Emancipatory English in India

DalitGoddess
English, the Dalit Goddess by Shant Kala Niketan

“The West has today opened its door. There are treasures for us to take. We will take and we will also give, From the open shores of India’s immense humanity.”

(Extract from the poem Gitanjali or Offerings by Rabindranath Tagore, 1910)

 

This is the fifth post in a blog series based on the the TOETOE International project with the University of Oxford, the UK Higher Education Academy (HEA) and the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). I have also made this post in the OEP series available as a .pdf on Slideshare:

While driving back from a half-day tour of Delhi my taxi driver struck up a conversation about work and family. He had improved his basic level of English through his work and liked to practise with tourists. I was meeting with Professor L.P of the Rajasthan Ministry of Education that Sunday evening and told the taxi driver that I worked in education to promote free and open resources for teaching and learning English. “Good, great, …we don’t have a computer but we use our phones”. This made me think of the English in Action project in Bangladesh with UK Aid and the UK Open University for delivering English language learning resources via mobile phones. He went on to tell me that family life was very difficult for him, only visiting his wife and teenage son once a month in their home village while he worked long days as a driver in Delhi trying to earn enough for the family and so that his son could attend private English lessons, all the time stressing that he was a sixth-level person. Would there be any help from the government with his son’s English classes, I asked. “No, Ma’am… no, Ma’am”.

E-learning emancipatory English

I had met Dr. L.P. Mahawar  at the EuroCALL Conference on OER in Bologna in 2012. Just before arriving in India he had posted an upcoming conference in the EuroCALL forum to be held at Jaipur National University, E-learning Emancipatory English: Fast Forwarding the Future, in collaboration with SAADA (Society for Analysis, Dialogue, Application and Action) of which he is also a member. Covering topics such as: English as a symbol of status and a tool for emancipation; different Englishes evolving in the contemporary world; different pedagogical approaches to English Language Teaching; the role of the mother tongue in ESL/EFL; and English for Specific and Academic Purposes – naturally, I wanted to be part of this although my dates for India and the conference didn’t quite work out. So, I emailed him and said I’d like to contribute a presentation by distance and he replied positively, suggesting that we also meet while I was in Delhi. I was keen to find out more about OER and emancipatory English in the Indian context.

In my interview with Dr. L.P. Mahawar, he pointed to other overriding social issues currently impacting the Dalit’s and other low socio-economic groups from succeeding in education and beyond, identifying: high truancy among teachers and students; high drop out rates among students; skewed educational goals in favour of cram examinations; and a lack of e-connectivity at schools and in homes. Many of the problems identified in my interview with Dr. Mahawar are reflected in the newly formed TESS-India project with the UK Open University.

He also referred back to Project High Tech: Teaching English Communicatively, which he had presented at the EuroCALL conference on OER in Language Teaching. This was an ELT teacher training project carried out over two years across 200 schools in Rajasthan as a joint collaboration between the US Embassy and the Department of Higher Education with the Government of Rajasthan. Sustainability is a key issue with any project that intends to create and manage new teaching practices at the levels of policy making, curriculum planning and teaching. The scale of this project was large and Dr. L.P. Mahawar was concerned about the lack of incentives for teachers to stay motivated  by the project goals beyond the funded period:

“The sustainability and viability of such open resources can be effected only when the teachers, planners and policy makers develop a sense of social responsibility, and only when the teachers, educators or other practitioners get kudos for their efforts in terms of rewards, awards, medals and trophies or whatever may be the form of reinforcement and encouragement. The teachers should be given credits on point system like the Academic Performance Indicator; their voluntary work should be linked to promotional and incremental opportunities; their efforts to create authentic open resources ranked equivalent to good research work and their work load of teaching hours reduced in proportion to the quantity of open resources they propose to create or have created.” (Malawar, 2012)

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Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of education and the creative arts. Image via flickr

Saraswati [Sah-rah-swah-tee] is the Hindu Goddess of education and the creative arts and is often depicted holding a stringed instrument with a book at her feet. Indian mothers are known to pray to her for their children’s success in school. The Dalit or ‘untouchables’ of India have had a somewhat turbulent history with Hinduism, however, and have fought hard not to be banned from worshipping in Hindu temples due to their low caste (Misra, 2007). Another struggle for the Dalit centres on access to English language education as many Dalit view English as the tool for emancipation, leading to better paying jobs and a stake in the current Indian technology boom to escape the cycle of poverty. In the context of post-colonial India, some have even intimated that prayers to Saraswati for help with learning English might result in falling out of favour with this Goddess (Gopalkrishna, 2012).

