Before I begin to discuss digital technology in the context of higher education, I wish to clarify the use of some key concepts here. One is technology. Technology on the one hand has come to be understood as an object out there, and on the other, in recent times, to exclusively refer to high technology like mobile phones and computers. However, I draw upon the etymological understanding of the term technology which comes from the Greek word techne meaning skill or that which reduces human labour. By extension I treat script, print as technologies. Script and print are the two technologies that have redefined the way human societies were organised and their worldview. Although there is no availability of evidence that can stand the rigour of academic inquiry to suggest that the digital is also a similar technology like that of print and script, empirical observation, and anecdotal evidence clearly points to such a direction.
I use the term digital technology in order not to group the new phenomenon under the rubric of other technologies as I wish to draw attention to the nature of the technology that defines it – digitality. I also use it to make a point that the digital technology is distinct in that “[m]uch like the print technologies the rise and emergence of digital technology seems to be producing new citizenships, forms of governance and public spheres of which … technology-mediated identities are a component.”
Classroom although linguistically suggests a physical organization of place within an enclosure of four walls where teaching-learning takes place, needs to be considered more as a space that emerges in a specific relationship between knowledge disseminator and knowledge ‘receiver’ within the norms and laws framed by the state or society. Such an understanding of the term will help in understanding the nature of the classroom in the context of distance, and internet-mediated learning.
One of the reasons why the polemic positions regarding the digital technology arise is because of the tendency to concentrate only on the technology and not necessarily reflect on how do the technologies influence and sometimes transform or enable different subjectivities. The other reason is due to the tendency to treat the digital technology merely as another technology and thereby collapse the present development as belonging to the old developments of the television or print technology era.
Digital technologies have already unleashed a different imagination, behavior and thinking that are changing the socio-political conditions as we knew them. These have already had a direct impact on the classroom. The use of mobile phones quite unapologetically, constant touch with the world outside the classroom through mobile phones, plagiarism that seems completely normal for the students, blogging, social networking among students based on political causes, academic needs, expressing academic disappointment, venting the grouse against the teachers and institutions in the cyberspace, institutions trying to woo prospective students through institutional websites are some of the immediately perceived outcomes of this new condition.
What makes the phenomenon worth taking note of in India is the recent interest of the state to harness the internet technology to address the issues affecting the higher education. The Indian State has been allocating significant amount of money and putting organizations in place to not only make information and communication technology (ICT) part of existing higher education apparatus but also to look at creating a new system facilitated by the ICT alongside. Recently, Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs (CCEA) gave its go ahead for the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology. This mission costs Rs 4,612 crores in the 11th plan. Indira Gandhi National University (IGNOU) is making its course material available online and allowing students to take exams online round the year for select courses. Quite a few universities are also shifting to making the course material available on their websites, or giving it in CDs. These are some of the examples of existing universities trying to adapt to the changed social demands mediated by digital technology.
There is however, an inherent flaw within the present imagination which has brought ICT into the existing higher educational institutions which are trying to accommodate the ICT within the structure that is largely a legacy of the print era. For examples, one of the direct outcomes of the digital technology is to increasingly present knowledge as contested. This comes clearly in conflict with existing lecture method which assumes that there is definiteness to knowledge and the teacher’s reading and view is the sufficient proof of that.
The tensions one notices in the classroom or within academic institutions between teachers and students are also due to the way knowledge production has changed. During the print era formal knowledge production was the sole privilege of the scholars and researchers on which the teachers banked on. When knowledge production breaks the age barrier and in a typical classroom or an academic space you have students who are producers of knowledge in the cyber space, and teacher who has not involved in publication, tension in their relationship is inevitable. The teacher and the student going to the same source for information, for example, Wikipedia can also create new tensions in the power-equations between the teacher and the students.
Within the Indian higher education set up the present tension is due to the historical development of the borrowed university structure meeting the changed socio-economic and political conditions. First, in the Humoldtian imagination, a teacher in a university was supposed to be also a knowledge producer. But the teacher for numerous reasons remained only as a knowledge disseminator. It is this historical role only as a knowledge disseminator that now has come to be challenged in Indian higher education due to state intervention which likes to see teachers as knowledge producers and not merely knowledge disseminators. Second, this state intervention comes along with the market demands for skilled labor from the universities which has made theoretical or conceptual learning seem like an aberration. Third, the exposure of Indian higher education to first world thanks to globalization coupled with India’s global ambitions necessitated a global ambition of higher education.
However, none of these created a crisis in higher education for which the state now thinks of the ICT as an answer. The crisis that the state takes note of occurs when the three historical and contemporary issues meet the fourth historical development of India – higher education as a right – where increasingly various groups making claims to entry into higher education . The demand looks nearly impossible for the state to achieve within the present infrastructure and resources. Further, this claim to higher education as a right runs counter to the Humboldtian imagination of the university where the university is entrusted with the job creating a small elite class which will preserve the national culture. Hence, the state turns to ICT as a way of addressing the crisis. In this context the digital technology becomes for the state what in communication theory is called the last mile solution. But the introduction the digital technology to address the crisis, only further takes the university away from its Humboldtian moorings.
The incorporation of the digital technology would call for a different type of organisation of the institution in terms of its curriculum, pedagogy, testing, evaluation, and administration. The idea of institution as buildings may require change. It might more of a cyberspacial presence. Curriculum may take on the coursework reading mode with blurring of disciplines where the reading material is made available online. This might even dissolve existing disciplines and create newer ones. Peer learning may replace face-to-face regular contact classes. Testing could become anytime, anywhere and may demand different levels of testing. Evaluation will undergo changes perhaps of which we do not have clear idea. The administrative set up of a university might undergo important change with the administrator becoming the most important person than the professor, a trend that is increasingly becoming a norm.