Digital makeover of education in the times of Covid-19

The sudden experimentation with technology-enabled online modes of learning due to the pandemic outbreak could also present an opportunity to revisit the status of online learning in higher education

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These are interesting times! While most of us have been left stunned by the way COVID-19 has affected humanity across the globe, it has also pushed us to find solutions to tackle challenging situations in everyday life.
The higher education sector too is going through a churning of sorts. All of a sudden both the students and professors are finding themselves in a situation where they have to use technology for learning and teaching respectively. Such remote work within higher education during this pandemic outbreak situation has become a must to match the humongous academic calendar.
In wake of the advisories issued by government, almost all the higher education institutes in India have announced closure because of health concerns related to COVID-19. The physical classes have been replaced with the virtual ones from remote settings. The digital learning techniques and software for assessment of students will find a lot of takers now. To complete the coursework, institutions are adopting all sorts of measures during this period.
While the online learning is not new for educational institutes, it has been so far kept optional or limited to distance learning or executive programme students. Therefore, this sudden experimentation with technology-enabled forms of learning will present an opportunity to revisit the status of online learning in higher education. We are now moving towards an era where most of the professors and students are being officially told to venture into the academic cyberspace. If the study at home continues for months altogether, this period could alter the landscape long term for online education.
Students who are not habitual of sitting at home will find themselves adjusting to the new realities. Few professors who will be venturing into virtual education for the first time will also have to spend enough time online, either making them jittery or full of optimism. In both cases, there would be enough learning for them as well.
Big quality gap between online and in-person education
Amid all the positive points, there is also a note of skepticism about the efficacy of technology-enabled learning, either because the experience for instructors and students alike will be substandard, or because institutions will not sufficiently prepare their instructors to teach in these new ways. There are many professors who believe in the quality of online learning and wanting to incorporate the best of what it can do into their teaching. yet there are others who feel that it is no match to the physical teaching and classroom education.
There is another issue that needs to be dealt with. Since the transformation has to be quick, the colleges and universities have to create new methodologies for delivering lectures and other learning material within the compressed time frame. This could result in the development of half baked digital learning kits, which would be a flawed product rather than an advance system with enough faculty and student attitudes about the quality of technology-enabled learning. The interest of students and the discipline required for concentration in studies will add to the gaps in quality.
Yet, it is the times like these which present an opportunity to evolve the existing setups and the higher education is no different. Despite initial teething issues, it is a matter of time when we see the overwhelming number of people delivering and receiving education online.
New National Education Policy lists out recommendations
Given the emergence of digital technologies and the emerging importance of leveraging
technology for teaching-learning at all levels from school to higher education, the National Education Policy (NEP), 2020 has recommended the following key initiatives:
(a) Pilot studies for online education: Appropriate agencies, such as the NETF, CIET, NIOS, IGNOU, IITs, NITs, etc. will be identified to conduct a series of pilot studies, in parallel, to evaluate the benefits of integrating education with online education while mitigating the
downsides and also to study related areas, such as student device addiction, most preferred formats of e-content, etc. The results of these pilot studies will be publicly communicated and used for continuous improvement.
(b) Digital infrastructure: There is a need to invest in creation of open, interoperable, evolvable, public digital infrastructure in the education sector that can be used by multiple platforms and point solutions, to solve for India’s scale, diversity, complexity and device penetration. This will ensure that technology-based solutions do not become outdated with the rapid advances in technology.
(c) Online teaching platform and tools: Appropriate existing e-learning platforms such as
SWAYAM, DIKSHA, will be extended to provide teachers with a structured, user-friendly, rich
set of assistive tools for monitoring progress of learners. Tools, such as, two-way video and two-way-audio interface for holding online classes are a real necessity as the present pandemic has shown.
(d) Content creation, digital repository, and dissemination: A digital repository of content
including the creation of coursework, Learning Games & Simulations, Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality will be developed, with a clear public system for ratings by users on effectiveness and quality. For fun based learning student-appropriate tools like apps, gamification of Indian art and culture, in multiple languages, with clear operating instructions, will also be created.
(e) Addressing the digital divide: Given the fact that there still persists a substantial section of the population whose digital access is highly limited, the existing mass media, such as television, radio, and community radio will be extensively used for telecast and broadcasts. Such educational programmes will be made available 24/7 in different languages to cater to the varying needs of the student population. A special focus on content in all Indian languages will be emphasized and required; digital content will need to reach the teachers and students in their medium of instruction as far as possible.
(f) Virtual Labs: Existing e-learning platforms such as DIKSHA, SWAYAM and SWAYAMPRABHA will also be leveraged for creating virtual labs so that all students have
equal access to quality practical and hands-on experiment-based learning experiences. The
possibility of providing adequate access to SEDG students and teachers through suitable digital devices, such as tablets with pre-loaded content, will be considered and developed.
(g) Training and incentives for teachers: Teachers will undergo rigorous training in learner-centric pedagogy and on how to become high-quality online content creators themselves using online teaching platforms and tools. There will be an emphasis on the teacher’s role in facilitating active student engagement with the content and with each other.
The National Education Policy 2020 has also suggested the studies to be undertaken to pilot new ways of assessment using education technologies focusing on 21st-century skills.
It has laid stress on Blended models of learning. While promoting digital learning and education, the importance of face-to-face in-person learning is fully recognized. Accordingly, different effective models of blended learning will be identified for appropriate replication for different subjects. For laying down standards, research on online/digital education emerges, NETF and other appropriate bodies shall set up standards of content, technology, and pedagogy for online/digital teaching-learning. These standards will help to formulate guidelines for e-learning by States, Boards, schools and school complexes, HEIs, etc.
A dedicated unit for the purpose of orchestrating building of digital infrastructure, digital content and capacity building will be created in the Ministry to look after the e-education needs of both school and higher education. The move is a very well-timed one yet the implementation is the key to actual outcomes.