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AUTOMATED LEARNING
- The pathologies of Indian higher education

Two new strains of disease have been sited in India's higher education system. Alarm bells should start ringing for one is already rampant in parts of the educational institutions which have direct outlets in India's service sector. This strain was first isolated by the sociologist, Ronald Dore, in his classic study, 'The Diploma Disease' as far back as in 1976. He was then looking at the higher education system in Japan. He found the disease was deeply rooted in contemporary Japanese society. Other bulging Asian populations ' students, parents and the job market itself ' were recklessly ready for rides on the fast track to prosperity. Whole sections of society were preparing to get infected by the Diploma Disease, none being inoculated against it.

Dore's Diploma Disease ennobles certification as an object of pursuit for its own sake. By doing so with the active connivance of family and society, it manages to demean the two objects of higher education: quest for ideas (essential for theoretical studies) and mastery of information and techniques (essential for applied studies). When a large enough portion of society gets the disease, and begins to value only the certificate in its social ranking of alternatives disregarding education, the entire higher education sector falls into a nightmarish regime of self-delusion for students, and make-believe self-legitimization for the educational services.

Our second disease has more ancient roots, dating perhaps from the mercantile past of our society. But it has staged a big comeback into our modernizing industrial society with a flourish. Many think its day really came with the triumphant entry of the internet into the prestigious higher education system of North America. This was around 1997. We owe it to David F. Noble ' former professor of technology at MIT and curator of automation at the Smithsonian Institution, now professor of history at York University, Toronto ' to fix that year. The early warning call was given in 2001 in his 'Digital Diploma Mills ' The Automation of Higher Education'.

Two of the largest North American universities signalled the beginning of a new era in which higher education would be rapidly drawn into the Age of Automation. In the midsummer of 1997, the University of California at Los Angeles launched its historic 'instructional enhancement initiative' requiring computer websites for all of its arts and sciences courses by the start of the fall term. UCLA began offering online courses in collaboration with THEN (the home education network), a profit-seeking corporation. Interestingly, THEN was soon to be headed by a former UCLA vice chancellor.

Elsewhere, the battle-lines were being drawn. In the spring of 1997, as at UCLA, York University at Toronto had helped create a private entity, Cultech, directed by the vice-president for research and several deans in collaboration with a consortium of private firms. The full-time faculty of York University fought back embarking on a memorable two-month strike ' the longest university strike in Canadian history. The strike ended only after the faculty had secured formal contractual protection against administrative action precisely of the kind UCLA was to undergo.

The Noble Syndrome attacks the very ethos of all students, proffers a new favoured universe of discourse to them, and sets down markedly (often altogether) different agenda of education and research therein. Neither the universe of discourse nor its agenda are generated necessarily by the old textual questions. Nor are these necessarily generated by newer questions that the young and aspiring academics are naturally prone to discover for themselves.

The new curricular agenda were contrived elsewhere, often by senior dons who had themselves already arrived, but were now harbouring further worldly ambitions. These ambitions could be, and generally were, satisfied in a solely market-driven economy by the top players of the corporate world. By the inexorable laws of economics, the new universe of discourse and its new agenda were apt to be not inclusive but exclusive. Through scholarships, grants and rewards, through citations and approbation of the work that followed, the new subjects of study and research were designed to crowd out the old subjects of enquiry.

Whether at UCLA or York, Noble claimed that there was an unseemly rush to implement new technology with little regard for deliberation of pedagogic or economic costs, not to speak of the obvious risk of faculty alienation and student protest. But why' Noble has implied that the change-over has to be sudden if it has to be carried out at all: for all subsequent studies have shown that the idea of the quick switch was neither pedagogically sound nor good economics if one counted the huge increase in costs on overheads and only marginal decrease on teacher costs (until, that is, the more creative teachers are fired as soon as their courses are taped and patented by the consortium, and are replaced by very ordinary teaching assistants able only to make sense of the tapes). Whether Noble and his fellow critics are entirely right remains to be seen.

But there is little doubt, as in the Chinese bird flu case, no matter where these two diseases thrive most, Indian higher education institutions are in jeopardy. Some think Japan and the United States of America are the two most likely countries that should worry most. But the spread of Dore's Diploma Disease in our country is a warning that India ' with a large higher education sector, and proportionately a very much larger population of young adults ' would be happy hunting ground for the Noble Syndrome too.

Rich countries like Japan and the US will probably survive the scare and also the attacks, thanks to their proven ability to react positively to early warning systems. It goes without saying ' and this is my fear, not Dore's or Noble's surmise ' that the two diseases spell a bigger danger for our own research institutions and for the best of our own universities because, time and again, resource-crunched economies, unused to fighting back quickly and effectively, have been found so much the more vulnerable!

I have possibly oversimplified the issue, but I have little doubt both Dore and Noble were right about the diseases they spotted. I am not so sure about Noble's implied remedy through a long university strike. Dore's Diploma Disease and Noble's Diploma Mills Syndrome actually might feed on each other. The more disconnected you get from both knowledge and information, the more defenceless and gullible you become at the hands of the automaton called the Diploma Mill. The more you try to get value out of your Diploma Mill, the less concerned you become for anything but the brand of your diploma. You don't have to depend on bad men to make it so.

How exactly do we then get out of this' Reject the mediation of the internet altogether, reject certification per se, and go a couple of centuries or farther back in the universities to begin all over again' Or can we somehow preserve and cherish the revolutionary fire burning in all education and try to let it burn in higher education based on automation too, hoping that the human will will triumph, regardless. I wish I knew.

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