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A new divide in class

Digital education isn’t democratic, it creates deep inequalities between universities.

Written by Apoorvanand |
February 21, 2017 12:00:19 am
Digital education, universities inequalities, democratic learning, A More Democratic Learning, online courses, MITx, MITx degree, online education, e education, delhi university, MOOCS, indian express opinion, india news, education The idea of high-quality knowledge products available at such a ridiculously low price is seductive to our governments, for whom being digital is to be progressive and who see professors and higher education as liabilities to be got rid of. (Representational image)

It is amusing to see an article fit for the advertisement section managing to find space instead in the “Ideas” section of The Indian Express. The article, titled “A More Democratic Learning” (February 16, 2017), tries to persuade us to buy an academic product “Micromasters in Data and Economics for Development Policy”, a package of five online courses, leading to a degree from MITx. It is low-priced, why, only a lakh “for all but the richest Indians” (whatever that means) and much lower for those who can “demonstrate” that they cannot afford even this much. The “x” factor needs to be noted, for MITx is a newly set-up degree-granting institution under the MIT umbrella — but MITx is not MIT.

The idea of high-quality knowledge products available at such a ridiculously low price is seductive to our governments, for whom being digital is to be progressive and who see professors and higher education as liabilities to be got rid of. Our colleagues in high-end institutions like MIT and Harvard tell Third World youth that since your universities would never be able to appoint excellent academics as teachers, it would be better for you to register with start-ups like MITx, get access to the lectures of the brightest minds on earth and get credentials bearing their stamp.

This is exactly what the technology wizard from India, Sam Pitroda, told graduating students of Delhi University at their convocation four years ago: All we apparently needed were five excellent teachers in a discipline whose lectures should be made available digitally to youth worldwide, who would then be supported by facilitators. He was envisioning a world without teachers, but apparently, not without knowledge.

Companies like Udacity, Coursera and Edx, which started producing massive open online courses (MOOCs) five years ago, presented themselves as benevolent knowledge givers helping educationally malnourished Third World countries. All you needed was an internet connection. Sceptics of MOOCs warned they were not going to remain free. Capitalism, after all, is not a philanthropic project.

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What could be more democratic than deciding your own pace and having the freedom to choose from thousands of courses milling around in the digital world? But these companies did not leave it to the judgement of students and teachers: They started lobbying with governments and university leaders in the US and outside to include them in their formal curriculum. A licence fee was required. Some succumbed, others resisted.

The letter faculty members of the Department of Philosophy at the San Jose State University wrote, refusing to include MOOCs of the celebrated Harvard don, Michael Sandel, needs to be recalled. The faculty wrote, “the thought of the exact same social justice course being taught in various Philosophy departments across the country is downright scary — something out of a dystopian novel. Departments across the country possess unique specialisations and character, and should stay that way. Universities tend not to hire their own graduates for a reason.

They seek different influences. Diversity in schools of thought and plurality of points of view are at the heart of liberal education.”

Do our departments have the guts to exercise their agency in the face of a government order? We saw how all the universities fell in line when the University Grants Commission dictated that they had to use syllabi prepared by it, allowing only 20 per cent local content. We do not also have heads of institutions like Teresa A. Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia, who preferred to resign rather than bow down to the pressure by her governing board to introduce more market-savvy, cost-cutting measures. She was brought back after the university community rose up for her.

The San Jose teachers put the real intent of MOOCs very succinctly when they said, “should one-size-fits-all, vendor-designed blended courses become the norm, we fear that two classes of universities will be created: One, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of video-taped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant. Public universities will no longer provide the same quality of education and will not remain on par with well-funded private ones. Teaching justice through an educational model that is spearheading the creation of two social classes in academia thus amounts to a cruel joke.”

It is very clear that there is nothing democratic about MOOCs; all that this seeks to do is to create two very distinct sets of higher education institutions. One would hire the best minds and manufacture MOOCs with their help; the other would consume the high-quality product they market.

If this is “democracy” in education, one does not need to say more.

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The writer teaches at Delhi University

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