The recent arrest of actor Shahrukh Khan’s twentythree-year-old son Aryan Khan in the drugs-oncruise case has sparked off a nationwide debate on the roles and responsibilities of parents towards children in the face of new challenges and complications arising out of a crisis caused by the rapidly changing times, especially during these pandemic days.
A good number of people wasted no time in howling down Mr Khan for being a ‘failed father’ (how successful they themselves are as parents is an altogether different question). The actor’s position is further jeopardised by the fact that he is the brand ambassador of an online teachinglearning app that obliquely preaches ideal parenthood and promises to transform parents into partners. Under public pressure the brand finally pulled down the ads of their app featuring Mr Khan, as if his absence would stop the decline of the brand’s popularity and thereby lessen the damaging impact of such discourses on people.
This sort of a shallow and limited understanding of realities on the part of the masses makes the job of corporates, that sell ideas through popular mediums like ads, films etc. using icons to gain socio-cultural acceptability for a brand and exacting profit out of it, easier. Therefore, a deeper understanding of incidents and realities, especially of those that have or may have long-term impact on the social psyche, is mandatory to put up collective and timely resistance to ideas and values that may damage a rational system permanently.
The impact of online education on students and their parents and the changing value systems of our society needs to be understood vis-à-vis these realities. It would be easier to understand how a brand generates public acceptability for its products by strategically influencing popular opinion and manipulating widely used vocabulary within society if we make a more serious reading of one of the most frequently watched TV commercials of the online learning app Byju’s, with which Mr Khan is associated as brand ambassador.
In that commercial, a middle-aged father is seen playing table tennis with his adolescent daughter who is a dedicated client of Byju’s. Apparently, the commercial is harmless, depicting a happy Indian family. However, a closer look at the house, which is well-furnished with visibly expensive tapestry, appliances, and movables, will enable an observer to see much beyond the game and the joyous conversation between the two.
The urban set-up and the presence of these costly possessions within the large room clearly signals towards the class position of the consumers of knowledge and skills sold on virtual learning platforms like Byju’s. That the entire system has been designed keeping in mind the special needs of families where working parents can hardly spend any time on educating their children using traditional means and modes because of their pressing work schedule (including work from home in the new normal situation) is quite visible in the commercial.
The canvas of the ad clearly exposes the exclusivist nature of the new education system where there is no space for modern Ekalavyas. The contempt for traditional modes of learning has been expressed by using books as a ‘net’ in their game of table tennis! Thus, the shift from book-based learning to tech-based learning has been intelligently represented in the ad through the cunning use of books as some sort of waste material. The commercial tries to establish the magical power of these online tools which can drive away the tensions and anxieties of parents by shouldering all parental responsibilities for their children’s education.
Thus the ‘liberated’ parents can fulfil their parental responsibilities by simply gifting one or two expensive electronic gadgets or, at best, playing table tennis with them for some time. This is how this new mode of technology-based education is promising to liberate parents and transform them into partners.
Should we then take this rhetoric unquestionably as the truth or we should try and question the agenda behind promoting such ‘truths’? There is no denying the fact that a system cannot sustain for long and effectively unless it accepts the fastchanging realities of its time and redefines its strategies according to the basic needs and principles of those realities.
It is also undeniable that the process of adoption into newer modes needs to be accelerated when the world witnesses a major shift in all possible domains owing to an unexpected disaster such as the ongoing pandemic. Like other affected domains, the realm of education also had to devise novel strategies of survival in the face of a medical disaster followed by other disasters. It would be a fallacy to think that the use of technology in pedagogy and research is a post-Covid phenomenon. Technology-based online teaching-learning had started making serious inroads into the field of education, especially in professional education, since the beginning of the last decade.
It was becoming more and more popular even in other fields of education over these last few years. However, the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns opened the floodgates for use of technological tools in teachinglearning and research. The corporate houses that are in control of these markets sensed a possibility of making unbridled profit in the field by cunningly changing the very definition of knowledge and the objective of education.
In doing so, they have quite successfully used the popular culture industry to coerce people into trusting ideas that are apparently quite appealing to a particular section of our society that constitutes the class of consumers for this online education.
Keeping in mind the socioeconomic status of this class of consumers, media and ad agencies have developed an elitist vocabulary in which well-known things are redefined to serve the interests of this wealthy section alone. In doing so, they are redefining even basic human relationships, like the relationship between a father and a daughter, which is ultimately changing the definitions of ideal parenthood and responsibilities for purely economic reasons. Therein lies the biggest danger.
This new mode of education is excluding large numbers of learners from the teaching-learning process as this mode has been designed to cater to the academic needs of only those who are fortunate enough to access hassle-free internet connections at home and can afford its cost. The striking reality of this digital divide among learners came to prominence one more time when the UNICEF-ITU report exposed the bitter truth that two thirds of the world’s school-age children have no internet access at home.
The obvious consequence of this ever-widening divide would be that millions of learners will be forced to drop out from this new system and most of them will have no option but join the unorganised sector as cheap labourers or, if they are lucky, become skilled labourers after somehow managing to do some vocational courses. The situation of girl children is bound to be much worse than of boys as they will be doubly victimized. This is sure to cause irreparable damage to the world of education and the future of our coming generations. In the long run, this system will not spare even the flag-bearers of its ideologies. Using technology in education in a systematic way is one thing while the corporatisation of the entire system is something else.
The sooner parents understand the difference the better it will be for the future of their children. Otherwise, instead of getting transformed into partners, parents will find themselves being transformed into permanent parasites.
(The writer is Assistant Professor of English Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata)