only the online mode of learning, but keeping the under-privileged and the have-nots in the loop of educational programs.

There is also a crying need for more and more researches to be undertaken to study how the pandemic and the lockdown have dealt a death-knell on traditional learning in classrooms in the rural India, but also made a divide between the affordable and the non-affordable still wider. What has happened in the last one-and-a-half years is sure to remain etched deeply in the subconscious of this generation of teachers and students.

Until we come up with suitable modes and methods of reaching out to the majority of teachers and students with too little facility to go beyond the classroom education, we may only manufacture another kind of educational elite, who would look down upon the not-so-tech-savvy, digital ignoramus, remaining on the last benches of the classroom, and on the last row of social ladder, often left out of the best things the nation may boast of.

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