The Delhi government has long complained that its special status under the Centre means that the state does not have the police under its control. But it has now decided to actively take on the role to police its classrooms – even inviting parents to collude in snooping on teachers and children.

The Aam Aadmi Party government had announced last year that it would spend Rs 100 crores to instal close circuit television cameras in classrooms of Delhi government schools. It is justifying this huge expendisture by riding on public concern for children’s security after the recent murders of children in schools. By trying to entice worried parents to accept a technological fix of streaming feeds of classrooms to their phones, Delhi is not only shifting some responsibility on them for ensuring the safety of their children, but also invading the pedagogical space of the classroom.

In some countries where such measures were introduced, students and teachers have strongly opposed this intrusion, pointing out how their individual and collective privacy is violated by being placed on constant public watch.

Photo credit: Anita Rampal

However, alarmingly, Indian schools are succumbing to such interventions, with an added zeal to instil fear and militaristic “nationalism”, such as the tank obtrusively displayed in a well known school on Barakhamba Road, which shook me as I came out of an ethereal music performance by Ulhas Kashalkar singing at the Swami Haridas Tansen festival last week.

Surveillance and segregation

The issue at stake in education is not just monitoring children through cameras and live streaming, but also more invasively through digital tracking devices on their bodies (including electrodes and straps to scan the brain, eyes or skin activity), or even implants inside them, which is attracting enormous corporate funding.

In 2012, there was a furore in the United States about a Gates Foundation grant of over $1 million to study “Galvanic Skin Response” bracelets, strapped on to children in classrooms. This research grant, awarded to a university as part of the Gates Foundation’s “Measuring Effective Teachers Project”, was to use biometric technology to determine the emotional and cognitive responses to certain stimuli and measure how engaged chidren were during their lessons.

In fact, millions of dollars had already been spent on evaluating teachers through standardised tests and videotaping of their lessons, and with contested results, steering such funding to work on the skin bracelets. Protests had raised questions about the efficacy and ethical dimensions of this research, especially when hundreds of schools were facing essential shortages, including funds for teachers’ salaries or school electricity bills. Students and teachers alike had found such snooping devices repugnant.

A teacher conducts his class under the gaze of CCTVs at a school in Delhi. (Credit: Aparna Kalra)

The main challenge is to creatively transform the nature of transactions within classrooms, which continue to be teacher-directed, with children in regimented rows facing the black board (or the digital board, for that matter, with little difference), with no explorations, articulations, experiments or innovative thinking. Instead of investing time and crucial creative effort in this direction, the dominant managerial discourse of education reform has been advocating for more control through surveillance, segregation of children, frequent tests of children and teachers, and technology to standardise teaching through pre-designed lessons administered via tablets.

In fact, this last “solution” is at the heart of “low-cost private schooling” for the poor, and is aggressively pushed by institutions such as Gyan Shalas and Bridge Academies and supported by international aid agencies such as the Department for International Development. These schools run on an economic model that employs a low paid instructor programmed to a tablet, held by every child, operating under a better paid supervisor who monitors many schools. The corporate advisors who guide the present Delhi government’s educational programmes are part of similar thinking networks.

The measures undertaken by the Delhi government in its schools invade the pedagogical space of the classroom. (Photo credit: PTI)

Dull classrooms, robotic teachers

The Delhi government has undertaken problematic measures that have been pushed by a corporate model, similar to trends seen across the world. First, it has segregated children from Class 1 onwards into various sections on the questionable basis of their ability. This discrimination and labelling is damaging to all, and does not ensure a democratic classroom or even better learning.

With live streaming, it undermines the trust and confidence of teachers and exposes children – already intimidated by the restraining culture of school – to the gaze of Big Brother, father or mother, not affording them crucial space to fearlessly engage with each other or their learning material, to take risks and be ready to make mistakes in the process of understanding deeper, or to have fun, including the normal dose of pranks in the classroom. Claiming that live streaming will prevent bullying is not acknowledging the need for teachers and children themselves to be able to learn to deal with such situations collectively and sensitively.

For creative teachers, the educational administration or vocal middle-class parents are already difficult to negotiate with, interfering and commanding them to adopt more conventional and authoritarian methods of teaching through “spoon feeding” while maintaining “pin drop silence” discipline. With heightened surveillance and “live snooping”, teachers will be further robotised and made to perform for a standardised show. In educational practice and research, this does not have any potential for creative or meaningful teaching and learning, or for nurturing social capacities to understand and engage with others with empathy, while learning to deal with violence of various kinds that our young are exposed to in the larger world outside the classroom.

Anita Rampal is a professor in the Faculty of Education, Delhi University