Technology as exclusion in education

– R Ramanujam

We have been through an unparalleled disruption in educational history due to the pandemic. For nearly 18 months, millions of school age children suffered a major disruption in their education. For millions of children studying in government schools there was no schooling and most of them could not get the noon meal at school either. (Dry rations were provided by many states, but whether this ensured children’s access to nutritious food is unclear.) For the privileged children of the urban elite, online classes provided some continuity, though the quality of education available online was, by and large, abysmal. In this context, digital technology in education was seen to provide “successful solutions” and is increasingly touted as the major harbinger of change in education.

“There is no turning back”, goes the cry. The Government assures us that technology will transform education, and that a large scale effort is being taken up to “make this vision a reality”. The National Education Policy 2020 (NEP) had already foreseen this need before the pandemic and included an extensive discussion on technology in education. The Technology Vision 2035 document of Government of India too had endorsed such a vision some years earlier.
In reality, we need to address the following questions:

  • Can digital technology act as enabler or can it assist in the universalisation of school education? Can it help overcome barriers of class, caste and gender in education? Or can technology end up strengthening such barriers?
  • “Teachers do not come to class reliably or teach properly. The poor are better off with technology providing direct access to experts via videos.” This is a prevalent claim. Does this hold any merit?
  • Technology can help navigate material much better than the textbook, and hence the student can learn in her own style and pace.
  • Technology is claimed to provide quality educational resources (in terms of videos by the “best” teachers, lessons and examples) that classrooms cannot. How true is this?
  • Technology based assessments will solve the problem of quality and integrity plaguing the existing system, it is claimed. Is this in any way true?
  • Technology can assist teachers in their professional development and classroom transaction. How true is this?

All these claims have a small core element of truth, but they are overwhelmingly false, except perhaps the last one (on technology assisting teachers). In fact, in the Indian context, it can be asserted strongly and emphatically that digital technology carries within it a great potential to act as a major source of social exclusion.

To see this, consider the root of the problem in school education today, and the forces that militate against universal quality education. This has to do with social divisions, the deep rootedness of caste in all aspects of education and the complete withdrawal of the middle class and the affluent from government run schools. Entirely lacking in educational support at home and battling alienation and disrespect in school, the first generation learner, especially from the oppressed sections of society is greatly challenged by the educational milieu. If anything, traditionally technology is seen to deepen such divides.

It is true that digital tools can break the monotony of classrooms, and can open doors to the bigger world. However, the interests of technology creators and their ability to view the world from the eyes of the poorest may be very limited. The pedagogy market is principally aimed at the urban affluent sections. Moreover, technology is seductive and alluring, but its ability to offer sustained guidance over years is questionable.

Experience the world over has shown that digital technology can be a great divider in society and acts principally towards sustaining and deepening structural inequality. The advent of corporate interests and their massive thrust in promoting educational technology raises critical questions on the roles and responsibilities of the state with regard to all the questions raised above.

In fact, after the pandemic we are now in a situation where a large number of urban children in India, again in the millions, who have been enslaved by digital devices during the pandemic. This has led to a very high level of toxicity in the system, and it is unclear whether the country has even acknowledged the problem.

On the other hand, one can ask: can technology act as a force of inclusion and be a component of universalisation of education?

Indeed yes, and to see this, we only need one reminder and one realisation. Firstly, we need to realise that: Technology does not equal ICT

This may seem trivial and commonsensical, but in the current mood of technomania, it needs strong and emphatic assertion that information and communication technology is only one aspect of the use of technology in society, in development.Secondly, we need to remind ourselves of the fundamentals of technology, its rootedness in science, and a call as old as the Nai Talim of Mahatma Gandhi, that education needs the integration of the mind, the hands and the heart.

