“Blended Learning” combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. Pinjra Tod (a women students’ collective), takes a deep look at the UGC’s document, which reveals how bogus its claims are. Pinjra Tod, after a detailed analysis of the document concludes, “The NEP 2020 and UGC concept note on ‘Blended Learning’ stand to structurally ensure that quality higher education is accessed by the upper classes, and that the purpose of higher education broadly will only be to provide skilled workers to be absorbed by the market.” Notes on the Academy will publish Pinjra Tod’s full analysis and critique of the UGC’s “Blended” learning concept document in three parts. This is part one of the full critique.
In consonance with the New Education Policy 2020, the University Grants Commission (UGC) has released its concept note on a “blended” model of teaching and learning, allowing for 40% of each course to be taught and assessed online (out of which over 40% SWAYAM courses are already online). Shockingly, the 40% conveyed in the UGC press note fails to convey that the actual desirable standard is to take online teaching and learning to 70% of the programme, as explained in the concept note.
This is a cruel joke on those who are deprived of internet access, device ownership, and electricity supply. Only 24% of Indians own a smartphone (Pew, 2019), only 11% of households possess any type of computer (NSO, 2018), only 55% have access to the internet (TRAI, 2020). Yet the Indian government led the world in internet shutdowns for the third year in a row—even in 2020, when the pandemic forced people to turn to the digital realm (Access Now). Only 47% of rural Indian households receive more than 12 hours of electricity supply in a day (Mission Antyodaya, 2017-18). The picture is further complicated by stratifications across regional, class, caste, and gender lines, differences in family sizes and the number of students in a household, other than the distressing situation in regions such as Jammu and Kashmir. All these factors intersect to produce varying difficulties and uncertainties in access to online education.
Institutions of higher education have historically been marked by exclusion with every attempt at inclusion being a gain of political struggle. Even the “digital divide” is not isolated from the other social realities that divide people and produce marginalities. However, in the past year, this divide has deepened owing to limited resources, lack of digital literacy, hostile domestic situations, responsibility for household work falling especially on female students, the need to care for sick family members and lack of a conducive learning environment at home due to mental fatigue, emotional distress, lack of privacy, etc.
Yet, such deepening of fault lines that deter people’s equal participation and right to access education was not enough distress to get the UGC to intervene. Instead of yielding to the demands of student movements and correcting the crisis caused by exclusionary and superficial learning, it resorted to change only its form, moving from offline to online education. It seeks to not only make existing failures permanent but to celebrate them as a radical breakthrough, by calling it inclusive, interactive or self-motivated learning.
It is students who stand to lose when they have no real involvement with their university and are deprived of a crucial experience necessary for holistic non-mechanical learning. They have been denied a chance at full engagement with peers, teachers and non-teaching staff within and outside classrooms. Such interactions structure their sense of self and relations to the larger community, while also shaping their contribution to society.
The UGC concept note on Blended Learning offers group projects, teacher feedback, quizzes, brainstorming, etc. as activities to be applied in the online mode to elevate the learning experience, as though these are novel innovations that did not already exist in classroom learning. Hardly any justification is provided for the push towards online education besides vague phrases such as “self-responsibility” and “flexibility”. The note fails to answer why these things cannot be implemented in the offline mode if they are so starkly absent. Further, why did such a policy intervention come 34 years after the NEP 1986? What exactly is the benefit of the online “liberalised” mode of learning that purportedly grants greater “autonomy” to students to “upskill,” drop out anytime and select subjects of their own accord?
BLEND IT LIKE UGC!
“Blended” learning combines online and classroom learning and claims to centre the student as a “learner”. It aims to increase flexibility, self-responsibility and participation and, therefore, enhance learning. One look at the document, however, reveals how bogus these claims are. The UGC has once again been instrumentalised to push for a scheme of higher education that is either, too, diffuse and incoherent to mean anything in tangible terms or individualises and privatises learning and education. Such atomisation is not coincidental but a direct result of its approach towards education as a “sector”, a “marketable commodity”. This transition comes at the cost of squeezing government schools and colleges of resources. The road to private “participation” was paved with fee hikes, fund cuts, reductions in scholarships, etc.
