Image source: Economic Times

Dr D Dhanuraj and Rahul V Kumar

Amongst the different kinds of challenges posed by COVID-19, policy makers in Kerala are now confronted with unprecedented changes required in the education sector. The challenge is how to deal with balancing the control of the State over a sector that was monopolised through the merit good argument. A merit good is likely to bring positive network externalities to the society and hence, such goods were justified for intervention by the State. Such interventions over a period of time have made the various stakeholders in education to look forward to more and more directions from the State. COVID-19 seems to challenge this very premise of a State-directed education system. The route through which such an environment will be ushered in is the attempt to make courses and classes online.

In such a scenario, there is no certainty in the content generated or used by the students as the online world provides infinite opportunities for the knowledge seekers. There is no visible proponent or detractor in the online world as was the case previously in India. A curious student could go beyond the set classroom activities or the syllabus. The classroom space for a student is not defined by the requirements certified for the school infrastructure by the State authorities. Now a six inch or fifteen inch smart screen could give the student the freedom to go beyond the assigned syllabus and reading materials. Access to the Internet, speed, familiarity with platforms, interest in the learning process, etc. determine the extent to which students and teachers benefit from online classes. But the interesting thing here is that these very factors also affect the learning outcomes of the students. It filters those interested in education from the rest. This, in the long run, could have significant outcomes in determining who leads the sector and will open a Pandora’s box of innovations and technological changes in the sector. Some of it might even disrupt our very ideas of learning and knowledge sharing.

A Government order at the beginning of the new academic year (2020) has made online education mandatory. Viewing the government order in retrospect, we need to be wary of and ask ourselves what the State control of education has led us to. Going by the words of a leading educationalist, most of the results of institutional learning have been to stress on “conformity” than on “creativity”. This has significantly halted technology and innovation in the sector. When the State takes up control of the process of education, the path towards a creative learning environment all the more dwindles.

COVID-19 has made the State insist on online learning. However, the fact that online content and material for every subject has been in the public domain for a very long time is ignored. It is surprising that in a State like Kerala, with literacy outcomes on par with developed western nations, we had to wait for State directions to explore the valuable educational options online. Only when the State mandated, the exploration of such resources began. This is an indication of how politics plays spoilsport even in the case of merit goods. There is a politics in designing the curriculum and curating the content, especially in the school classes. One may not agree with this proposition, but it is rather evident from what is included and how boundaries are drawn each time. At a very young age, the State wants to reaffirm the allegiance of its future generation by designing the very critical thinking element that is hidden from the public view. Especially in the school classes, the focus has been to strengthen a set pattern of history, economics and civics entrenched into the thinking of many of past generations. Even when online education booms, the State tries to protect its interest in education through promoting television channels like ‘Victers’. There is no harm in establishing the trends and pattern as long as it does not limit the choice available to students. The school examination system followed is neither helping the cause. Online education could break this mould and enhance choices for the students in selecting their readings.

It is worth noting that even when the State has been controlling the education sector for so long, COVID-19 has now made us look for private online platforms, innovated and perfected by individual entrepreneurs, to host classes for the students. While conformity was ensured by the State through policies and regulations, creativity was taken up by the market, and at the end of the day saving grace was provided by the market players. By opting for Internet-based apps, the thin line that separates capitalism, market forces and State control starts disappearing even before the chapters describe the interests of the State. What would State’s insistence on online education have achieved if the market never had a role in innovations in the education sector? Promoting online education at the school level would lead to a clash of ideas and ideologies. It could make or break the beliefs and values of the present and past generations which upheld the very political act of the State and its actors. The State-led knowledge delivery that has worked for the previous generations could be challenged by the future generations by asking questions that are not entertained in a conventional classroom. The new narrative and the choice-based readings could usher in a new politics in the State. It seems to be the case that the political economy of the education sector has much to do with how the State mandates laws to regulate individual innovations in the sector in future. How the State deals with this new environment will indicate the trajectory of the education sector in the near term. 

Dr D Dhanuraj is Chairman and Rahul V Kumar Research Fellow (Market Economics) at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

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