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How Covid has put education to its biggest test

Deepanshu Mohan
Deepanshu MohanJul 19, 2020 | 09:39

How Covid has put education to its biggest test

The deeper value of in-class learning and the professor-student bonding is not likely to be substituted in entirety but can surely find a useful complimentary mechanism in the digital space.

One of the biggest disruptive effects of this pandemic is in context of the education sector. The unprecedented nature of the disruption from a pandemic has also culminated itself in a massive technological disruption in the education landscape.

Disruption in motion

The disruption is not only making teachers, students and administrators to adopt new digital platforms for disseminating knowledge online but has also forced each of the stakeholders to adapt to a radically altered learning ecosystem. This presents its own set of challenges for each stakeholder, and especially for those residing in the developing world (like India) where overall internet penetration is very low and access to quality education marred by social and economic inequality. At the same time, the scale of technological disruption in the current education landscape also offers some interesting possibilities to utilise a tech-reliant, online version of education to increase universal access of quality education at a much lower cost. For some time now, particularly in the more developed (more digitally enhanced) education landscape, many universities were experimenting with new online courses and programmes that were being offered as instructive tools for reaching out to a wider mass of interested students across domains. Many elite institutions were promoting this for over a decade.

When I was a student at LSE, back in 2012, many of our own batch mates preferred listening to the online lecture recordings for technical economics courses, while most international students, like myself, preferred being part of the in-class lecture experience. At the time, most international students felt that the exorbitant fee charged by elite institutions from the international class pushed such students to make the most of the in-class experience and have a higher "return on their investment".

This pandemic has radically changed that scenario beyond proportions. There is hardly a choice now for students or teachers. And therein lies a definite prospect for universities and states to think about delivering better education with best instructors while experimenting with new creative pedagogical tools through a comprehensive online platform (or say through broadcasting networks) in reaching out to a larger scale of students at a lower cost.

The realisation of this prospect though is conditionally dependent on how well universities (and schools) decide to employ the technological power and induct this as part of a structural policy change with support of the government with an aim at improving students' education experience at a lower cost. Facilitating such a transition isn't easy either. An overt reliance on online learning may be less preferred especially given how important the in-class experience is realised to be for most professors, under-graduates and graduates. Gaining education (some might argue) is just not limited to attending classes or listening to taped lectures but is part of a rather more holistic experience for students.

And so, the deeper value of in-class learning and the professor-student bonding is not likely to be substituted in entirety but can surely find a useful complimentary mechanism with the development of a robust digital infrastructure using online-education for those in remote areas who lack access to better teachers.

The new normal

The biggest obstacle in adopting such a tech-based complimentary (online) education model is in the "high-cost" involved in producing the best quality recorded lectures, ensuring its widespread delivery, and gauging the periodic effect of this on student learning outcomes across grades and different levels of education (primary, secondary, tertiary). This requires schools, colleges and universities to put more thought in how to make this possible. Even if we take the case of the higher education landscape here, producing lectures for mass use is time-consuming and risky from a financial perspective -requiring a higher incentive system for teachers and a lower cost affordability choice architecture for students.

A global affliction

Most universities face a major financial challenge. Most are finding it difficult to shift onto an entirely online-based education model. Hostel rooms are unoccupied, residential campuses empty, students are pushing back against paying full tuition fee and many contractual university employees (and staff) are being let go. Many top institutions -which did have an online mode of learning - are struggling too. Harvard University estimates a $750 million revenue shortfall from the pandemic-induced loss, while the University of Michigan anticipates a loss up to $1 billion.

Almost all agree enhancing quality education at a lower cost is the best way of addressing deep-rooted inequities. Democratic US presidential candidate Joe Biden is discussing plans for making college education free which might excite some. But, a more feasible plan could be to increase federal/union government funding support to colleges, universities and create more distributive mechanisms for delivery of better education. The scale of technological disruption today has offered an opportunity to do exactly this. But to actualise this possibility, we (urgently) need more visionary leaders in educational institutions and an equally visionary political class that can encourage better placed institutions to make most of the technology available and make learning accessible to those who may find it difficult to get education. Else, at this point, it seems that the pre-existing literacy and digital divide may only exacerbate and make existing socio-economic inequities worse.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Last updated: July 19, 2020 | 09:39
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