How India can transform education in the post-coronavirus world

While online learning appears to be a panacea for these times, there are many pitfalls observed with it.

 |  8-minute read |   18-05-2020
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With governments around the world imposing school closures (localised or countrywide), nearly 70 per cent of the world’s student population is impacted. In India alone, 32 crore learners across the segments of pre-primary, primary, secondary, and tertiary are hit because of countrywide school closures. The stay-at-home period for students carries high social and economic costs for all the stakeholders involved in the domain of education. With interrupted learning, it is anticipated that more children will be forced to join the labour force, leading to a severe form of child labour and greater dropout rates from schools.

Also, there is found a surge in unintended social outcomes like violence against children, increase in psychological disorders like stress and anxiety, and teenage pregnancies. Educators, on the other hand, struggle to overcome this paradigm shift from the traditional chalk-talk methods to the e-learning model, prepare online lesson plans and upload them. Additionally, the work from home and online teaching mechanisms are taking a toll on their mental health by blurring the professional versus personal boundaries.

According to UDISE data, India has a humongous network of nearly 15 lakh schools, 25 crore students, 94 lakh teachers at the school level, and 50,000 higher education institutions. This presents manifold challenges in transcending from physical delivery of education to online teaching methods.

Initiatives by government

  • The national institutions of UGC and MHRD are at the forefront of provisioning technology-enabled learning through audio-video mode or through e-books and journals.
  • Second, the Swayamprabha initiative intends to address the problem of non-uniform internet penetration in the country, by offering 32 high-quality educational channels through DTH (Direct to Home) across the nation, 24x7. The content for these channels is provided by esteemed educational institutes of the nation like IIT, UGC, NCERT, etc.
  • Third, there is a provision of digital repository of journals and books which can be accessed by the learners at one place in the National Digital Library of India (NLDI).
  • MHRD has also ensured the provisioning of virtual labs that simulate an environment to perform experiments.

main_india-school-st_051820013758.jpgAt the school level, a major challenge is the absence of a robust monitoring method to gauge the activities of the students remotely. (Representative photo: Reuters)

Caveats and challenges

For economies like India, where internet penetration is 36 per cent, internet users per 100 stand at 78, fixed broadband subscription per 100 stands at 1.34, and 46 per cent of households have television, deciding on the mode of delivery of education in the midst of this pandemic becomes a daunting task. In essence, there are many challenges associated with the accessibility of education owing to the existing digital divide. Coupled with this are other factors like the reliability of local power supply, device ownership, and digital skills of teachers and students.

With the schools and higher education institutions closed for almost two months, a challenge for the government at this stage remains to standardise learning by reducing information asymmetries. While schools and institutions operating out of Metro cities and Tier 1 and 2 cities are well adapted to the remote-learning techniques, schools in Tier 3 and 4 cities are struggling in terms of bringing all students of a class on board in a single platform for streamlined dissemination of lesson videos. There have been reported instances in Tier 3 or 4 towns where guardians have raised the issue of not having a smartphone, which may devoid their ward from accessing the learning content sent by the school.

That said, the remote-learning experiences and outcomes of children in private schools are way ahead of that of children attending public schools. This is primarily because of the adeptness of private-school teachers in integrating pedagogy and instructions with digital devices.

main_indian-teenager_051820014343.jpgIn essence, there are many challenges associated with the accessibility of education owing to the existing digital divide. (File photo: AP)

While online learning appears to be a panacea for these times, there are many pitfalls observed with it.

At the school level, a major challenge is the absence of a robust monitoring method to gauge the activities of the students remotely.

Yet another issue is that learners who have just been exposed to the e-learning segment are not taking it too seriously, and skipping lectures, assignments and assessments. However, in the present scenario when there is a lack of clarity on when the schools will reopen, digital learning appears to be the only plausible solution.

At college and higher levels, while Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have been in vogue for quite some time, there are serious caveats associated with them. In essence, they demand high levels of motivation, commitment, and self-regulation. A research study substantiating the effectiveness of MOOCs in the domain of online learning was conducted in the USA recently, where data related to 5.63 million MOOC students enrolled in Harvard and MIT (Massachussets Institute of Technology) between 2012-2018 was analysed. Surprisingly, less than five per cent of the enrolled MOOC students completed their courses.

Also without considerable guidance and support of teachers, it is unlikely for learners to navigate the world of online learning by themselves.

Action needed on multiple levels

In order to address the problem of driving engagement at scale, it becomes imperative for the government to do crisis-sensitive educational planning in the light of these bottlenecks. This entails acting at both — policy and operational levels.

Second, there is a growing need to cater to the evolved demand and supply trends in the education sector. In the domain of school education, it becomes necessary for building the capacity of the teachers towards digital mode and mechanisms of teaching (such as emailing students/parents, making and uploading online video clips, online ‘live’ video-conferencing, delivering online instructions through messages, etc.)

Meanwhile, in higher learning, it becomes imperative to raise the standards of online educational content in terms of standardising and accrediting courses offered by institutions apart from the national institutes. This move will not only promote the growth of credible content and institutions in the space of offering online education, but also mark a phase-mannered shift towards e-education.

On operational levels, for ensuring a streamlined flow of lessons, it becomes essential to undertake the following actions: Ensure coordination between teachers at all levels for discussing the challenges faced in day-to-day digital operations. Towards this, UNESCO proposes clustering and organising of schools in a way such that teachers can network and receive support from the headteachers/coaches/subject-matter experts/heads of institutions.

A second challenge that will have to be addressed on the operational level is the assessment of students after imparting them education through the digital medium. Towards this point, a novel assessment method has to be devised in terms of fixing the learning outcomes at each level of subject progression. This might give way to open-book assessments, online presentations, group discussions, etc., by students. Rather than grading in the context of crisis, these methods of evaluation identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student, which is the need of the hour.

It is a debatable statement whether e-learning will facilitate high-order learning skills such as creativity, problem-solving, inquisitive questioning, etc. However, e-learning does contribute to the capacity-building of all the stakeholders involved in the education gamut.

Though the effects of the interventions taken at this time might start reaping dividends in a few years from now, countries like India, with a rich demographic dividend, ought to take mitigating measures at the very outset of the crisis. As noted author Yuval Noah Harari in his book 21 Lessons For The 21st Century points towards the digital medium of transactions, the education sector remains no different in witnessing a disruption. The role of governments at this juncture will be critical in ushering benefits from this digital disruption.

Also read: How inclusive education can help the Unseen Seen become the Seen

Writer

Jyotsna Joshi Jyotsna Joshi @jyotsnajoshi12

The author is a policy researcher and consultant with Government of Andhra Pradesh. She holds a Masters degree from Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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