Online education and knowledge work amidst intensified alienation triggered by Covid-19 crisis

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By Pritha Chandra*

During Covid-19 times, the ‘social distancing’ catchphrase has invaded every aspect of our lives. Public space has been fragmented into individualized, quarantined units, intensifying social relations as aggregates of their discretized interactions. Unlike other pandemics of yesteryears, Covid-19 has given a tremendous push to technology to secure social distancing.

In the field of education, the phenomenon of online education was already slowly gaining space especially as complementary to traditional classroom education and as a mechanism of distance learning. Today, the ideology of social distancing and its institutionalization have brought online education in the center of educational systems. It has acquired legitimacy and the capacity to take over the whole system of education. In countries such as India, where Covid-19 has been used by the state as an opportunity to revamp various sectors, including health and medicine, a reconception of education is underway. Online education serves as the organizing force in this regard.

The Production of Education as a Commodity

Popular debates on technology and online education generally revolve around the idea of education as a commodity to be put to consumption in the classical sense of the word. It is, of course, a commodity with a use-value, much in parlance with material commodities like food items, daily wear etc. Such commodified education naturally must meet the parameters of consumer satisfaction.

Therefore, much discussion on the recent Covid 19-triggered tech-intensive online teaching harps on students’ differential access to internet connectivity and bandwidth, the problems of long-distance assessments without the characteristic ‘fairness’ metrics associated with offline exams etc. — in short, anything connected to the students’ overall satisfaction with their purchase of this immaterial commodity.

What these debates however miss are the fundamental processes that go into the production of education, and the complex dynamics of the teacher-student relationship underpinning such production. By neglecting its sphere of production, we miss out on a very important aspect of this commodity — one that would help us understand online education, and the role of technology better, and also identify spaces of critique of education, as understood in the current socio-economic system.

Notwithstanding the similarities, education is unlike any other commodity, not just in the material or physical sense, but mainly in the organization of its consumption and production. Material objects such as pens, cars etc. have an immediate use-value for buyers, consumed beyond the sphere of production.

Education, on the other hand, produces students as workers for their future entry into the labor market; its consumption or use-value lies in generating new, educated and skilled labor power for further use in the processes of production. Through a network of local and international educational institutions placed at different orders of hierarchy and status, education reinforces and reproduces the existing and (unequal) social relations by producing a heterogeneous group of future workers with differential skills, and by extension, differential wages. Hence, from the students’ perspective, education is consumptive production.

Education as knowledge production is unique in placing this consumer — the student — in the production sphere itself. In other words, education as a commodity is a co-production of teachers and students, and is generated through continuous dialogue and interaction between them. (Of course, students here are mostly unwaged or underpaid producers.) Education is not a fixed commodity, but one that is processual, and evolves within the dialectic of the educated-educator relationship.

This dialectic constitutes a predicament for education in the current system. On one hand, there is the tendency to establish standardized syllabi and programs in response to the needs of a globalized labor market, making the practice of teaching and learning very mechanical; on the other, there is an equally strong opposition from the co-producers against attempts to kill their cooperative agency and creativity.

Classroom settings and face to face instruction allow the dialectic of education to be productive in its dialogicity, with teachers innovating ideas and methods in dynamic and synchronous concord with students. With both instructors and learners present in the same physical space, learning — despite constraints of fixed syllabi and evaluation metrics — evolves through collective thinking and with a view to the intellectual needs and abilities of the participants.

There are challenges thrown in with big class sizes and formal disciplinary settings leading to alienation typical of a hierarchized industrial scenario — an intensified lack of interest and commitment among both learners and teachers. However, since education in such settings is still based on direct relationships between students and teachers, there is always a possibility to overcome the alienating institutional mediation.

There is a relative autonomy operating in this dialogic relationship, which allows innovation in ideas and knowledge production. It is only through institutional mechanisms, command structures and labor market segmentation (casualization and contractualization of teaching work) that these relationships and their outcomes are subsumed within the industrial logic of capital.

