What demonetization of late 2016 did to fintech in India, then covid-19 pandemic of early 2020 did that to edtech and healthtech world-over. There is a forced migration to digital learning which is laying bare the underbelly of the much touted Digital India campaign exactly five years ago.
World-over more than 770 million students have been disrupted by covid-19 and the consequent lockdowns globally. The United Nations has warned of the unparalleled scale and speed of the educational disruption being caused by coronavirus. India has over 37 million students enrolled in higher education. An interruption in the delivery of education has already caused a disruption that might be long-run.
Learning or academics or education broadly has three functions. They are creation of learning content through research, writing; packaging with visuals, dissemination of learning through classes, lectures, notes, self-study, discussions; and assessment and evaluation of the education of the learner by various methods. All these three have been majorly impacted by the self-isolation imposed to ensure social distancing so that the learners and the mentors may first be protected from the spread of the infection of covid-19. The lockdown across the world is simultaneously a boon and a bane for the teaching-learning community today.
Digital Haves and Have Nots’ Dichotomy
Covid-19 is, in fact, amplifying the struggles that children are already facing globally to receive a quality education. Even before the outbreak of the virus, there were 258 million out-of-school children across the globe — principally due to poverty, poor governance, or living in or having fled an emergency or conflict. While there are programmes dedicated to ending the existing crisis in global education, the dramatic escalation that the covid-19 has introduced newer challenges for around 550 million children who were so far studying but do not have access to digital learning systems.
The digitally deprived large chunk of masses – being bereft of access to digital resources like a good internet connectivity, laptop or ipad for use, electricity and smart phone- across the globe is forced to waste productive learning time. The digital divide in every developing and under-developed society was never as glaring as it is now. Though more than 70% of Indian population has been covered now with mobile telephony, the resources needed for digital learning from distance or at home are not there with more than 1 out of 4 people in the country. Same is the case with youths in the formal learning age. This is the bane today.
India has been speaking of digital education for long but it has stayed on as a possibility and not a reality for more than a decade now. Even IITs and IIMs have used digital platforms on the side for sharing of content and debating on issues sporadically. The larger mass of 900 plus universities and some 44,000 colleges have actually not digitized their content, not made access to online learning mainstay of their teaching-learning process, except the distance learning universities. In fact, the old school educationists looked at online and distance education with some disdain all across South Asia. They are in for a major shock now.
Alongside, reality is that the digital penetration across India is still abysmally low beyond tier 1 and 2 cities and towns. It might keep whatsapp running and false content shared, but cannot truly replace face to face learning even remotely. The current pandemic has laid this bare so very poignantly. Hence, while the digital haves use zoom, Cisco webex, google meet class and other webinar platforms to talk, discuss, complete assignments, the digital have nots depend on occasional phone calls from their mentors and at the most a Facebook post or a whatsapp group chat with videos often not downloading.
It is clear that going ahead digital access will be a human right, and those in governance must wake up to the reality that youngsters need inexpensive tablets and easy data access. A nation that spends less than 3% of national budget for public education (lower than Tanzania, Angola and Ghana), with the states putting in 2.5 (Bihar) to 26% (Delhi), with Delhi being the only state in double digits, cannot ensure digital education for the masses.
The pandemic has made it imperative ahead that the entire education of India has to be a blended one with digital access and tools (device and internet) reaching the hands of learners in the most remote parts as well. This can only be aimed for with a minimum of 7% of budget for public education, upgradation on public education infra-structure, physically and digitally, and a massive retraining of the teachers at every level, letting the dinosaurs among teachers go in the interest of the learners.
If there was no enforced social distancing and students home-locked across the nation (and the globe), the transition of those with partial or full resources to complete digital learning pedagogy would not have been quickened. The process now has to move ahead to the next stage to bring in policy changes on allocation, training, infrastructure, pedagogy and evaluation process of education.
This will bring in unforeseen impact on public education. In a blended form, learners seek education voluntarily and collaboratively. Each lesson or skill or chapter is expected to lead to an outcome, a model, a design, a solution, a performance or an application, either simulated or real life. Education is not to be instructed, but explored organically, not to be imposed but experienced collectively fostering diversity, teamwork and mutual respect. These values today are only present by exception, which the current crisis may once again ignite. The post covid learners even in the public education system can be of a different breed fuelled by digital expectations.
Apart from government spending, there is also the need to allocate 2% of profits of corporate India for investing in creating digital access to India at large. Further, telecom companies need to come out with special packages for students and teachers with regards to internet access. And, in the people’s sector, non government organizations should roll out voluntary support to digital access for all Indians through movements like 1 million mobiles (donating discarded but functioning older cell phones from every home to the less privileged) and donate computers and IT infrastructure hours of private educational institutes with good IT infrastructure. These all together, along with much higher government spending in public education, can make the entire nation digitally connected.
Digital Learning Tools Today
The pandemic requires universities to rapidly offer online learning to their students. Fortunately, technology and content are available to help universities transition online quickly and with high quality, especially on the digital plank, though at a cost and with the risk of several teachers and administrators being forced to go out of the system.
Digital learning on the go or from distance calls for tech-led holistic solutions. It requires several content pieces to be transmitted digitally. These content pieces can be in the form of pdfs, ppts, URLs, YouTube links, podcast links, and case-studies. There can also be e-books, audio-books, kindle based content, magzter sourced magazines, etc. Then this can involve learning without being face to face through boxes, as in Google Class, or learning face to face as in Zoom live audio-visual discussions. People may also use GoToMeetings or MicrosoftMeet sessions also. Attendance can be taken on Google Spreadsheet and through Whatsapp Group chat of a batch of students too.