Despite the vast infrastructural facilities and funds needed to implement this scheme, it ironically turns universities into sellers of various online courses and relegates teachers to “mentors”, reducing their role to administrative functionaries who carry out executive orders. They will conduct lectures, all the while forced to disregard the impediment of limited resources for students. Most public university students have struggled to bridge the distance from home to university. Now, a home-university that presents itself as accessible falls short of its promise of instantaneity. Students from historically vulnerable sections—Muslims, Dalits, Adivasis, trans-persons, women—struggle to access schools and colleges. Even in the present system, the tilt towards competitive examinations has promoted a parallel industry of coaching centres. “Coaching classes” claim to offer a “competitive advantage” to their students at “market rates” so that they can clear centralised exams that are, by definition, hegemonic.
The individualised online mode of learning carries an inherent distancing from the academic community. This emphasis on online education comes with an absurd attempt to break down learning into percentages and fractions. with duration of each course being further broken down into arbitrarily decided percentages of online and offline learning, and further split into synchronous and asynchronous online learning, lectures and non-lecture based learning, etc. The push to overhaul higher education during the pandemic is particularly dubious without adequate, specific measures and responsibility being taken to provide students with the technological infrastructure and wherewithal to continue their studies.
PERILS OF E-LEARNING TRUMP PERKS FOR ED-TECH
There is a need to examine this paradigmatic shift in education towards an online mode of transmission, which also implies a shift towards greater privatisation and centralisation of the education system. Earlier, the marketisation of education meant the privatisation of the university. Now the privatisation of each of its components is on. “Just-in-time learning” and ed-tech (education technology) platforms and telecom companies are part of this push. In classes held on online platforms, data collection, monitoring and cloud services become central not just to patterns of learning but to its very process. Telecom companies are assuming a central role in organising both online and offline relations, from conducting centralised exams to offering self-funded and distance learning courses.
The authorities repeatedly emphasise the “lack of additional cost” involved in shifting to online education. Yet, sites such as Libgen and sci-hub, which provide free access to journals and books, are under the scanner to ensure profits for companies that have monopolised knowledge production in line with the imperialist tendencies of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement. The emphasis on “upskilling” is a cypher: decoded, it means that the government is out to create a specialised labour force meant to cater to the demands of foreign investors. The outcome will be a systemic deskilling, for it ensures only those who can “afford” education will study, while the rest must succumb to the expanding and increasingly impoverished informal sector.
At every point, what is discernible is a compromise of academic integrity, increasing privatisation, formalisation and further intensification of existing inequalities, and acquiescence with the informalisation of work. This hurts the already disadvantaged more, as they are already hampered by caste, gender, class, disability, and inter- or intra-regional disparities. The privatisation of education marks the withdrawal of caste-based reservations, a shift bolstered by the false premise that “digitisation” implies “democratisation”. The potential of democratisation is contingent on government funding and the intent to provide education for all. It cannot come about through pro-capitalist policies. To name a few, the Birla-Ambani report on Higher education, the TSR Subramanian committee report, the Yashpal committee report, the National Knowledge Commission report and the latest Narayana Murthy Committee report on Corporate Governance are classic examples of government policies being made in line with the General Agreement on Trade in Services (WTO-GATS).
There are very serious issues in the existing system of higher education in terms of accessibility, obsolete and inadequate infrastructure, poor design and faulty implementation of social justice schemes. The welfare of teachers, the working conditions and appointment of teachers and non-teaching staff, academic freedom, fund cuts and privatisation and neglect of social sciences, and increasing influence of non-academic actors on syllabi and teaching outcomes. These are manifestations of neoliberal policies that privilege big corporations and reduce education to a tradable commodity. The NEP 2020 and its various related schemes could have been a watershed moment in improving higher education, but the UGC has chosen policies that reflect its complete disinterest in taking on these issues in a genuine manner. What has been offered instead is a sterile form of education, an extension of the quarantine of the pandemic, devoid of life, social security and affirmative action; devoid of academic considerations.