Why UGC’s proposal for ‘blended teaching’ is a bad idea

It reduces teachers — and universities — to mere purveyors of knowledge and is an attempt to tighten control over classrooms.

The proposal by the University Grants Commission to encourage “blended teaching” in higher educational institutions effectively means replacement of face-to-face teaching with online teaching. It recommends that 30 per cent of courses would be online initially, with the aim to eventually make it 70 percent.

The document, which is in the public domain for feedback, claims that the move seeks to “liberate” students. That the present teaching is top-down, teacher-centric, one-size-fits-all and ignores the diversity of students. A blended approach would provide students autonomy, instil a disposition of self-advocacy, promote student ownership and enable them to learn at their own pace. Teachers would become coaches and mentors whereas now they are merely knowledge providers.

All this sounds very progressive. But it reminds me of a lecture Sam Pitroda had given in Delhi University many years back as the chief guest of one of its convocations. He had said there was no need for multiple teachers for any subject. All you need are five excellent teachers. Their courses would be available online to be accessed by students worldwide through instructors. This view found favour with policymakers of Indian higher education after the advent of the MOOCs in 2012.

The massive online open courseware or MOOCs were seen as a potential replacement of physical campuses. But MOOCs failed to persuade universities in the USA to accept them. In 2003, professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University famously refused to teach a course developed by star professor Michael Sandel through edX. They said they do not want to enable a push to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”

The San Jose State University professors also called out Michael Sandel, suggesting that professors who develop MOOCs are complicit in how public universities might use them. Prof Sandel responded by saying that he firmly believed that online courses could not replace face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.

But in India, universities are already being pushed to teach courses available on the Swayam MOOC platform. Can a department of a state university refuse to take a course from Swayam if ordered? The right of the faculty to develop their own courses and pedagogy cannot be taken away by invoking students. But can universities in India have it in them to resist the move of the government towards this direction? We know the answer.

The populism in the name of students needs to be called out. Higher education institutions are not only about students. They are also meant to be a space for teachers. Every society needs teachers. They are not merely knowledge providers. They do have a responsibility to introduce students to all sources of knowledge. But they are also knowledge creators. What happens on the campuses is dialogue. And by interacting with generations of students and colleagues, one learns to think. Thinking does not happen in isolation.

We need different kinds of teachers in each discipline on our campuses. They bring with them diverse ways of looking at the world. The student must have an opportunity to be in the company of differences and disagreements. It is this that would help her democratise herself.

Another important role of the universities, especially in the context of India, is to help democratise society. The campuses give the youth relative freedom from the shackles of communities they come from. One can safely say that a feminist formation like Pinjra Tod cannot be imagined without the physical campuses.

To reduce the role of the universities to merely enabling the transaction of a pre-cooked syllabi is to ignore their larger and more important purpose in all societies. They also serve as critics of their respective societies. Universities in India are historically seen as places where political citizenship is shaped. By marginalising this idea and seeing students as consumers of “knowledge”, the policymakers seek to take the sting out of the enterprise of higher education.

The new move should not come as a surprise as this government has, right from the beginning, seen physical campuses as a “nuisance”. It has unleashed its student wing to discipline students and teachers, used punitive measures and nearly finished them off as deliberative spaces. This is yet another move to tighten control over classrooms.

The fear of teachers that this is a ruse to cut costs in higher education is also real. The last seven years have seen a gradual reduction in the budget allocations for higher education. The new proposal is a way of cutting the number of teachers in the name of liberating students. This proposal also refuses to acknowledge the huge digital divide that exists in India. It would certainly punish poor students and those from the SC, ST communities the most.

We know that the leadership in Indian universities does not have a culture of independence. To think of a San Jose University-like response from a public university in India is wishing for the impossible. A centralised body like the UGC would attempt to impose its own selection of courses on all the universities in the name of uniformity. There does exist a huge attraction for the idea of uniformity among powerful sections of Indian society. Only recently, universities were asked to adopt the syllabi prepared by the UGC, which was generous enough to allow them to have 20 per cent content of their choice.

We aspire to make our universities world-class. But adopting measures like blended teaching would definitely diminish our stature in the eyes of the international academic community.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 29, 2021, under the title ‘Virtual campus, real loss’. The writer teaches Hindi at Delhi University

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