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Learning machines

Edutech is the white flour and refined sugar of learning

Sukanta Chaudhuri   |   Published 08.08.22, 02:51 AM

The economic downturn caused by Covid-19 was the making of one class of business: the edutech industry. The closedown of schools created a need to teach students remotely. The electronic mode was the only possible means. But the way it was adopted prompts deep misgivings.

I am actively involved with computer applications in teaching and research. The promise held out by digital learning excites me. Its progress in India fills me with alarm.

The dismal backdrop to my discussion is the digital divide. We are content that for the poor, a single smartphone should be considered a sufficient educational tool for all students in a household. Even that, a parliamentary committee found last year, eluded 77 per cent of the nation’s children.

But today, let us think about the fortunate ones with laptops and smartphones for their sole use. When the pandemic broke, their schools soon switched to online classes. But online teaching implies more than a Zoom meeting. It calls for audio-visual techniques for which most schools had neither expertise nor infrastructure. Plain vanilla classroom teaching falters without a classroom. 

That is where edutech companies saw their chance. They applied digital technology expertly and intensively to the curricular content. Their instructors exuded a compelling onscreen presence, as conventional teachers had never learnt to do. The result was a package that captivated both children and parents footing the bill. Both parties were connoisseurs of onscreen content: the children from computer games, the parents from infotainment channels. The superstition is rife anyway that anything emerging from a computer is a superior option. In two short years, hitherto uncontested schooling methods acquired the negative label of ‘offline teaching’.

But might not the new technology truly be superior? The digital revolution has transformed our lives. In intellectual and cultural matters, however, it has generally modified older practices instead of dislodging them altogether. More books are printed today than ever before, alongside the electronic text and the internet. Live performances flourish despite staggering advances in audio-visual recording. The equation between ageless human practice and digital innovation is subtle and complex. With education, the pandemic drastically short-circuited this adjustment.

Throughout history, teaching has implied an interaction between teacher and student. A child learns letters and numbers under a teacher’s care among a group of peers. Every primary-school teacher I have asked agrees that small children cannot be taught online to read, write and count. If some learn to do so, it is because an adult is present to guide the process.

With older children, the challenge is subtler. Edutech planners will tell you that they allow for individual attention and interaction. Learners can follow their own pace, assess themselves by self-testing, and even ask questions. The interaction is largely through precoded exercises and bots, but the best (and costliest) courses find slots for human mentors. Yet all these features are worked into a pre-set, one-way system: an extended IT program, ‘remote’ in every sense.

To be sure, there are physical schools so ill-run that online instruction is a better alternative. But even a halfway decent institution offers the imperative human exchange. A lecturer in a classroom subconsciously attunes herself to the faces in front of her. Students’ queries cover a range that artificial intelligence cannot tackle — above all because it ignores individual psychology, the personal factors impacting a student’s development. A packaged online program can never overstep its boundaries, never warm to a bold question or an out-of-the-box suggestion. At most, it fosters a competent mediocrity. Hence the best students benefit the least from online courses,  which stunt their potential.

Edutech is the white flour and refined sugar of learning. To consume it is better than to starve, but it is no substitute for a wholesome home diet, even if indifferently cooked. (That is no excuse not to improve the cooking.) To vary the image, the stuff of digital learning is both literally and metaphorically behind a screen: you see it, but you can’t reach through and grasp it.

Such charges are customarily made against private coaching. Coaching centres are reviled on principle but rife in practice. Edutech providers profess the same adjunct role. But given their reach, glamour and opulence, they play a much more visible and increasingly central role in India’s education system.

This is because they blend with the current ecology of public services, cutting down State forests and planting corporate groves. Online teaching is vastly cheaper to provide: it does not need a standing army of teachers. The high demand is fanned by both commercial and official publicity. The Union government has perfected a new rhetoric extolling online teaching, never mind the digital divide. PM eVidya, the grandest of many schemes, aims to provide online education to every student in India. This may or may not be the same as the ‘digital university’ promised in this year’s budget, while actual universities languish for want of funds.

Education is following the path of our healthcare services, with an endlessly expanding role for the private sector. The economics drives the technology. State agencies have their own e-learning platforms: Diksha, ePathshala and Swayam, among others. Yet our rulers are warming more and more to private operators. Universities can outsource 40 per cent of course content for online degrees (themselves a recent innovation) and engage edutech companies to ‘assist’ even with the rest. There is even talk of such companies carrying out evaluation.

In today’s India, practices once thought harmful or illicit are routinely legitimised and then made standard. Not so long ago, we deplored the possibility of commercial coaching empires influencing exam results and curricula. This might soon become normative and organic to the system.

No academically respectable country has surrendered its education sector to profit-seeking interests in this way. When all is said, Indian education has an honourable place in the world’s eyes. We denigrate our public education system, but its alumni win success and acclaim everywhere. Let us not sell out on that legacy. 

Sukanta Chaudhuri is Professor Emeritus, Jadavpur University



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