There are other tools that can take digital go miles ahead. Flipped classroom method with an active learning classroom can have all study resources given a day or two in advance, and the actual session starting with a quick quiz, then doubts clearance, and thereafter a few issues of the future or counter points to what were given earlier, like possible different scenarios or new research findings not shared earlier. This is quite an effective way of learning, which is internalized, collaborative, experiential, bottom-up, as distinctly different from teaching, which is instructional, hierarchic and top-down.
Then there are MOOCs, collaborative distance learning, wikis, blogs etc. Individual resource-rich institutes develop their customized secured and IPR protected Learning Management Systems, through the use of BlackBoard or TCSion LMS. Other LMS options like Kaltura or Impartus allowing video recording of talks also are in use in many places. There are CourseEra courses, Swayam online lessons from UGC and similar other avenues to learn online.
Learning digitally can be further assisted with Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) which can take the viewer to an enhanced experience even integrating scenarios which are yet to happen creatively bringing them within the learning experience. These are immersive and contextual experiences, and artificial intelligence driven chatbots can further enhance the digital interface of the learner and the mentor.
Digital Learning Value-adds
Incorporating big data analytics and content management, educators can develop an individualized curriculum that enhances how each student learns (e.g. playlist of learning content in WiseWire changing for each student). Many in the West have started the use of the millennials’ language and style: Khan Academy video lessons, YouTube use, distinct style and language for young learners. Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Imessage, Instagram, Facebook & Whatsapp are being creatively integrated with school education. There is a case of a management school in India, where the professor sends a 3 minutes interesting video on the subject he is taking up next through group whatsapp to increase interest in the batch towards the topic being taught.
In the US, the smart-phone applications like Socrative and Plickers are helping teachers interact and assess students’ progress, collaborate via cloud-based applications to work and solve a common goal. Teachers can publish real-time quizzes and polls for students via mobile devices to keep them engaged.
Further, using anything from iMovie to WeVideo, learners can create video as a learning resource. YouTube (with privacy settings) and SeeSaw or Flipgrid are also alternatives learners can make use of. The benefits of SeeSaw and Flipgrid are that students can add voice recordings or text sharing feedback with peers. Students became the co-creators of content and as a result, more engaged, including their parents. Useful apps like Book Creator, Explain Everything and EduCreations can be utilised towards this end.
There are various software used to create digital content, like Camtasia, Raptivity, Captivate, and Articulate Online.
Yes alongside, social media use extensively will support learning online. Facebook Page can broadcast updates and alerts. Facebook Group or Google Hangout with advanced features in G-suite can stream live lectures and host discussions. Twitter can act as a class message board. The 256 characters help to keep messages succinct. Instagram can be used for photo essays. One can create a class blog for discussions. There are many different platforms available, such as WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix, Blogger for that. And, one can create a class-specific Pinterest board as well.
Digital Assessment and Evaluation
Online quiz, open book examination with time-managed and proctored question paper delivered online, applied questions not based on memory but comprehension, telephonic interview etc have been the usual ways of digital assessment and evaluation of learning.
Assessment refers to learner performance; it helps us decide if students are learning and where improvement in that learning is needed.
Evaluation refers to a systematic process of determining the merit value or worth of the instruction or programme; it helps us determine if a course is effective (course goals) and informs our design efforts. Assessment and evaluation can be both formative (carried out during the course) and summative (carried out following the course). There can be many ways for the same. Mentors can make learners aware of expectations in advance (e.g. one week for feedback from deadline) and keep them posted (announcement: all projects have been marked). For example, one can create tests that are multiple choice, true/false, or short answer essays and one can set the assessments to automatically provide feedback.
Possibilities in Education beyond covid
Online learning is the big winner from this – across all education levels; so proving quality now is at centre stage. However, going ahead, in the post COVID times, blended learning will be the way to go. The biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms. The necessity of teaching and learning with asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard, D2L) and synchronous (Zoom) platforms will yield significant benefits when these methods are layered into face-to-face instruction. We will come back from COVID-19 with a much more widely shared understanding that digital tools are complements, not substitutes, for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning. Since professors are now moving content online, precious classroom time will be more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.
Moving ahead in the New Normal, teachers may more be called a mentor now as information and knowledge are at the fingertips of the students faster than that of the teachers, especially the grown-up learners, post 16 years let’s say. It was so early too, but even the facade of higher knowledge (read, degrees, age and experience) is not the greatest of value moving ahead. So mentors shall be needed to inspire, motivate, direct to a new domain of learning or action, bring in perspectives, lend shoulder to a grieving youth, but not just for knowledge and information which are anyways available.
Similarly, students can now be a true learner. They were always so. But the onus of learning is all the more on the learner now on (in the earlier regime teachers teach, students study). Students study for exams, marks and degrees, under the tutelage of teachers, with a structured syllabus. Learners learn within and beyond the classroom, from mentors and others, for lifetime use of knowledge for a career and life, within and beyond the syllabus, structured or unstructured, online or offline.
Engagement is the new currency in post covid education, as much as in entertainment. For a long time, the grievance in the classroom was that students are not present and neither interested to learn. That challenge is universal. But digital allows the learner to be engaged at his time, place and pace. And that is good enough. It is a qualitatively different world ahead. Good and bad education will not be decided by marks and numbers of degree certificates handed. It will be decided by the level of academic and related online and social media engagement of the learners, the quality of content shared by mentors, and the value and volume of content generated by engaged learners.
The author is Pro-Vice Chancellor of Adamas University, Kolkata. Views are personal.
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