We are back with another candid interview with Dr. Partha Banerjee. In the previous post, Dr. Banerjee had talked about his career journey and careers in science journalism. In this post, Dr. Banerjee talks about the limitations of online learning in India, his studying abroad experience in the USA, and about his own experience as an immigrant in the US.
Limitations of Online Learning in India
1. At present, online learning is creating buzz all across the world. In India, due to certain issues, not everyone can have equal access. What are your thoughts on this?
Dr. Banerjee: Online learning for the vast majority of Indian students is an illusion. Virtual classroom is an illusion for low-income people in villages, small towns, and even poor families of urban India. It’s a propaganda that we need to be careful about.
People who don’t have enough to eat, how can they afford a laptop and Internet access? Parents – most parents — still do not understand what online classroom really means; how can they tell their children how to use it? Even if there is hand-holding from teachers or administrators, would it reach the poorest of the poor?
India is not ready for online classrooms, as it was not ready for a digital economy. Both are myths and politically expedient propaganda. Even if for argument’s sake, we think government is going to provide laptops or smart phones across the country – which is simply impossible – is there any guarantee that poor families would not sell them for some much-needed money and food that they do not have?
In fact, Abhijit Bandyopadhyay and Esther Duflo’s research shows us that they would use government and private charity for purposes other than the intended.
2. What do you think about MOOCs and online certificate courses?
Editor’s Note: MOOCs and online certificate courses are useful to teach the basics. However, they don’t guarantee to master advanced concepts.
Dr. Banerjee: Not sure if it answers your question. But, take the examples of chemistry, biology, or environmental sciences. How would you use online classes for lab-based, experiment-based subjects, unless you have space for one-on-one labs, which is impossible in a crowded country like India?
What would you do for subjects such as drama or dance, where social distancing does not work? How would you learn plumbing, agriculture, electrical work, sewing, or carpentry? It is time we seriously put our minds together to assess the situation, and find out some viable alternatives to the traditional classroom, without sacrificing the merit of it.
There must be long-term planning, which is simply not there in India – especially for education or health.
3. A while ago, you had mentioned that online courses are for the benefit of private companies only. Could you please elaborate on that?
Dr. Banerjee: Not just private corporations, but companies that fundamentally run on artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, or automation — slowly substituting real workers. Companies like Amazon, Intel, Microsoft, Apple, or GE or Reliance or Wipro have the resources to do their business online, and their IT is huge and vastly powerful. They can create robotics for surgeries (many are being done right now) to 3-D printing (to build bricks to pipes to car parts) to virtual workers in a supermarket or car factories replacing human workers.
At the end of the day, online courses will teach, train, and manufacture such a system where the government’s role to work with the common people will be minimized, if not completely eliminated. Therefore, it is to the advantage of the big private corporations to encourage online courses for the privileged, creating a more economic and social disparity.
4. Early players (e.g. edX, Coursera) came out of academic institutes like Stanford, MIT, etc. There are other credible platforms that allow learners (from anywhere) to learn from eminent Professors and Researchers. Your thoughts?
Dr. Banerjee: It all comes down to affordability. How many students can go to MIT, Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, or Princeton or attend their courses online? Again, a privatized economy where the bias is always in favor of the rich cannot do good to the larger society, and this crisis has caused havoc for smaller institutions across the globe where they are facing the ultimate danger of going out of business.
And smaller institutions not necessarily have dodgy course content; in fact, there are many small schools in the USA that have done a super-excellent job to teach critical thinking especially in liberal arts. They will be faced with the possibility of extinction now.
Feedback on Studying Abroad in USA
5. You had done your BSc and MSc in India and then you pursued graduate studies in the US. How was your experience as an international student in the US?
Dr. Banerjee: Largely, the US system is an exploitative system from a financial pov, although unlike India, I had finally the opportunity to learn not by rote but by critical thinking. Money was tough in the early years, and restrictions for foreign students were massive.
But for the most part, for a free thinker like me, American academia gave me the open window to learn and think my own way, and as a student, I flourished greatly.
I had some of the best teachers both in science and then in humanities who were like fresh air from the ocean. They mentored me, encouraged me, and rewarded my talents.
Then, I had the divine blessings to know Prof. Noam Chomsky, a world-renowned thinker who I have kept touch with for twenty years. This man is like today’s Aristotle, Plato, Russel, or Tagore. I am truly blessed here.
6. What are the key differences in the education systems (and scientific research ecosystems) between India and the US?
Dr. Banerjee: The Indian education system is archaic, the learning is largely by rote, and critical thinking is not encouraged. Both at home and at school, the system is punitive — notwithstanding some of the best teachers and students, we have always had in India. Examiners take points (marks) off at their discretion, and it’s not a two-way, mutually respectful student-teacher interaction.
Editor’s Note: We will have a more comprehensive discussion on the difference between an Indian education system and an American-European system in the future.
7. Of late, Indian and international students are apprehensive about studying in the US. How has been your personal experience as an immigrant in the US?
Dr. Banerjee: The US has become an increasingly anti-immigrant administration over the years, and this president is known for his racism-based political propaganda. Especially for poor immigrants, the US has become a terrifying place to live.
My own thirty-five years in the U.S. has had many difficult experiences to deal with hard and soft racism, but overall, because we had high education and proper immigration, we never had to go through the extreme trauma many others have to go through.
Plus, I have worked as a grassroots immigrant rights organizer working with major rights and justice organizations, making it easier for me to deal with the harshness of the system. Lawyers, media personalities, and political leaders – I worked with all of them.
I would say 90-95% of Indian immigrants do not get involved with politics at all, and their aversion to work with Americans makes it harder for them in difficult circumstances.
8. Do you think studying abroad is overhyped in India?
Dr. Banerjee: Studying abroad is not overhyped. The dream that going to America will immediately make you rich is overhyped. Most Indian students, or these days Indian white-collar workers do not come to America to learn – at least, that is not their primary goal. The goal is to become rich instantly. There lies the problem. America is not a dreamland.
9. Finally, any general advice for students and parents on education and career?
Dr. Banerjee: Shun the old, primitive, archaic education system that is based on memorization, closed-book testing, and money-driven, study-only no-time-for-play education. Build a new education system that will reward talents and virtues.
Pursue the subject YOU LOVE. Build an education system that teaches race, color, caste, religion, and gender equality from elementary school all the way to college and university.
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