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Mainstream, VOL LVIII No 41, New Delhi, September 26, 2020

Education under New Normal: Just Two Minutes? | Rajarshi Majumder

Friday 25 September 2020

by Rajarshi Majumder

Coming from a sleepy provincial steel township where things ran like clockwork in tune with the sound of the clarion from several public sector giants that dotted the landscape, our idea of eating out was limited to the only Madras Cafe in the locality. The fare offered did not demand much time to decide – it was either Dosa, Masala & Sada, Idli with Sambhar, and Vada, Sada or dipped in Sambhar. So ten years back, when after a leisurely dinner at an upscale restaurant in one of the posh malls in the metropolis, the waiter brought a colourful page with the bill, I was a bit startled. First we thought that to be a take-home menu card, another tool of advertisement and grabbing eyeball. By then, after 30 years of moving around the country, I had some idea about ad-bombing. On careful reading however, it emerged to be something like a feedback form – couched in heavy vocabulary like Customer Satisfaction Survey. That was my first brush with Big Data and idea of instant gratification. Family meals at a restaurant till then was something to be critically viewed only during the walk back home along cool avenues, each of us quipping something about what we liked or did not like. By the time we went to bed, we would have definite idea about whether to go back to that diner again, and if so, which dishes we would order. And invariably that decision varied across family members. But no! This is the age of multi-core processors where numbers are crunched in microseconds, and information processed in nanoseconds. So we were asked to take an instant poll around the table and answer questions ranging from - How was the decor, How was the waiting experience, How was the food (as if we could answer that there and then) to How was the behaviour of the staff, to Whether we would recommend this restaurant to friends. All these were to be answered in straitjackets like - Very good, Good, Mediocre and Poor. Obviously, courtesy demanded that we limit us to the first two options even if the chowmein was more Indian than Chinese, the galaouti kebab had bones in it, and the waiter was so dumb that he did not know the difference between soufflé and soup plate. Much water has gone down the Ganges since then and now I am adept at filling up those forms. Only that now we encounter them everywhere – from restaurants to online retail stores, from salons to boutique hotels, and from Indian Rail too! But all these were stumped the other day when an undergraduate general degree college in Bengal asked its students to submit feedback after every class every day, giving a whole new meaning to the clichés Commercialisation of Education and Customer Satisfaction Survey. The college has joined the bandwagon of imparting online teaching to its students in the current pandemic situation. But in a bid to outdo others and emerge at the frontier of cutting edge technology, it has forgotten its principal guidelines, that of academic freedom and equity. Classes are to be exclusively held over a specific online platform without any concern about accessibility and affordability on part of the students – many of whom are economically weak and from the rural hinterland. Class links are centrally generated and mailed to teachers and students. Teachers are supposed to use that link for their classes – ignoring the fact that administration or any other faculty member can also login and snoop on the class without the knowledge of the teacher. The whole class video is getting recorded and stored in a shared access cloud drive, throwing class privacy out for a toss. Teachers are uncomfortable and students are hesitant to clarify their doubts, lest their naivety or faux pass are captured live and made open to the whole world, converting classrooms to something like a public meeting. And after every hour comes the stinker – a feedback form about the class that the students have just finished! Sounds incredulous to most, but not to the college authorities. Seems more like a capitalist version of George Orwell’s 1984?

But then, if you think carefully, this is not a sudden development. The society, for quite some time, has been moving away from reasoned analysis to instant decisions – and the electronic revolution has hastened this. From Instant Coffee to Instant Justice – we are not ready to wait, not ready to let the turbidity settle down before we get a clear picture. It gives us a tremendous sense of power too, albeit for a few minutes, to hold the fate of the service provider in our hands. In these days, when citizen are increasingly becoming putty in the hands of the powerful, ranging from commercial conglomerates to despot rulers, those two minutes of power gives us the high, the adrenaline rush that washes away all the misery. Market competition necessitated such instant connect with the consumer and endowing a (false) sense of empowerment on the customer. Mercifully education was out of this dog eats dog situation, or so we thought. But the New Education Policy has paved the way for learners to become customers and education institutions to become service delivery points [see Patnaik (2014,2020) and Bhoi (2020) for more on this]. With the previous aversion on non-philanthropic private educational institutions wiped out, along with the focus on academic and financial autonomy of colleges, it would certainly push up cost of education, especially higher education, to levels out of reach of the marginalised, the poor, the rural, and the girl child. Drop out would be very high, and those who drop out would get a piece of printed paper (aka certificates and diplomas) as instant consolation prizes. It has been argued and experienced that education is the greatest instrument of social mobility [see Ray & Majumder (2010, 2013, 2014) for more on this], but the NEP would surely aggravate social exclusion. And those who have the wherewithal to spend money, would have to buy it. Naturally, the relationship between the teachers and students, mentors and mentees, would also change drastically. It would not remain that of Vasistha and Rama, or Ashutosh Mukherjee and Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan, nor of Alauddin Khan and Pt Ravishankar. Every transaction would be seen as a commercial one, where both the service provider and the clients (read teachers and students) will calculate personal cost and benefit at every step, and turn our temples of learning into glittering shops that sell ready-to-use things. And after every class (read transaction) you would get a message flashing across the screen of your latest gadget: ‘we are conducting a survey on your last interaction with us; it will not take more than two minutes’. In the meantime, let us sit back and enjoy some Maggi.

References:

  • Bhoi, Biswajit (2020) NEP 2020: Roadmap for Exclusivist Idea of India?, Mainstream, Vol LVIII No 37, New Delhi, August 29, 2020
  • Patnaik, Prabhat (2014) Learning as Commodity - The dualistic structure of Indian higher education, The Telegraph (online), published 17-04-2014, [https://www.telegraphindia.com/opinion/learning-as-commodity-the-dualistic-structure-of-indian-higher-education/cid/197078 accessed on 16-09-2020]
  • Patnaik, Prabhat (2020) New Education Policy: India’s great leap backward, NetworkIDEAS, August 10, 2020, [https://www.networkideas.org/news-analysis/2020/08/new-education-policy-indias-great-leap-backward/ accessed on 15-09-2020]
  • Ray, J and R Majumder (2010) “Educational and Occupational Mobility Across Generations in India: Social and Regional Dimensions”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, Vol. 53, No. 4, 2010
  • Ray, J and R Majumder (2013) “Snakes and Ladders: Intergenerational Income Mobility in India”, Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol. 7, No. 2, July-Dec 2013
  • Ray, J and R Majumder (2014) “Structural Change or Social Fluidity? Examining Intergenerational Mobility in Education in India”, Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, Vol. XXVIII No. 3, July 2014

(Rajarshi Majumder is Professor of Economics, University of Burdwan, Burdwan, West Bengal | Email: meriju[at]rediffmail.com)

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