English-medium education in India is still primarily the domain of the higher castes. One of India’s most well-known 20th century freedom movement advocates and pro English language campaigners, Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, was a leading figure in drafting India’s new constitution. He was also a Dalit or ‘untouchable’.  So, the Dalit have decided to build a temple to a new Deity, the Goddess of English. As can be seen at the top of this post, she is depicted for her work in helping the Dalit with their 21st century English language communication aspirations, standing on a computer pedestal and holding a pen up high in one hand and the Indian constitution in the other. In an article with the Guardian Weekly online newspaper in 2011, India’s outcasts put faith in English, Amarchand Jauhar, an English teacher who was supervising the temple’s construction in Banka village in northern Uttar Pradesh, was interviewed as saying, “Without English, nothing is possible for us Dalits” (Rahman, 2011).

Naturally, English language education is a politically loaded subject in India as it is in most parts of the world. Indeed, both the ELT industry and the open education movement have been accused of spreading linguistic imperialism (Phillipson, 1992; Pennycook 1995 & 1998). Added to this, the prevalence and dominance of the ELT industry internationally along with the promotion of English-medium OER from well-funded initiatives make it difficult for those working in under-resourced contexts to compete for the uptake of non-English OER on an international scale.

Nationalist interests for not promulgating what many have seen as the enslaving tool of the British Raj is one argument against English-medium education. For pro Kannada-medium educationalists and activists in the state of Kanataka where the local government was proposing English education for the Dalit and other low caste peoples, the preservation and promotion of local languages in state-run education is another argument. The government proposal has since been scrapped, leading Dalit activists and scholars to question whether there is a hidden political agenda to isolate Dalit and other low caste peoples from accessing English (Gopalkrishna, 2012).

To provide further perspective on English in India in a 2005 lecture at Oxford University, India’s still current prime minister, Manmohan Singh, upon receiving an honorary degree from his alma mater, reflected upon the great legacy British education and the English language had left for India in the current age of globalisation:

“It used to be said that the sun never sets on the British Empire. I am afraid we were partly responsible for sending that adage out of fashion! But, if there is one phenomenon on which the sun cannot set, it is the world of the English-speaking people, in which the people of Indian origin are the single largest component. Of all the legacies of the Raj, none is more important than the English language and the modern school system…In indigenising English, as so many people have done in so many nations across the world, we have made the language our own. Our choice of prepositions may not always be the Queen’s English; we might occasionally split the infinitive; and we may drop an article here and add an extra one there. I am sure everyone will agree, nevertheless, that English has been enriched by Indian creativity and we have given you back R.K. Narayan and Salman Rushdie. Today, English in India is seen as just another Indian language.”  (Singh, 2005)

Indeed, the continuation of English’s position as the international lingua franca in research, higher education and business is wholly dependent on it being owned by non-native English speakers (Graddol, 2006). With the escalating pressure to be able to function in English in order to get ahead in life, can a balance be struck by making high-quality and flexible English language resources open to those individuals and communities that would otherwise be unable to afford English-medium and English language education? After all, if English is to remain the international lingua franca, then surely it stands to reason that we view English simply for what it is? One of many linguistic communication tools for accessing and building knowledge on a global scale and one that should be accessible to all in the same way that access to the Internet should be a given for all.

Delhi University OER par excellence

Through the OER University Google Groups network I came into contact with Professor Vinod Kumar Kanvaria, faculty and educational technologist of the Department of Education at the University of Delhi. Fifty students from two different programs, Educational Technology and Pedagogy of English, had taken active roles in preparing the day’s events at what was formerly known as the Central Institute for Education (CIE).  India’s first Education Minister, Maulana Azad with then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, had helped to establish CIE in 1947, envisioning an institution to do more than just “turn out teachers who would be ‘model teachers’, but to evolve into a research centre for solving new educational problems for the country” (see CIE website).

