By Mithilesh Kumar
The Covid-19 pandemic has pushed us into thinking about a reconceptualization of the role, the status, and indeed the existence of the University Campus. This rethinking was underway even before the pandemic struck. However, an incremental progress gave way to a massive operationalization of alternative learning and virtual campuses. Most universities are now faced with incomplete semesters, pending examinations, and new enrolments. In this scenario, online learning tools, digital platforms, app-based examinations, and real-time online classes and lecturing are rapidly rearranging the elements of creating, disseminating, and assessing university-based knowledge. Understandably, this move has found both its share of enthusiasts and sceptics. There are teachers and academicians who want to take plunge in the brave new world of a virtual university campus as the solution to all the messiness that a physical campus-based learning entail. On the other hand, there are those seasoned educators who see and resist what they deem to be the end of university. Now that the “new normal” of work-from home and online existence is spoken about from the top of political, social, and economic leaderships, it is important that we demystify those conditions which make the virtual university functioning possible and, in the process, create impediments.
One of the main reasons that leads to a suspicion about the efficacy of a virtual campus is that our conception of education and its delivery are inextricably related to a sense of space and built-environment. This is neither a novel idea nor specific to our contemporary times. Buddhist Viharas, Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum, and indeed, Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva-Bharati were a result of this conviction that delivery of education and knowledge requires a unique space that can be differentiated from the larger social space through its location and the structures that these learning spaces built for themselves. Even when this unique space reconnects to the larger space outside of its boundaries, it does so by somehow preserving its special character. Anxiety about a complete shift, no matter how temporary, of the built-campus to the online virtual platforms stems from this deeply held belief about the space-knowledge relation that creates the campus-based university. Therefore, what is now required is to understand the nature of space-knowledge relation of what I call the ‘Platform Campus’ of a university. I hope it is not too absurd to suggest that if there can be a North and A South Campus of a university there too can be a Platform Campus with its own rhythm, ethos, and history.
It is important to understand that the devise (laptops, mobile phones, tablets, routers, etc.) and connectivity through Wi-Fi and mobile data are only a couple of elements that go into creating the Platform University. Scholars have studied carefully the physical infrastructures – cables, optical fibres, wires, semi-conductors and similar hardware – that are imperative for the functioning of the virtual world. In this sense, it is reductive to think of online education delivery and the virtual campus merely as a function of couple of devises and an online platform on which a university can deliver its content. If we want to preserve and expand the public nature of university education it is important that, as educators, we make a demand on the state to aggressively create the infrastructure that is required to create a condition for equitable distribution of university education online. If indeed the new normal is online and digital university space, the state needs to provide the infrastructure for such a space to function. In short, it is the job of the state to create the Platform Campus for public universities. The more important aspect of providing such an infrastructure is that the relationship between the space of the university and its outside deepens and gets realigned in crucial ways.
The self-contained university campus is one of the landmarks of any city and similarly for college campuses across the country. It is easy to differentiate between the boundaries of the campus within the larger city or town. However, if we are prepared to conceive of the Platform Campus of a university in terms of the required infrastructure to make it functional then the boundaries of the city and the campus dissolve to a great extent. Instead of fearing such an outcome it is important to claim its radical potential for making claims on the state in a manner that democratizes infrastructure accessibility. In a way, what the Platform Campus of a university and all its stakeholders should demand is that the state makes timely provision for the required infrastructure. This means revamping and strengthening the entire critical infrastructure of a city or town, indeed an urban planning mechanism that is hardwired to the needs of education and urban living. This can be one of the immediate civic and political demands once the lockdown comes to an end and economic activities begin – a complete overhaul of critical infrastructures across the country. By raising this demand, the university would have immeasurably fulfilled its social responsibility towards the community in which it locates and sustains itself.
Infrastructure apart, one of the major worries of online teaching especially in higher education is that the Platform Campus does not provide the democratic space that is available in a physical campus. Also, learning outside of the classroom of a university in the informal spaces provided by the campus is lost. There is merit in both arguments but only if we exclude the possibility that the online technologies could not be used for those purposes. It is important to keep in mind that disruptive technologies in education is nothing new and it has more to do with simply technology or education per se. Mass produced printed and bound textbooks were no minor disruptions nor was the introduction of blackboards in the classroom. These technologies which are now considered to be the backbone of “traditional” education can be traced back to no more than the early nineteenth century. They came on the back of massive changes in human society and political economy which realigned the relationship between capital, technology, state, and public education. It is within these changes and realignments of social relations that the “traditional” universities and education systems in general created a space for the virtues of democratic practices. Everything related to university education from syllabus to creation of departments and disciplines to students’ and teachers’ activism became a site of great contestations, debates, and disagreements. We find ourselves in a similar situation now.
The question that needs to be answered is what implications Platform Campus have on the ways we design our curriculum and understand academic disciplines. It is clear that even though the core objectives of a curriculum remain intact, the content and method of its imparting will need to change in sync with the platform. Traditional disciplines especially those in the humanities and social sciences where methods of critique and interpretation of a wide variety of social phenomenon is taught, mainly through intense discussion in the classroom among students and teachers, will necessarily have to transform. What mode should be adopted that such discussions can take place on the platform needs to be experimented with in collaboration with the learners and the instructors. Of course, this discussion will not be similar to that of a classroom but we do not have to replicate the physical classroom in the Platform Campus. One of the main problems in accepting the Platform Campus is the anxiety that it cannot substitute or recreate the physical classroom. But it need not do so. We are looking at an entirely different mode of socialization through the Platform Campus where the need is to create its own affective relationships between teachers, students, and society in general.
A couple of things should be borne in mind when thinking about the democratic possibilities of the Platform Campus. Online activism has demonstrated its potential to create radical social movements. One of the outcomes of the lockdown around the world is the exponential increase in the number of free webinars that are now taking place. Well-known academics, activists, students, and youth are taking a lead and participating in the discussions and debates that are resisting the dominant statist discourse about the pandemic. These webinars are highlighting and arguing about issues such as conditions of migrant workers, economy, communalism, environment among other issues. These discussions for now freely accessible are creating an extremely potent public and argumentative space. Universities and institutions of learning are using these to not only create new and useful knowledge but also ensuring that they are disseminated not only among the experts but get circulated widely among the public. The challenge will be to keep these platforms going and accessible.
All technologies have path-dependencies. The task of democratic politics is to use these path-dependencies to create a space for dissent and debate. Not using technology at hand will only create an upper-hand for technocrats and exclude even further those who cannot access them. The democratic demand for the university and other workplaces is to create infrastructures so that there is an equitable distribution of the online technologies. It is also important to be alert so that not every aspect of Platform Campus is monetized and up for grabs by predatory corporations. One of the tasks ahead will be to hold those entities accountable who create the online platforms. The field cannot be left open for only private corporations to operate and the state needs to create the condition where universities can create and operate their own Platform Campus.
Mithilesh Kumar teaches at Christ (Deemed to be University), Bangalore. Views are personal.
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