Rather interestingly, while policy documents and governments always refer to “S&T”, such coupling of science and technology is natural to policy but remains alien to the school classroom. Indeed, if there is one domain that calls for new curricular action in school, it is that of technology. In the third decade of the 21st century, our schools still largely ignore technology as an object of curricular engagement. The current school curriculum considers science education to be central, but technology is largely peripheral within it. Other disciplines of study, such as social studies, hardly discuss the role of technology in shaping modern society, let alone critique that role. At the tertiary level, technological studies are termed ‘professional’ and separated from science. This works well for the large industrialised modes of production, with all technology creation patented and owned by big industry, and the general educated public being merely consumers of technology. Unfortunately, in the poorer countries, this has led to the import of technology in the main, and citizens’ ability to innovate confined to the few.

The science classroom is the best place to introduce technology to students. This cannot be achieved by “lessons” on X-technology or Y-technology, to be learnt as information items and memorized. In fact, along with a factual and conceptual understanding of natural phenomena, students also need a fluency in working with the material world in a way that builds on experimentation, observation, prediction and critical inquiry. Technology is best learnt by doing, by active engagement with material and energy conversion. Working with metal, wood and soil is essential for building a relationship with nature that is purposeful and wise. This needs the active and simultaneous engagement of the mind, the heart and the hands.

Articulating the goals of science education to include active hands-on engagement with the material world implies according primacy to wood and metal, to leaves and stones, to life forms and crystals—not by seeing them as pictures (or worse, reading their descriptions) in books but touching, feeling and working with them. This is essential for developing an integrated feel for science and technology. Coupled with experimentation, an emphasis on quantification is a characteristic of science. Measuring, estimating, approximating, calculating and model building are everyday processes for any form of science, and these again are habits to be inculcated in the learning child, not only for sharpening her own abilities but also towards building a society that can critically engage with issues of technology use and its impact on the environment.

Students need to perceive the rootedness of technology in science, as also the technological potential embedded in science. They need to understand and internalise the fact that technology is the conversion of material and energy in different forms by work, and that this is based on sound scientific principles. Such emphasis in science classrooms could offer an important direction for the future of our children.

Apart from hands-on experience, science pedagogy itself needs to actively make connections with technology. For instance, we rarely teach Pascal’s law by pointing out that this is indeed the principle that literally enables huge trucks to be held up on mere rubber tyres pumped with air. The sheer wonder of air holding up a heavy truck is important for the learning child, and further, the tremendous opening up of possibilities in the mind is critical for planting the seeds of technological innovation. Similarly, biodegradation is a phenomenon to be understood, but it is also important to see the possibilities of composting in technological terms. This is a connection mostly missing in our science curriculum, and a careful reworking can make science learning not only immensely enjoyable to children, but also useful to them and to society.

Nai Talim built a curricular framework on a principle that called for integration of work and education. Gandhi was not speaking of vocational education or work education but education through work. What is relevant to this discussion is that such a viewpoint builds a natural healthy attitude to technology and the understanding of how material and energy are transformed through work. The country chose a different pathway in education, and the Gandhian vision of education was sidelined along with the Gandhian vision of development. There was a fear that bringing work into schools would perpetuate caste hierarchies. On the other hand, elitist attitudes that privilege intellectual work over physical work took root in school education. By now, theoretical insights and conceptual understanding are seen as important, hands-on activity gets mentioned only in the context of “making classes interesting”. Slowly, memorization and rote learning have taken over, and concepts have taken a backseat as well.

With such history, it is perhaps not surprising that our recent discussions on technology in education equate technology with ICT use. ICT is upper caste brahmanical technology that is not messy, one does not need to muddy one’s hands, deal with hot metal, make errors in measurement. Even the dangers relate to the mental world, not the material one. Every time someone speaks of ICT and mentions how children take to such technology, how their 4-year olds could operate mobiles when they couldn’t, it is worth remembering that for lakhs of Indian children, working with wood and metal comes naturally too. They have always been good at handling any technology with their nimble fingers, not only ICT. It is the education system that never took this ability seriously.

To conclude, the tall claims of digital technology today, the tremendous push from the EdTech companies and the pedagogy market, and the governmental vision that seeks easy technological solutions to complex social problems, all act towards social exclusion and aid the withdrawal of the state from its fundamental duty of providing universal quality education. On the other hand, a vision of materialistic science based technology in education can indeed act as a force of universalisation in education.

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