Online Education and the Crisis in our Classrooms

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Image: Processim Labs

By Sk Sagir Ali

Today, schools, colleges and universities are closed across India to confront the pandemic situation. As a consequence, millions of students are keeping away from their classroom for safety measures. In the present scenario, the system of education has transformed dramatically; digital learning has become the new norm to overcome the hurdle of classroom teaching. In a precipitous move away from the classroom in several pockets of the world, people are speculating if the espousal of digital learning will continue to prevail in the post-pandemic world, and how such a shift would extract intervention in the global education system to the desired effect. This applies particularly to the Indian teaching-learning system. Numerous incidents of suicide and anxiety have been reported from different corners of the country; the concerned students caught up in the precarious side of the digital divide felt excluded from the digital classrooms, like so many others. They are apprehensive that they may fail in their examinations because of their exclusion from the digital realm of teaching and knowledge. It seems that these underprivileged students are left out in this sudden spree of digitalization with no access to digital infrastructure or capital.

Undeniably, digitalization is an indispensable tool these days and we require a different classroom where “class” matters, not so much “the room”. The discrimination of digital divide in our days of a new normal under which taking recourse to distance learning is a must. Notes are to be sent by courier, recorded classes and some audio-visual measures are to be managed and such other things are to be done for boosting the morale of students. It draws a parallel to the version of online elitist teaching as the politics of the new technological regime. The contours of this digital divide are erected along the similar registers of those hierarchies whose spectres haunt the physicalist spaces of our classrooms.

Under the umbrella of everyday deaths, the new normal consequences of precarity finds the discourse of development in which mutual technological mechanism hinges on entrepreneurial lives amidst the reigning state of crisis. According to Akhil Gupta, the poor in India, unlike Agamben’s homo sacer, are not shut out or ruled out. Rather, they are exterminated despite their centrality and incersition in democratic politics. Poor students’ inclusion to the arena of popular digital platform is problematic as if a precariat is included in the law through its very exclusion. Furthermore, thanato-politics across the nation creates “concealed sovereignty” that has not been excavated in past studies. What I am positing is that we, the all moderns, directly or indirectly take part in the unceasing inflation of the bourgeois order in a disproportional way. The shape of E-learning nowadays tries to define the matter in terms of supposedly stark opposition between learning and the superficial structure of an archaic and a disparate mechanism. In his book The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World, Partha Chatterjee speaks about the production of “political society” by drawing on the references of governments of different countries, especially India, in seeking to shape the very basis they claim, to transform populations into citizens. Street traders, squatters, fare-dodgers are considered as entities to be controlled. The popular knowledge and practice of politics is a reality of being subject to governmentality as fragmentary and passive politics, not of being citizens. Therefore, the citizens in this share of practice are considered as “populations”. On the other hand, intermediate elites like teachers of schools, colleges and universities perform the role of mediators between governors and governed; the oriental despotism espouses a politics of the governed based on the heterogeneity and density of everyday life. This unorganized sector and their subsistence rest on the pseudo class mobilization within the ambit of populist trajectory. It also lingers on the false sense of consumerism and in creating ableist politics by not embracing the disability with an overt bio-politic modality.

This supposed platform of learning belongs to modern bourgeois culture – not because poor marginalized students are either modern or bourgeois but because of something else: the assumption that the discourse called “digital learning” can fill the quintessential space for producing the “highest” norms of modern society which has its genealogy in a profound shift from a hermeneutic method to an essentially parasitic pregiven production of an infinite variety of the “emergence” of digital learning as a “modern” type of illuminative work with a “modern bourgeois” leaning possible for “a new discourse.” That is to imitate the standardized behaviour in a progressively secular society. The “bourgeois” principle is that learning where life is seen “more” than life represents, has had a close association with royal culture as Lord Macaulay did for education in India. By promoting and showcasing such digital learning, we invoke the “assumptions of liberal individualism” that had reached its pinnacle in Thatcher’s Britain. This distinction poses the question of the “limits of liberalism” in entertaining the cultural differences over the recent phenomena.

Students from poor families studying in schools, colleges and universities are staring at disruptions in their studies without access to mobile phones, internet and laptops or the Zoom app. The idea of finance and knowledge is of special importance in the situation of a crisis associated with formative or organic instabilities following arrival of a different stage in post-industrial capitalism. Today, we have to contend with phrases like “knowledge economy”, the “information society” and “cognitive capitalism”. These allude to the economic conversions commissioned by communication technologies. Cognitive capitalism pays attention to the sociopolitical measures of capitalism that are a structure of agglomeration planted on the disproportionate dispersion of the profit of labour, and thus an enslavement. The shift of biopolitics into thanato-politics materializes through the rationale of “immunity” as if threats to learning were to be immunized. The process of thanato-politics is an economic process much like a political one. The poor students are on the losing side of this digital divide, and therefore are factually human waste products of the thanatopolitical economy. What concerns most is the tendential detachment from the production of factual use-values and its gradual identification with the fluid movement of exchange-value in a context of digital interconnectedness. Here the social discourse of digital capitalism and cyber-labour can be viewed in terms of an emergent recalcitrant outside which capital can no longer harness energy.

The digital community effectively coalesces around a collective framework of institutional violence where reproduction develops as a zone of exclusion – the desocialisation, and the refusal of reproductive subordination begins. Separation or division in the name of sustaining the student community is necessarily thought as a subversive threat and, therefore, eventually as a crisis. The pursuit of knowledge in this present pandemic is (mis)shaped by the vacillation between the reduction of reproductivity and the division of labour within the matrix of subjective production, where the fundamental underpinnings of inequality are negotiated, and the dialectic of reproduction-as-crisis emerge. We have seen earlier how Indian textile industry with an unparalleled workmanship and artistry gained popularity. The growing demand for the Indian fabrics posed a threat to the regular woolen industry. In British colonial period in 1700, a new Act of prohibition was passed to curb the import of popular fabric from Persia and India. These cotton materials were confiscated and re-exported, and the introduction of the spinning mill between 1733 and 1765 destroyed the indigenous textile production of Indian weavers. Several people lost their jobs on account of the introduction of machines. Along similar lines, mobile technological innovations in recent years have annihilated the music industry across India. Millions of people listen to the lucrative online music streaming markets legally or illegally. This free market availability does away with the common workers from their daily platforms.

While the eruption of digital sharing platforms in the lieu of digital socialism promises some kind of user empowerment through the free access to books, music and other media, we must be alert to the fact that an increase in equality of consumption does not necessarily mean an increase in individual agential autonomy. While radical advocates of digital socialism like Kevin Kelly and Paul Mason have consistently argued through the years vis-à-vis Marx’s ideas in “Fragment on Machines”, how digital platforms pose a challenge to the normative status quo of liberal capitalism, it remains unclear how digital socialism has been able to ethically gesture towards the utopic idea of the “digital commons” outside a small pocket of users and geo-politically abled groups even after 30 years since the first advent of the internet.

Bio:
Sk Sagir Ali, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Midnapore College [Autonomous], Vidyasagar University, West Midnapore, West Bengal, India.

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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine, “Poetics and politics of the ‘everyday’: Engaging with India’s northeast”, edited by Bhumika R, IIT Jammu and Suranjana Choudhury, NEHU, India.

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