The measures taken by most governments to try to slow the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic have been varied, and in some cases inadequate or too late. But almost everywhere in the world, cessation of face-to-face educational activities at all levels has been the rule.
Under these circumstances, there has been a significant, urgent transfer of educational activities to available virtual environments. However, while the use of new IT and communication technologies is an indispensable tool in any strategy for ensuring the continued operation of education services, they also expose significant inequalities, entail major risks and pose new challenges.
Yet it would be a mistake to assume that we are simply witnessing a “digitalisation” of educational activities. It is a matter of the rapid and large-scale incorporation of a new technological medium, in order to guarantee, through the continuity of teaching and learning, the right to education within the distressing context of a pandemic that is ravaging a world marked by striking inequalities.
Democratising and de-commercialising knowledge
As the pandemic spread and, along with it, social distancing and self-isolation measures moved educational and academic interchange to the virtual environment, various public and private institutions announced resolutions that temporarily removed fees for entry to archives, museums, libraries in order to enable the public to enjoy books, films and other works.
Access to scientific publications and databases has also been granted to facilitate communication between researchers who are trying to develop a medical response to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or to cure the disease produced by the virus.
At the same time, moving educational exchanges to virtual environments both necessarily entails, and implicitly enables, the downloading, reproduction, copying and/or translation of materials that existing intellectual property regulations made virtually impossible for use as educational resources.
Suddenly, the extraordinary nature of the situation has made it possible for something that could be perfectly normal to happen for a moment. We can imagine.
That art and culture were accessible to everyone, that they could be used as educational tools, without those who use them to teach or study having to face legal prosecution, without having to pay to read publications that report on scientific research which, in many cases, is financed by public funds, and which is presumably intended and aimed at helping to improve people's lives.
We can imagine. That collaborative logic would prevail over competition in the production of knowledge, that poetry, music, film, critical reflection would be shared and discussed in our time, and that we could apply the new technologies devised by human ingenuity to communicate, even if we were not in this situation of physical distancing forced by a virus...
The truth is that this is indeed an extraordinary situation.
And yet, the opening up of these sources, and of the channels of access to them, ought to enable us to question the reasons why it seems that only a catastrophe could warrant putting on hold the privatising and exclusionary logic that, in “normal” times, does not tolerate just anyone enjoying what is reserved only for those who can afford it.
Because that is the only reason given for the existing limitations, which for a moment have been temporarily relaxed: the profit that permits, not the authors, but those who develop a business by managing access to their creations, to profit off the expropriation of culture, knowledge, information and educational opportunities. That is, commodifying that which is, in truth, a right of individuals, of peoples, of humanity.
A Post-Crisis World: Future Challenges
The pandemic is not over, and we are already wondering what awaits us the following day.
Many conjure up apocalyptic visions that foresee only the future consummation of the global empire of corporations on the basis of a technological-authoritarian device, others are relieved by imagining a return to a normality that ignores the fact that the worsening of living conditions for millions of people is already a reality, and some dream of the fantasy of an almost spontaneous radical transformation of society on the basis of a sort of humanism prompted by the trauma of the pandemic.
In the end, it rather seems that, to paraphrase Jean Paul Sartre, we will only ever be what we make of what history has already made of us.
From this perspective, in which there is no prognosis that exempts us from continuing to strive to build a more habitable world, naivety is inadvisable.
One of the risks we face with this accelerated entry into the 'territory' of virtualisation is precisely the high degree of exposure to which we are subjected by the lack of sufficient knowledge of how the data provided by our exchanges on the network can be used, and our ignorance of who would be in a position to take advantage of this information.
This is information that enables supplier companies to access data that is then used to suggest opportunities for consumption of products of the most varied kinds, including 'cultural' consumption, and which can also be used to target our attention, awareness, information and, ultimately, our decisions.
Our movement through the networks leaves an imprint that favours the manipulation of our tastes and interests, and it can contribute to the legitimisation of the omnipresence of the few main beneficiaries of a large transnational business, which also extends quite significantly to the educational and academic fields.
It is essential to make our participation in the virtual world, which is shaped by very specific interests that have real effects on our lives, more political. On the internet as well, it is essential to maintain critical vigilance, to ensure that our actions are not exploited for the commercialisation of what we consider to be fundamental rights, such as education, knowledge and culture.
In this sense, we must continue to support the development of non-commercial alternatives in which the technology that humanity has managed to create is considered a common good that can only contribute to the construction of more just and egalitarian societies if it is put at the disposition of the public.
The destiny of humankind is not fixed, but it seems increasingly crucial to understand that if we are not able to turn the tide, the world will become ever more uninhabitable. In the midst of this crisis, it is also a challenge to ensure that distance does not isolate us, that uncertainty does not paralyse critical thinking, that fear does not prevent us from identifying, in solidarity and through the value of collective effort, signs of a better time.