What Covid-19 can teach us about redefining our academics and research

The effort of most academics in the current situation is to see how best they can deliver learning material in a way that resembles what they have been doing for years in classrooms.

 |  5-minute read |   02-04-2020
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These past few days, I have been following the numerous opinions and pronouncements on an informal WhatsApp group whose membership boasts largely of academics from across India.

Several of them are serving, or have served, in venerable universities across India. It is natural for them to focus their attention on Covid-19 now. I have been hoping to spot amongst these posts some interesting pieces that highlight an innovative initiative that could help the nation in its fight to push back the onslaught of the virus. Unfortunately, I cannot spot anything that would truly bring hope.

Lack of research

This is a matter of some concern. A vigorous research system in tune with societal happenings is recognised by its ability to respond in real-time with constructive contributions. I do not see any sense of urgency in the vast majority of our university systems. I must add that the ICMR and the Department of Biotechnology are indeed engaged in frontline research work on the issue at hand. All across the USA and the United Kingdom where several top universities of the world are, even a cursory study of any of these reveals an interesting insight. A major part of the research output in these countries in almost all realms of human endeavour — not just in the sciences-happens directly in the university systems.

main_covid19-treatme_040220101205.jpgA vigorous research system in tune with societal happenings is recognised by its ability to respond in real-time with constructive contributions. (Photo: Reuters)

For high-quality research work to happen an institution needs a steady and rich supply of young minds that are talented and well trained. This can happen only in a university system which has strong undergraduate programmes. The other advantage a university system carries over a pure research institution is the ability to bring the power of a trans-disciplinary approach to bear on problems. In India, over the past few decades, government-funded universities at the level of states have mostly fallen by the wayside. There are other reasons for this. These include poor stewardship, political meddling and poor quality faculty. Are we then surprised that the University of Rajasthan at Jaipur, one of India’s most promising universities in the 1960s, has nothing to offer by way of a meaningful contribution to the tackling of Covid-19?

Let no one be under the impression that this can happen only through the sciences and engineering. For instance, we need psychological and sociological insights into how we expect humans to behave in such times and what strategies to adopt. The nationwide lockdown is leading to a large number of incidences of depression and stress.

More focus needed

This can cause other problems for society at this juncture but no knowledge system has any insights to offer. Contrast this with what the Imperial College at London is offering. Their website says, “We are developing vaccines, improving diagnostics, advancing therapies, strengthening epidemiology and providing essential healthcare in the urgent race to defeat the novel coronavirus”. I must, in all fairness, mention that IIT Kanpur has lent its shoulder to the task of manufacturing low-cost ventilators. This is indeed very welcome.

Also, I can, without divulging any confidences, state that the attention of my colleagues from the WhatsApp group is focused largely-and naturally-on coping with the challenge of getting lessons across to their homebound students in the aftermath of the nationwide lockdown. However, I would have been happier if these worthy academics and their institutions could have thought of more innovative ways to help their students learn through better pedagogical practices.

There is a limited effort at creating resources by recording lectures or through providing links to standard classroom style lectures that are available on the web. I notice that the effort of most academics in the current situation is to see how best they can deliver learning material in a way that resembles what they have been doing for years in classrooms. I have not come across any instance of a pedagogic style that exploits the power of the medium.

Hands-on learning

Suppose we are in the midst of a course in ancient history centred around Alexander’s invasion of Persia. Instead of uploading lecture notes, the teacher could pose queries and challenges to the class, and provide links to some valuable resources available on the Web. The teacher should then hold online discussions and be available for audio chats and textual responses. It helps if the students work in groups and make collective presentations on an online platform as a project. I say this since I performed several such experiments with success, in a personal capacity before the Corona crisis. There are several user-friendly apps-such as Zoom-that make it easy and productive. Many years ago, I had persuaded a distinguished mathematician from the University of Houston to run a semester-long course to students across India along the lines of the pedagogy as enunciated above. The outcomes were very encouraging. The web is full of useful resources available. They need to be carefully curated and then brought into play through a pedagogy that relies on interactivity. Along with helping India meet the current needs arising out of this crisis, such experiments can set the tone for technology-based learning in the years to come. Let us make no mistakes; this is the need of the hour for India.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also read: How Covid-19 will affect sustainability and the UNSDGs

Writer

Dinesh Singh Dinesh Singh @dineshsinghedu

The writer is former Vice-Chancellor, Delhi University and currently Adjunct Professor of Mathematics, University of Houston, USA

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