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Professor Vinod Kumar, Alannah Fitzgerald and Sirawon Chahongnao at Delhi University Central Institute of Education, OER International Programme January 2013

From having engaged with Professor Kanvaria’s students for a full day and having observed the high levels of awareness around OER and OEP, I quickly came to the conclusion that these future educationalists are passionate about making a difference in Indian education through technology and openness. They are cognizant of the fact that eLearning is not yet a reality in most Indian schools and are taking their own mobile electronic devices equipped with portable speakers into classrooms where they are doing their section training. They realize the potential for eLearning is immense and more importantly, it is what the students are motivated by and would like to see more of in school.

Over a delicious traditional Indian lunch prepared by Delhi University staff, Professor Kanvaria showed me a range of high-quality paper-based OER course packs that he and his colleagues had put together for training teacher educators with OER  (Kanvaria 2013a; Kanvaria 2013b). The students who dined with us said the open educational resources used in their courses were very well received by the students and said they would be keen to transfer this open educational practice to their own development of teaching and training resources in future workplaces. Needless to say, it was most impressive to see a new generation of educationalists and learning technologists being taught by OER specialists.

In feedback to the presentation and workshop, students said they realized the deeper importance of sharing to develop not only themselves as open educational practitioners but their respective fields also. One student made the observation that a lot of the ELT lesson plan sharing sites that were once free are now asking for some form of payment and that it was difficult to find truly open educational resources in ELT. She was happy to have discovered Russell Stannard’s Teacher Training Videos (TTV) through the workshop as a useful starting point for web-based language resources.  Professor Kanvaria made a very good point about the blurred line between open and free resources in relation to uploading OER to proprietary platforms such as iTunesU and closed university websites. His point being that opportunities for user feedback are being missed when institutions such as Oxford do not create open interactive spaces and platforms, even on their university website, that encourage the re-uploading of re-mixed and re-purposed OER to show what people are doing with their OER. However, individual Oxford academics have received plenty of positive feedback on their OpenSpires podcasts from audiences, including the following:

“I have recently enrolled in the [……] University with the plan to complete a BA in Philosophy, but the first unit I have had to complete is a Study Skills unit which has been so boring and mundane I have been questioning whether to continue or not. Your enthusiasm for philosophy is infectious and put me back on course to continue my studies. Thanks again.”

“Can I just say how utterly engrossing they are – and how completely stimulating. I completed my undergraduate studies a great number of years ago, but listening to you lecture makes me yearn for study.” (Highton, Fresen and Wild, 2011 p.35)

References

Gopalkrishna, T. (2012). Dalit worship English Goddess. India: TkhalliGopalkrishna.

Graddol. D. (2006). English Next – why English as a global language may mean the end of ‘English as a Foreign Language’. The British Council: The English Company.

Highton, M., Fresen, J., & Wild, J. (2011). Making academic OER easy: Reflections on technology and openness at Oxford University. Journal of Open, Flexible and Distance Learning, 15(2): 28–40.

Kanvaria, V. K. (2013a). Professional development of teacher educators through OER (OERModule). In H. K. Senapati (Program co-ordinator) Open education resources for teacher educators. Bhubaneswar, India: RIE, NCERT.

Kanvaria, V. K. (2013b). A concept note on OER (OER Module). In H. K. Senapati (Program co-ordinator) open education resources for teacher educators. Bhubaneswar, India: RIE, NCERT.

Mahawar, L.P. (2012). Opening Up for Posterity: English Language Resources and Practices in Rajasthan. Conference paper from the CMC & Teacher Ed SIGs Joint Annual Seminar on Learning Through Sharing: Open Educational Resources, Practices and Communications. Università di Bologna, 29-30 March 2012.

Misra, M. (2009). Vishnu’s crowded temple: India since the Great Rebellion. Yale: Yale University Press.

Pennycook, A. (1995). The Cultural Politics of English as an International Language. London: Longman.

Pennycook, A. (1998). English and the Discourses of Colonialism. New York: Routledge.

Phillipson, R. (1992). Linguistic Imperialism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Raheem, M. (2011). India’s outcasts put faith in English. Guardian Weekly online newspaper. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2011/jan/11/learning-english-india-dalits-rahman

Tagore, R. (1912). Gitanjali. ‘Offerings’ translated into English. London: India Society of London.

Singh, M. (2005). Address by Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh in acceptance of Honorary Degree from Oxford University. Retrieved from http://pmindia.gov.in/speech-details.php?nodeid=140

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