Indian Higher Ed Institutions Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic Challenge – What Lies Ahead?


EdTech in COVID-19

For many years now, we have been talking of how digital transformation of education landscape is taking place and how education sector has been gearing up to the challenge of preparing the learners for the challenging future - An uncertain future with regards to the work environment.

We know that increasing adoption of disruptive Industry 4.0 technologies, demographic changes and lifestyle choices will dramatically transform the way we do business and work in future.

 In consonance of the fact, the academia, government, education providers and other stakeholders had been making efforts to prepare for the future.

However, educationists were often criticized for being slow to respond. The lure of traditional ‘Chalk and Talk’ method of teaching and age –old assessment techniques was hard to give away.

Some academicians had also been of the opinion that online mode of teaching could not be as effective and, therefore should be used occasionally. The reasons cited were that in online teaching the teacher is unable to make eye contact and gauge the attentiveness of the student through his expressions also teaching subjects that involve students working in labs; is a real challenge on online platform due to non - availability of licensed software’s, equipment’s/instruments etc.

However, the current situation of countrywide lockdown in wake of novel COVID 19 pandemic; that forced schools, colleges and universities to close down in midst of the year, has led to sudden acceleration in the pace of digital transformation of education sector. The ‘stay at home’ has hastened the pace of adaptability of technology for regular classroom teaching. This experience, though a ‘forced’ one, need not necessarily be an ‘unhappy’ one. Mr. Abhijit Banerjee in one of his interview, points out that going forward we must try and figure out how education could be imparted in a more democratic way, where courses don’t have allegiance to fixed syllabus or physical location. (Banerjee, 2020)

In the present scenario, all levels of education - school education, higher education or skill development activities – most of the academic institutions proved to be agile and were successful in starting delivery of content through video chat platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, Learning Management Systems etc.

The hustle –bustle of a lively classroom may be missing, but technology has surely helped in keeping the connect between learners and teachers intact.

The easy availability of numerous platforms to share content and collaborate with each other remotely has definitely supported the education sector to rise up to the occasion.

Such platforms have enabled creation of groups that can effectively work together by sharing content over video and voice conferencing.

Though, the challenge of content delivery has been met to an extent, the higher educational institutions in India now need to focus on intrinsic quality. These are the times in which the word of mouth publicity of institutions through social media, will go a long way in building an institution’s reputation. Therefore, the educational institutions must now invest in digital infrastructure that will enable them to improve the quality of their service delivery.

As the virtual content delivery becomes mainstream, there is an opportunity in front of the institutions to be able to educate a larger student community by engaging a world class faculty from world class institutions rather than limiting to engaging a mediocre faculty for a smaller class. Hence, quality is going to be of paramount concern.

This is the time when the regulatory institutions governing the higher education institutions in India like UGC, AICTE, and MHRD should accelerate the tweaking or revisiting of regulatory guidelines because no more could the physical infrastructure in terms of the number of classrooms, specific floor areas, and ratio of core to full time faculty members be relevant. The institutions should be given the freedom to invest in digital infrastructure rather than physical, building relationships and tie-ups with foreign institutions etc.

The globalization or internationalization of education sector is bound to accelerate in coming times as physical proximity for delivering will no more be a constraint and there will be increasing acceptability of the same. Also, this will give many opportunities to Indian educators as demand for ‘home schooling’ surges in the developed countries and they become open to employing qualified educators from across the world, for the purpose.

The educational institutions in India as of now have outsourced the content delivery mechanism to delivery partners like Zoom, Microsoft Team, and Google Meet - however, the challenge of creation of content still remains. The smaller institutions in far flung areas will have to create content to suit the requirements of learners there. Content made by a Harvard or MIT faculty cannot be directly used for learners of different skill sets. Till now in India, only institutions like IITs, IIMs, and Central Universities etc. have been able to participate in creating content like MOOCS. From here, the capacity building has to percolate to smaller institutions as well. This would require investment in trainings of the trainers as they will be required to put in enormous amount of effort in the instructional design and adapting innovative pedagogy to ace the online teaching.

Training is a pre-requisite for online teaching because it is a challenge to engage students in the online live classes.  The institutions who are delivering content online to students in present times as well those who hope to continue doing so in future must invest in teacher training as well. Don Le, CEO and Co-founder of Everest, the after school tutoring organisation in Vietnam opines that students easily get bored watching videos or listening to lectures. It is only when there is ample of interaction between students and teachers that students feel a social bond which makes their experience natural and fun. (Horn, 2020)

Another challenge that institutions face today, is conduct of examinations adhering to social distancing norms. At present there is no fool proof system of conducting the usual pen and paper type of examinations online. In the Indian higher education sector, the process of conduct of examination is considered to be sacred one and is not tampered with, in order to adhere to the guidelines of regulatory bodies. This type of examination cannot be possibly conducted remotely. However, looking at the future the entire ecosystem should move in the direction of evaluation of learning outcomes through methods that are similar to ‘Open Book Examinations’ or continuous evaluations. This means that the examination system should be aimed at testing the applicability of cognitive tools to solve problems in new scenarios. Basically, we should aim to check the success of an educational program in imparting ‘wisdom’ rather than just knowledge. This will make the process of online teaching –learning authentic and more mainstream.

In case of Science, Technology, Engineering, Medical (STEM) courses there is an additional challenge of how to deliver the Lab experience virtually. Only those institutions that have advanced infrastructure like simulation labs, and techniques through which students can use the equipment’s from a distance or use Virtual Reality to get the laboratory experience; can succeed in this regard. In India, maximum institutions lack such hi-tech facilities and therefore the learning cannot be complete. Thus, the universities and institutions will have to make a choice between choosing to spend on digital infrastructure or campuses that are physically huge and beautiful.

This a trade-off every institute will have to consider in future, because the biggest advantage of digital is the scalability and its benefits cannot be reaped without adequate spend on digital infrastructure.

With education, our institutions also aim to impart skills and a wholesome experience to students, which includes the relationships they foster while on the campus. The benefits of cooperative collaboration that is fostered during the student’s campus life through the relationships he/she builds during campus life are critical. Such kind of experiences cannot be availed when the student is off-campus. In order to blend in such experiences, the courses should be designed in a manner which gives an opportunity to the learners to gain various kinds of campus experiences as well.

In conclusion, we can say that the major challenges ahead for higher educational institutions are:

(i) Adaptability of teachers and students both for the blended approach of teaching and learning,
(ii) Exposure/Training  of Faculties for providing  knowledge delivery in upcoming areas like Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Data Analytics, Augmented reality, Virtual reality etc.
(iii) Changes in Teaching pedagogy to provide quality education to the students and to cater the needs of the below average students
(iv) Availability of infrastructure in rural areas, network connections, Bandwidth issues etc.
(v) And lastly providing a balanced approach for the overall grooming of the students in the times to come. With the cooperative and collaborative approach of the regulatory bodies, universities world wide and higher educational institutions the challenges can be effectively met for the larger benefit of the society.   

References:

Banerjee, A. (2020, May). Prejudices about online courses, but healthy to lose some of those: Abhijit Banerjee. (U. Vishnu, Interviewer)

Horn, M. (2020, March 12). Amidst COVID-19’s Spread, Hope For Education Innovation Glimmers In Vietnam. Forbes.

About the Author
Author: Dr. Meenal Sharma Jagtap
Post co-authored by Dr. Meenal Sharma Jagtap, Professor and Head of the Department - Management & Commerce, Trinity Institute of Professional Studies, Dwarka, New Delhi & Prof (Dr.) Barkha Bahl, Director, Trinity Institute of Professional Studies.




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