Truth, technology and the teacher

Remembering Vijaya Mulay means admitting how wrong India has gone on the issue of technology

Updated - June 12, 2019 12:38 am IST

Published - June 12, 2019 12:15 am IST

Vijaya Mulay, who died last month at the age of 98, was an icon of educational technology. She was a pioneer of animated films for children. Her short film, ‘ Ek, Anek Aur Ekta’ , continues to be an Internet hit many decades after it was made in National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT)’s newly set up unit on educational technology, which she led for many years. She chaired the National Focus Group which drafted the policy on technology included in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF), 2005.

Some members were unhappy that a filmmaker was leading a group that covered the use of computers in education. Mulay’s own vision of educational technology offered no exception to the general rule that technology must promote plurality of use and creative endeavour. That is not the direction that educational technology took in India. She often warned against schools and colleges becoming graveyards of equipment. In an age when schools are perceived as hostage markets, remembering Mulay means admitting how terribly and expensively wrong our system has gone on the issue of technology — and not just technology.

Teachers at the margins

That admission, however, is hardly a tribute to her. Nor is it a tribute to the India that she, like many others of her generation, symbolised. India was an ongoing invention, and you were part of it. The India she signified and carried with her everywhere told you to find new ways to relate to old problems. Togetherness meant that you will not dominate, no matter how much you know. Technology was supposed to enable people to solve their own problems and feel that they could manage the machine on their own. For Mulay, the danger of educational technology leading to centralised decision-making was as great as the attraction that it would bring life into classrooms. How to avoid the risk of making the teacher feel marginal and dependent was the key challenge for policy.

The fight between the machine and the teacher is an unequal one. Instead of being together, they have been placed in a state of conflict. At the moment, teachers are at the losing end. They are told to use a range of new gadgets and material to improve teaching. Smart classes are equipped with industrially manufactured lessons and tests. All that the teacher has to do is to facilitate the delivery of these pre-planned lessons. To add to this loss of intellectual autonomy and dignity, surveillance gadgetry is being applied to monitor teachers, to assess what they are doing in the classroom.

From the other end too, namely that of children and their parents, the teacher faces impossible challenges on a daily basis. At a recent conference I met several teachers discussing the difficulties they face when children bring information they have accessed through the Internet or through an app. A teacher from Haryana talked about a child bringing an image with a well-written description of a nuclear test India conducted 3,000 years ago. The teacher asked, how should I explain to this Class VI child that this information cannot be true? She was aware, she said, that information of this kind has political value as it conveys, and also enhances, a certain kind of patriotism. She said many children in her class were convinced that the information was correct. Moreover, they believed that many of the things she told them during her lessons were doubtful although they were aware that for passing the monthly tests, they should write whatever the teacher had told them. At a young age, these children had developed the capacity to maintain two separate repertoires of knowledge: one for personal conviction and the other for doing well at school.

A double-edged sword

In this new technological environment, it is easy to forget everything Mulay said and ignore her warnings. The dominant tendency today is to perceive technology as a source of all solutions, not as an aid. The biggest hurdle to reforms in education today is the marginalisation of teachers. They have been at the receiving end of one move after another. They had no choice but to follow whatever they were told to do. Regimented and compliant they always were; being repeatedly told to shift gears has made them cynical. This is a far cry from how Mulay defined the purpose of using educational technology. The National Focus Group paper written under her leadership explained how the latest communication technology was a double-edged sword. While it had the potential to enable common causes to create new communities, it also enabled globally dominant corporate power to discourage intellectual autonomy. To survive with sanity in the new technological environment, our children “must know that nothing is value-free (not even Donald Duck).” Learning at school must promote “a sense of discernment”, and this is no easy aim to pursue in the prevailing technological environment.

Mulay lived for nearly a century, yet her passing away makes one feel as if we have lost a robust, young voice we urgently need. To keep her memory alive, we must ask why our system of education has failed to benefit from new technologies of storage and communication of knowledge. Many people may not agree with my assessment and insist that our record of using technology — radio, television, computer, Internet — for improving education is not bad. I might have agreed if I were not a frequent listener of Gyan Vani. The programmes it offers to students enrolled in distance education courses are mostly just as wooden as the lectures they would have heard at a college or university. Mulay had warned against precisely this tendency of using technology for replicating and magnifying entrenched systemic weaknesses.

What knowledge means

Mulay was neither revolutionary nor radical. She worked inside systems and softened people committed to hard lines and tough remedies. One of her extraordinary attempts at persuasion was to join French film director Louis Malle in writing to Indira Gandhi to convince her that she must watch his films. They were banned in India because they were critical and hurt national pride.

As a bridge between the world of films and education, Mulay set a silent example of persistence in her belief that schools could be softened. Had she been directly asked how, she would have said, by working with teachers, giving them status and the experience of taking decisions. Few people today might agree with her. Contempt for school teachers and suspicion in their competence are widespread, and not merely in the bureaucracy. The so-called aspirational middle class has little patience for the teacher. Its demands from children are as ruthless as the parents’ determination to hound the principal and her staff. They perceive themselves as consumers, and they will go to any length to get the best value. They trust the drill master at the coaching institute because he delivers what he promises. Knowledge brought to life through technology is irrelevant in this scenario. So is its value as truth. What matters is its instrumental value, to let you get on to the next stage of the entrance process.

Krishna Kumar is a former director of the NCERT

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