Upside down world of education | Sunday Observer

Upside down world of education

25 July, 2021

“We seem to have forgotten that the expression ‘a liberal education’ originally meant among the Romans one worthy of free men; while the learning of trades and professions by which to get your livelihood merely, was considered worthy of slaves only. But taking a hint from the word, I would go a step further and say, that it is not the man of wealth and leisure simply, though devoted to art, or science, or literature, who, in a true sense, is liberally educated, but only the earnest and free man.” – Henry David Thoreau

Education is no longer considered as a necessity for human development other than as an instrument for economic progress. Educational institutions have become almost like automated degree producing factories in their efforts to make the process as customer friendly as possible to attract better clientele.

These same Institutions use phrases such as ‘student-centered learning’ and ‘opportunities for individualised programs’ that are contradictory to the assembly-line like process of issuing degrees. The world has accepted this concept of using children as raw material for these education factories in the process of manufacturing adults the market needs to sustain the economic progress.

Education becoming too virtual

Navigating through all the new concepts and trends, such as, student-centered teaching, use of Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart classrooms, digital libraries, Internet of Things (IoT), Learning Management Systems (LMS), online teaching and learning and assessments, bite-sized learning, Integrated and Blended Learning, Blockchain technology, .... all the way to virtual schools and universities, in the field of education, has itself become an intimidating challenge for all the stake holders involved in the process. Instead of educational philosophies and human interactions, new technologies have started dictating the future of teaching-learning processes.

Covid-19 pandemic forced almost all the formal education systems of the world to use these technologies without any knowledge about the feasibility or the possible negative effects, if any.

Schools that did not allow students to keep their phones with them (even switched off during school time) so that they can contact their parents after school, are now blaming the students for not having a smart phone to login to zoom sessions. If one cannot afford to buy a phone or a computer and or keep buying data or if one does not live in an area where one has access to sufficient signal strength one should pretty much forget about continuing the formal education.

All what the institutions, governing bodies and policymakers want is to show that they have completed the syllabi and conducted the examinations in time so that the next batch of workers are ready for the labor market. Universities are showing videos of practical procedures in hard sciences and testing students’ memory about the procedures through a written evaluation online. There may be medical schools even training surgeons showing videos of surgeries and testing them online through written examinations, giving priority to the effective date of their graduation rather than the effectiveness of the surgery they perform.

Speeding up and education market

It is hard to imagine whether anyone would be willing to pay for the services of such graduates if they knew that only practical training the service provider has had is watching some videos online. The examinations are there to make sure that the students who earn their degrees, by completing those examinations successfully, are qualified to be professionals in relevant fields and not going to be a threat to the society for the lack of subject knowledge. Some educators feel that it is not feasible to monitor or supervise the students doing these online examinations and therefore they just have to accept whatever the students upload at the end of the allocated time.

A monitoring system will not only be able to identify any unethical or illegal conduct during examinations but also be implementing a level playing ground for all the candidates so that the integrity of the process and the outcome will not be challenged. Since there are logistical issues such as power outages and availability of mobile connections in countries like Sri Lanka, the students have to be given enough time (in some cases even up to 24 hours) to upload their answer scripts. Even with all such linearities if a student admitted to uploading the documents, but the scripts are not to be found in the server then, he will be given another chance to upload or take the examination over again.

The fact that different candidates are taking the examination from different places such as their own home, a neighbor’s home, internet cafes, or even from a top of a tree with all kinds of different environmental interference and physical obstructions, is usually not formulated into the evaluation criteria. Even though ranking of results under these circumstances has no meaning at all, the Summa-cum-laude graduate (first-class honors) will still be considered better than one with a Magna-cum-laude (second class honors) or a general pass, by the outside world.

Some students may have performed better if they could take the examination sitting at a desk instead of a treetop. Being on the other extreme, some universities used the best spyware that is available in the market to monitor students taking examinations and evaluated according to the reports given by that where some of the best students were labelled as cheaters. One of the best universities in the US was ordered by the courts to change the grades of a whole batch of students since the lawyers representing the students were able to prove that the students did not cheat, and the spyware was not accurate.

However, this panicked rush to complete the education procedures by hook or by crook has put the educators at the mercy of the constraints of learning technologies and systems suggested by the market. Most of these products in the ‘education market’ are not developed by people with an understanding or an interest in the goal of the process of education. As far as they are concerned, students, teachers, schools, universities are all their potential customers and governing bodies, and policymakers are just barriers to overcome to get their product marketed.

Students are constantly reminded of the advantages of sharpening their creative thinking abilities and emotional intelligence and to be life-long learners and they must think ‘out of the box’ while teachers, administrators, policy makers and parents are all sitting comfortably in the box of online teaching and learning designed by the software producers and data providers. If anyone dares to try anything out of that box, he will be reminded of the importance of staying in the ‘box’.

The formal education process itself is well known for sending mixed messages of the sort, the reasons for which are justified as the necessities to teach children about divergent thinking while keeping the uniformity of the evaluation process.

It seems that the only aspect of the students’ life that has been addressed by this type of ‘student centered learning’ is whether the student has continued to be inside the box of formal education through the exact number of years, without any breaks in between, that the labor market has been programmed to see in what they think to be a ‘successful’ candidate.

The writer has the served in higher education sector as an academic over twenty years in the USA and fourteen years in Sri Lanka and he can be contacted at [email protected]