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Virus and school education

With the lockdown, the mobile phone, tablet and computer have become essential for teaching and learning. But at what cost?

Each year, the sun begins its northward journey in January, uttarayana. This year, when the journey began, there was vague buzz about a virus. The equinox is in March, the day when the sun crosses the celestial equator on its northward journey. Like timeless celestial cycles, such events, beneath the celebrations, draw attention to our connection with the earth and the solar system and are also times of reflection. The mysteries of creation, the order that connects universe, solar systems, planets, earth, moon, and cycles of life, death and renewal.

This year’s spring equinox on March 19 brought tidings of a tectonic shift, a virus apparently spreading from Wuhan in China. Schools and colleges in India closed before their scheduled vacations, two days before the equinox. All travel and business stopped. All seven billion people started marching to corona’s tunes. Locked down and distanced!

India looked for solutions, but seemed to forget that the India of Nariman point and Luytens Delhi is not the India of the villages or of Dharavi and Janta Colony or nameless such places in every Indian city. Migrant workers, left with neither food nor occupation in their cities of work, got home with great difficulty, reminding some of the Partition migration. Why would disadvantaged citizens be the ones who suffer more than others, even in a crisis?

Europe and America are bearing the biggest loss of human life. We have a new vocabulary — lockdown, partial lockdown, social distancing. The news constantly informs us of the number of patients and fatalities. Car companies are making ventilators, and low-cost ventilators are being made with hand-held Raspberry Pi computers. Big donations from prominent wealthy people and companies are adding to the efforts for relief, testing and PPEs.

The novel coronavirus is possibly worse than other viruses. Vaccine is seen as the only real solution. Testing, treatment and isolation are necessary. The world came to a standstill. Nations, cities, towns, villages are all affected. No one knows how long this will last. Australia says well into 2021. Iran say 2022. Will life go back to what we recognise?

Human contact with each other is dangerous and so everyone is locked down in their homes. Information, education, entertainment, infotainment, edutainment and permutations merging fun and purpose, play and work are being beamed through wires and wireless channels. But the bedrock is the same — tech, computers, computing devices, communication devices, camera, algorithms, platforms, Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft and big business. To meet this situation, we all have received a booster dose of technology into our lives. If someone had wanted to force the world away from face-to-face experience towards Internet-based solutions, there could have been no better strategy than a virus for doing it. Stop the world and let people discover new ways of doing things. Schools and education have, at all levels, seamlessly galloped to digital platforms, ready or not. There was no choice.

There have been earlier defining moments in Indian school education. From small local schools to large schools, from one teacher to many teachers and from floor seating to tables, chairs and uniforms. In recent times, we have seen education as a service move to education as a business. And now, education is equal to the mobile phone, tablet and computer.

A devastating fire in a school in Kumbakonam took the lives of 400 children. The owners of the schools and inspectors were negligent. Teachers locked the doors to keep the children quiet. Thatch that was used for centuries to build homes and halls gave way to concrete or bricks. As a signatory to GATT, India accepted education as a service. It can be delivered from anywhere in the world. We have been slow to move. Now there are multiple online courses and training programmes that have been available over the past several years.

Nothing helps one shift more than having the previous approach unavailable. When one part of the brain does not work, other systems fill in and compensate. Now teachers have been tasked with using technology. In fact, if they don’t make it work, they will lose. And if they do, they will still lose a whole set of things. Schools are places where children receive midday meals, as also other support for their growth. What will happen to this, the daily meal that attempts to keep malnutrition away? What happens to the mingling cheerful contact with friends and the voice of a caring teacher. Surely, the parent will be hard-pressed to be everything in a child’s life.

There has been no clear and full analysis of all that will be lost when moving from face-to-face to digital. As teachers, we need to do this. Teachers will be offered enough praise for rising to the occasion. But few will tell us there was no choice. Of course, teachers have been reassured that no machine can replace them. They have been told that they will never be replaced. But the moment of truth is here, that for which the tech world of solutions has been eagerly waiting.

A virus, an organism that does not even have a DNA, tilted the scales. School education will never be the same again. The sequence of the digital invasion in all fields has three phases. First the reassurance to the people affected (in banks, insurance, factory workers, teachers) that their jobs are protected. This would lower the guard. Second, all are told it is of course good for you and will increase opportunities. Third, human beings will become redundant and jobs as we knew it will disappear.

