DU Beat in conversation with Nandita Narain

A Mathematics professor at St. Stephens, Ms. Nandita Narain has served as DUTA President for two consecutive terms, as a candidate from the Democratic Teachers’ Front.
Let’s see what she has to say about the National Education Policy 2019, online teaching during a pandemic, and missing her students!

Shraddha: How is the teachers community coping with online teaching?

Prof. Narain: The teachers community is on the whole facing many challenges. A, it is not something that was part of our system to begin with, even as supplementary method of communication. And B, there was no infrastructure or training provided by the college to deal with this.
Last term we had to use our own devices to engage academically with students, through e-resources, but it didn’t work well. Since then, some teachers have picked up a little more in terms of technical know-how. Now we’re trying out Google Meet and Zoom etc, although there is a connectivity problem. In our college- St. Stephens, teachers who reside on college campus have put in money and installed some additional routers, but it is still not satisfactory. Students also lose connectivity in between classes, so it is difficult.

Online learning cannot by any stretch of imagination replace the magic of classrooms where we all explore and learn together. It is not just academics, but also the extra-curricular interactions that students have, that are an intrinsic part of education. We cannot carry on like this indefinitely. The students are really being deprived of a versatile education.

Image Credits: The Daily Mail

Shraddha: Do you think digital classrooms are a welcome change in the long run? Some students believe that attending classes from home, is more economical than attending colleges in terms of transportation, accommodation and infrastructure. So, what is your opinion on that?

Prof. Narain: Replicate that setting at home- you may end up paying less. But you lose at least 90 percent of that vital education that you get on campus with the discussions, the protests and diverse interactions.
Most of us who have graduated from colleges in our university, when we look back, we see the benefit of having been together. We learned so much from each other and through various things we did together, than simply just accessing the cost.

When we interact beyond the classroom, it’s not just the students interacting with peers, but with other students and teachers as well. You’re living together in the hostels. You’re eating together. You’re doing so many activities together. You’re growing in so many ways and you’re learning to be proper world citizens. All of that is lost, when you’re just sitting in front of a machine. We are not meant to be just disembodied beings communicating through machines.

Shraddha: What do you think the university should do, to make online education more inclusive for students and teachers?

Prof. Narain: They have to definitely do more than what they’re doing. I don’t think that universities or colleges are taking enough interest. They have left us to our own devices. Providing some internet access and gadgets maybe a solution. But it still may not be enough, especially for students who just cannot afford to have multiple smartphones, and Internet access wherever they are. Universities may not be able to take care of all the remote areas, and is something that the central government has to think about.

If the economic inequality was not so severe, then the situation would not be as bad as it is. Students are struggling not only with Internet access, but also with livelihood for their families. Even being able to recharge a phone is an issue.
So, unless the economic situation in the country improves, people get jobs, a minimum basic wage for whatever economic policies you adopt, this problem is not going to be resolved. And universities are beleaguered spaces, now that we’re facing this new education policy, which is asking them to raise their own finances, by raising the fees of the students further, and is a step towards complete privatisation of public education.

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Shraddha: What is your take on the National Education Policy,2019?

Prof. Narain: The new National Education Policy gives a lot of emphasis to online education, which is pushed by people who are likely to make a huge profit out of it. Especially during the lock down like the Ambanis, the Adanis and the global corporates.

That seems to be the motivation for pushing through this new education policy, in the middle of a pandemic. It says clearly that the government will not take the guarantee for grants, to run the institutions. It will be left to each institution to figure these things out. They will have members from primary funders and their board of governors. And they’ll be free to fees, salary, service conditions, course content and so on.

There will be no elected representation of teachers in the board of governors or in any statutory body. So, teachers will have no voice in governance. They will not have a democratic say in what is to be taught. Content can be changed by the Board of governors, which will have representation from the government, from the funders, the corporates and also some public intellectuals who the government will pick. They’re basically gagging teachers already. It’s a very frightening prospect. What are they going to turn our universities and colleges into?

These are some of the things that teachers have been struggling with for a long time, and continue to do so. Defunding public universities will make education even more inaccessible. If we are demolished, there will be no guarantee that we can provide education to the bulk of the people anymore.

Shraddha: What would be a message that you would want to give students on occasion of Teacher’s Day?

Prof. Narain: It could be a message of hope. It could be a rant or even a scolding.
I would just like to say to them, keep smiling. Through all the travails, there is always hope the hope is them. The time I get with my students is like oxygen for me, and the days I don’t take classes are rather boring. So, I deeply owe all of them all these years, and the immeasurable joy and motivation I’ve got. And I would never like to see any of them not smile, and not happy.
Discover yourself, discover your own inner strength, and go discover what you want to do with your life. How you can contribute to the world in a rational way. Think independently and creatively and have the courage for your convictions, that’s really important.

One is either part of the solution, or part of the problem. So, you have to do something to contribute to the solution, however small that contribution is. Even thinking about the problem or speaking about it, makes a difference. Life is not something that just passes you by. What happens in the world depends on what you do about it as well. And when you look back, you have no regrets. You think- “Yes, I did. I did my best.”

Featured Image Credits: The Lallantop

Shraddha Iyer