Technology and Educational Labor

Online education, despite and because of deploying the best of technologies, fails to simulate the environment of the classroom. Educational production here is distributed over multiple zones, with producers confined to their virtual cubicles. Without a shared space, education is reduced to instruction and information, discretized and reintegrated by the mediating pre-programmed machines.

The dialogical relationship is now between the machine and the producers, not between the co-producers. The teacher is deprived of her role of the facilitator in this dialogue. She is just an instructor in this new environment. Her instructions are received by the machine, which mediatizes them and delivers them to students in a manner that it is programmed to deliver. This overhauls the whole dialectic of education — dialogicity is broken.

Alienation in this process is quite stark, since the relations of production of education are completely transformed— now it is not just the formal arrangement of institutions that enforce the logic of capital, rather the very production process generates it. The deployment of any kind of technology in this process will only intensify this transformation.

Technology, in fact, plays a big role in this alienation of labor that happens through the informatization of education. In the effort to replicate the classroom experience sans the direct relationship of affectivity between teachers and students, there is an overaccumulation of technologies and educational products, bringing in the surveillance techniques for remote disciplining of students and teachers.

One only needs to look at the number of new gadgets and software for online education to understand the extent to which technology tries to overcome its artificiality. The market is flooded with AI-driven ‘smart content’ materials, customized lessons, digitized textbooks, easy to navigate chapter summaries, flashcards, automatically-graded exams, cameras for remote surveillance etc. The process of alienation is evermore intensified, since human living labor of both teachers and students are objectified in the development of these technologies. Their vivacity is reduced to an appendage to the artificiality of the machine.

What is interesting is that while technology deskills the producers by taking over their powers of imagination and judgement, it also forces them to reskill themselves. With evermore new technologies hitting the online teaching platforms every day, both students and teachers are forced to continuously update themselves in their technical knowhow to assist these machines. This has led to generational and occupational redundancies in education too by promoting lean production methods and Taylorizing techniques in education.

Duality, Disposable Time and Dialogicity

What happens to education as a commodity in this alienated and Taylorized production process? Education internalizes the segmented social relations that characterize capitalism. This introduces dualism in its institutionalization, which gets further systematized and globalized in the wake of the ongoing technicization of education.

On the one hand, we have mass production of education as a set of discrete information and instruction to train the majority of the working population in the drudgery of assisting the machines. This is facilitated by online education technologies. On the other hand, we have elite institutions monopolizing the rights to innovate and research (secured by various legal and institutional mechanisms like patenting, funding etc.), for which the more intensive conventional teaching methods must continue.

This duality of education enhanced by online educational technologies has been developing for the last few decades to keep pace with the human resource requirements of other industrial and service sectors. Hence, online education itself has emerged as a fast-growing industry. The Covid-19 pandemic has given its production and dissemination a new intensity, urgency and definite possibility.

With the growing dominance of online education, and discretized learning/teaching methods, there is also a proportionate increase in disposable time for both teachers and students. In the absence of direct and personalized contact during lectures, instruction intensifies; knowledge in the form of discretized information is produced in less time than in traditional classroom set-ups due to the absence of students’ queries and interventions. But what will be the utility of this disposable time? The system controls this disposable time by retrenchment, and by increasing workload and diversifying work profiles for the existing educational or knowledge workers.

However, from the workers’ perspective, the disposable time has a different meaning, one that allows the co-producers to overcome drudgery and alienation by reclaiming the time-space for innovation and creativity. It is in this time-space that workers recognize knowledge as a result of their co-production, and re-appropriate it, going beyond being passive feeders-receivers of information assisting the machine.

Dialogues between students and teachers are reestablished through more interpersonal interactions. This leads to a process of conscientization, in which the co-producers move beyond the classroom norms and fixed syllabi, and collectively build an understanding of phenomena and concepts, drawing on their own realities and experience.

The disposable time enables workers to reclaim their common space and self-organize knowledge production, while reducing technology to mere means in this process, not as a mediator, organizer and controller of production and producers. It is only through such collaborative activities in these fractured times, that teachers and students together can assert as knowledge producers and consumers, and imagine education beyond its commodification.

*Pritha Chandra teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Delhi. She can be contacted at prithachandra@gmail.com

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