Fellow teachers, be ready for the roller coaster ride! No one knows when schools are going to open and when you will return to work as usual. No one knows if after returning, what the norms will be — hand washing and masks are the superficial layer. What happens in a class when a student sneezes? Will the teacher have to report and send the student for testing? And will all others have to be quarantined? Will authorities think it safer that students come in small groups for a once-a-week class to school with enough social distancing? All this we don’t know, but we know something. We all know that the safest, most effective way of doing academic lessons without any of the complications is having the students at home, finding their lessons and instruction and support through reading, audio and videos support. There will always be customer support.

Parents will need to grow into being good facilitators, they cannot just buy the best platform or the best service. Labs, games fields, gyms can all become part of a rent-a-service subscription model. Whatever can be delivered will be delivered, there will be a consortium, and there will be the controlling agencies like governments.

Edward de Bono introduced Po. How would a restaurant look like without food, or school without books? It was an approach to challenge the brain to think out of one’s conditioning. For an unintelligent virus, it has done a sophisticated Po. It has asked us to imagine a world where supermarkets are closed, there is no traffic, no offices, no schools, no gatherings and no handshakes, no work, no workers. And on a grand scale, the virus has shown us that we can live without all of the above! What a learning, what a discovery!

It is a strange coincidence that this virus shows up just as the AI revolution started creating a buzz. It is imminent that manufacture will be taken over with AI programmable machines. Car assembly lines already have robots. These are more reliable and can be programmed easily. Shop floor without people, classrooms without teachers or students, colleges without lecture halls, a great solution. Like the way the insurance industry and expensive medical practice grew on fear, the online education industry is set to grow on fear. Our bodies have lived with viruses and live with millions of viruses and bacteria inside. Eminent doctors have suggested that building immunity is not the same as vaccinating. One hears the pharma industry has had difficulties, and the road to recovery is vaccines and compulsory immunisation of whole populations. In the corona story, as in many other situations, we don’t hear alternative diagnoses and approaches. Questioning voices and alternative narratives are slowly being silenced. Focusing on vaccines is a way ahead for pharma industries. However, are governments and states ignoring the principle of differing proclivities and constitutions?

Technological movement is a series of innovations and hacks, most of which are invisible. If pentagon can be hacked, what cannot be! The money crimes on the Net are not widely reported but the figures are alarming. We are vulnerable to people nearby and have but a modicum of control. That our vulnerability is now in the hands of people with whom there is no communication, no contact, people we don’t know, bots that prowl the net... is a disquieting fact. Hacking of accounts is a real possibility. This is one of the things we accept as a corollary to the widespread use of the Internet.

First we let the television with its visual imagery into our homes. And now we will allow the world to access our children in voices and tones we can’t control. As is alarmingly proved, children will be more vulnerable to stalking, grooming, violence and sexual abuse. This too is a corollary to the technological embrace. What are the risks we are able to consider as reasonable?

Soon such risks will be insured. We must pause and ask if we want this road! Once insured, institutions will go ahead, co-opted as another vertical in the corporate mill. The medium is the problem. All repetitive functions can and will be taken over by machines. Life after corona hopefully will be wiser for the human race. The ground has shifted, and like all such events, this time focuses us again on the essentials. Will we find the energy, the dynamism, the vitality to meet the challenge? Or are we already defeated, beaten into submission, compromised with the ways in which we joined the adventure of mass consumerism? A time to ponder and think deeply .... The times are pointing to those things that computers cannot touch or do.

J. Krishnamurti asked, "What will you do when computers take over all that you are doing now?" Anything that can be programmed into an algorithm can will be programmed. The question is whether we are anything other than the program we carry? This is an old philosophical question. Human conditioning is responsible for all manner of horror — the environment, racial, religious and other forms of discrimination and brutality, child abuse, greed above need.... Maybe, there is one thing individuals can share — listening, enquiry and a movement that is not dependent on thought. This could be an opportunity for an individual to move in this direction, to use each day, each moment, well. As J. Krishnamurti said, dying each day to the accumulated conditioning is the only real way ahead for the transformation of man’s consciousness.

One cannot help wondering if the virus is too perfect a solution for the AI revolution!

gautama2006@gmail.com

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Printable version | May 26, 2020 12:59:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/open-page/virus-and-school-education/article31488997.ece

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