Technology, Social Justice and Higher Education

Posted by Prasad Krishna at Dec 07, 2011 03:35 AM |
Since the last two years, we at the Centre for Internet and Society, have been working with the Higher Education Innovation and Research Applications at the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, on a project called Pathways to Higher Education, supported by the Ford Foundation.

The main aim of the project is to research the state of social diversity and justice in undergraduate colleges in India and encourage students to articulate the axes of discrimination and exclusion which might keep them from interacting and engaging with educational resources and systems in their college environments.

Peer-to-Peer Technologies

The entry point into these debates was digital technologies, where through an introduction to peer-to-peer technologies, digital story telling through various web based platforms, and a collaborative thought environment mediated by internet and digital technologies, we facilitated the students to identify, articulate and address questions of discrimination, change and the possibility of engaging with these critically in order to build a better learning environment for themselves (and their peers) in their own colleges.

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Each workshop was designed not only to be sensitive to the specificities of the locations of the colleges, but also to accommodate for the needs, desires and aspirations of the students involved. The participants looked at their own personal, family and community histories, their everyday experiences, their affective modes of aspiration and desire, and their own circumstances which often circumscribe them, in order to come up with certain themes that they thought were relevant and crucial in their own contexts.

 

As a follow-up on the workshops, the students developed specific projects and activities that will help them strengthen their hypotheses by looking beyond the personal and finding ways by which they can engage with the larger communities, spreading awareness, building histories and acquiring skills to successfully bolster their classroom interaction and learning.

The following is a bird’s eye view of the key themes that have emerged in the workshops:

The Costs of Belonging

Almost unanimously, though articulating it in different ways, the students looked at different costs of belonging to a space. Sometimes it was the space of the web, sometimes of the larger educational institution, sometimes to distinct language groups which do not treat English as the lingua franca, and sometimes to communities and friend circles within the college environment.

 

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It was particularly insightful for us to understand that granting access, providing infrastructure or equipping ‘underprivileged’ students with skills is not enough. In fact, it became apparent that there is a certain policy driven, post-Mandal affirmative action that has already bridged the infrastructural and access gap in the educational institutions. The easy availability of computers, internet access, the ubiquitous cell phone, were all indicators that for most of the students, it wasn’t a question of affording access. Even when we were dealing with economically disadvantaged students, there were a plethora of technology devices they had access to and familiarity with. Shared resources, public access to digital technologies, and institutional support towards promoting digital familiarity all played a significant role in demystifying the digital for them. In many ways, these students were digital natives if defined through access, because they had Facebook accounts and browsed Google to find everything they wanted. Their phone was an extension of their selves and they used it in creative ways to communicate and connect with their peers.

Based on this, the students are now prepared to work on documenting, exploring and raising awareness about these questions, to see what the gating factors are that disallow people with access to still feel excluded from the power of the digital.

The Need for Diversity


others It is a telling sign about the state of the Internet in India that every student presumed that the only way to be really fluent with the digital web is to be fluent in English. The equation of English being synonymous with being online was both fascinating and troubling to us. Of course, a lot of it has to do with India’s own preoccupations, marked by a postcolonial subjectivity, with English as the language of modernity and privilege. But it also has to do with the fact that almost all things digital in India, lack localisation. The digital technologies and platforms remain almost exclusively in English, fostered by the fact that input devices (keyboards, for example) and display interfaces favour English as the language of computing.


Such an idea might also help in reducing the distance between those who can fluently navigate the web through its own language, and those who, through various reasons, find themselves tentative and intimidated online.

The breakthrough that the participants had, when they realised that they don’t have to be ‘proper in English’ while being online – the ability to find local language resources, fonts, translation machines, and the possibility of transliterating their local language in the Roman script was a learning lesson for us.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) Learning

As a part of their orientation to the world of the digital, especially with the methodologies of the workshops, the students literally had an overnight epiphany where they could see the possibilities and potentials of P2P learning. The recognition that they are not merely recipients of knowledge but also bearers of experience and contexts which are rich and replete with knowledge, gave them new insights on how to approach learning and education. Through digital storytelling, the workshops demonstrated how, in our own stories and accounts of life, there are many indicators and factors which can help us engage with the realities of exclusion and injustice.

Working together in groups, not only to excavate knowledge from the outside, as it were, but also to unearth the knowledge, experience, stories, emotions that we all carry with ourselves and can serve as valuable tools to bring to the classroom, is a lesson that all the groups learned. The idea of a peer also led them to question the established hierarchies within formal education. What was particularly interesting was that they did not – as is often the case – translate P2P into DIY education. They recognised that there are certain knowledge and skill gaps that they would like experts to address and have incorporated special trainings with different experts in areas of language, communication, ethnography, interviews, film making, etc. However, the methods for these trainings are going to emphasise a more P2P structure that is different from the regular classroom learning.

What would happen if a teacher is looked at as a peer rather than a superior? How would they navigate curricula if the scope of their learning was greater than the curricula? How could they work together to learn from each other, different ways of learning and understanding? These are some of the questions that get reflected in their proposed campus activities, where they are trying to now produce knowledge about their communities, cities, families, groups and experiences, by conducting surveys, ethnographies, historical archive work, etc. The digital helps them in not only disseminating the information they are collecting but also in re-establishing their relationship with learning and knowledge.

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Ideas like open space dialogues, collaborative story-telling, mobilising resources for knowledge production, creating awareness campaigns and interacting with a larger audience through the digital platforms are now a part of their proposals and promise to show some creative, innovative and interesting uses of these technologies. How the teachers would react to such an imagination of the students as peers within the formal education system, remains to be seen as we organise a faculty training workshop later in December.

These three large themes find different articulations, interpretations and executions in different locations. However, they seem to be emerging as the new forms of social exclusion that we need to take into account. It is apparent that the role of technologies – both at the level of usage and of imagination – is crucial in shaping these forms of social inequities. But the technologies can also facilitate negotiations and engagements with these concerns by providing new forms of knowledge production and pedagogy, which can help the students in developing better learning environments and processes. The Pathways to Higher Education remains committed to not only documenting these learnings but also to see how they might be upscaled and integrated into mainstream learning within higher education in India.

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Prasad Krishna

Prasad Krishna previously worked in a newspaper and some reputed publications. He is MA in English, PGD in Journalism and LLB from the University of Delhi.