The pandemic imposes a steep learning curve

PAPER: II

MAINS: General Studies- II: Governance, Constitution, Polity, Social Justice and International relations.

Context:

Across the world, education has been drastically affected by COVID-19 pandemic. Most instruction has moved online. Higher education has either gone digital or has simply been put on hold.

Issue:

  • In the wake of the pandemic, other countries have embraced online education with mixed enthusiasm.
  • At the same time, educationists and policymakers advise caution.
  • Online education has not lived up to its potential.

India’s Response:

  • Given the diversity in institutions of higher education, the Indian education system has had a very heterogeneous response to the pandemic.
  • The reactions also reflect the contrast in rural versus urban infrastructure, the variable quality of staff, and the diverse types of subjects that are taught.
  • Serious long-term effects can be expected considering the scale of the social, political and economic changes that have been occurring these past several months.

Switch to online education:

  • From a purely pedagogic point of view, it is clear that technology will play a bigger role in education in the coming years.
  • However, for courses that traditionally need a laboratory or practical component, online classes cannot offer an alternative.
  • Considering a huge digital divide in the country, adoption or integration of technology in education also depends on the specific institution and its location.

Challenges:

  • Beyond classroom lectures and courses, there has been a serious impact on academic research in all disciplines.
  • There is need for close personal interaction and discussion in research supervision.
  • It is not clear when and how doctoral research and supervision can resume.
  • The related economic crisis has consequences for funding, both of research as well as for the maintenance of research infrastructure. These are very long-term effects.
  • Not all students have equal access to the Internet.
  • Lack of the required combination of hardware and electrical connectivity at homes is more pronounced in rural areas and non-metro cities, and for lower income groups as well.

Online teaching:

  • Most teachers in India view online instruction with caution.
  • The shift online is in response to a crisis and was poorly planned.
  • Online teaching is a separate didactic genre in itself — one that requires investment of time and resources that very few teachers could come up with, in a hurry.
  • Many online classes are poorly executed video versions of regular classroom lectures. Across the board, teachers recognize this as unsatisfactory.

Opportunity for Change:

  • This is a chance to re-imagine higher education in India. For long this has been elitist and exclusionary; education has been less about learning and more about acquiring degrees. Now, higher education system can be made more inclusive.
  • There is a positive aspect of even a partial move to online education: making lectures available online in public and open websites accelerates democratization of knowledge and wide distribution of learning opportunities.
  • If going online loses the human touch, the advantage of becoming available to many more people who aspire to learn is worth the trade.

Way forward:

  • Online higher education using massive open online classrooms (MOOCs) has been encouraged by the Ministry of Human Resource Development for some time now via the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) and SWAYAM platforms. (SWAYAM is a Hindi acronym for “Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds”.)
  • These are presently used to augment classroom instruction but if these can be taken for credit, it may help address the question of access to quality education.
  • If this is to make a serious difference, both the quality and quantity of online courses need to be enhanced.
  • If giving proctored examinations in a socially distanced world is more difficult, what needs to change is the idea of proctored examinations.
  • There are simpler ways to validate pedagogy, some of which can be found in our own traditions.
  • For instance, Gandhiji’s “Nai Talim” put a high premium on self-study and experiential learning.

Digital tools in teaching:

  • With planning, significant qualitative changes can be brought about.
  • Digital tools such as artificial intelligence (AI) — already used in teaching language — can be adapted to deliver personalized instruction based on the learning needs for each student.
  • The use of AI can improve learning outcomes; in particular, this can be a boon for teaching students who are differently-abled.

Role of state:

  • Pedagogic material must be made available in national languages; this will extend access, and can help overcome staff shortages that plague remote institutions.
  • The state will have to bear much of the responsibility:
  • To improve digital infrastructure.
  • To ensure that every needy student has access to a laptop or smartphone.

Conclusion:

The adoption of online education needs to be done with sensitivity. Imagination and a commitment to decentralization in education is the need of the hour. In the future, blended modes of education will be unavoidable: online instruction where possible, and limited contact for laboratory instruction and individual mentoring. If this can lead to the emergence of a new pedagogic paradigm, India would have made the sweetest use of this adversity.