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Can the pandemic catalyse efficient distant and distributed education in India?

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Summary

I envisage a distant, distributed mode of education which is efficient at teaching and measuring learning. It is of great advantage when applied to cases and countries where there is demand for highly quality educated people – in short, a society striving for more education with only minimal capital and financial resources to deliver them.

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Following the concerns expressed on future Higher Education India in the aftermath of the pandemic, both on the Confluence Discussion pages as well as elsewhere by teachers and students from a variety of institutions and disciplines, I received the following comments from a friend who prefers to remain anonymous. He is well-versed with the Indian educational system, having studied at Calcutta University for his undergraduate degree and at IIT Kanpur for his Masters. He is also knowledgeable about the US system, having undertaken graduate studies at Harvard University.

 

The views below differ somewhat from those expressed in the essays published so far in the series, and since a multiplicity of viewpoints are of value in a general discussion, I am presenting them here.

 

The manner in which the COVID-19 lockdown has under-utilised academic spaces is starkly brought home by images like this one, of the nearly empty central plaza of Columbia University in New York City.

Education is the transfer of understanding and knowledge from one generation to the next:  it allows the selection of younger people for intergenerational societal progress. Education is an enabler: it teaches us what to target, how to attain and how to judge our progress. It manifests in high school, college, and university or work environment. Every research and development organisation, every technology company, every technical meeting and convention, every think tank — every professional school where knowledge flows from the older preceptor to the younger trainee — serves to educate. Education requires two parties in the exchange: typically an older preceptor and a younger trainee.  The asymmetrical severity of COVID-19 across age groups makes this model untenable since the disease has the potential to selectively incapacitate the fewer older preceptors who are in contact with the more numerous but still capable trainees.

 

Education has a single persistent model that relies on personal contact and that is very resource intensive:  Select with care, Teach to learn, Measure learning, and Rank for progress.  The four components can be identified as (i) admit, (ii) teach, (iii) test and (iv) graduate.  The core activity of education — teach to learn — is expensive irrespective of who pays for it. Even in the USA the vast personal expense of achieving a high quality four year undergraduate education is strongly subsidised by university funds. The expense arises from facilities (universities, research hospitals, think tanks, and industrial laboratories), the people (teacher, professor, senior scientist) and operating expenses (research grant, meetings, wages for trainees). Teach to learn is also very contact intensive. Teaching is done at a variety of scales – the big class, the medium sized tutorial sections and then one-on-one coaching to ensure learning. All of this takes a variety of preceptors in long-term contact with the student. The model rests on a perception that there is no other path to the two way communication that is the essence of teach to learn.  A book or any printed material is one way: the preceptor never gets any confirmation on the extent of learning.

 

A concomitant part of the education via contact model is that it more efficient to bring the students to the teachers rather than the other way around, of bringing the educator to the student. This allows multiple students to be taught simultaneously. It also allows for the multiplication of the scarce resource (namely the preceptor) for the benefit of the more numerous students. Colleges which are the epitome of this model worldwide devote resources to housing and feeding their students in addition to their cultural growth and the actual educational expenses of facilities and faculty.

 

Society perpetuates this model by funnelling resources into education. They reap delayed but significant benefits in societal progress – as can be seen, notably in Europe, the USA, and lately in China.  Resource allocation is typically very long term, spanning decades if not centuries. The picture above, of Columbia University’s empty central plaza illustrates the point: a fortune committed in perpetuity to building, facilities, land and grants for education at one college.  Similar statistics of cost can be derived for large meeting venues such as convention  centres across the world.  Very few societies have ever been able to perpetuate this level of financial commitment through history. Educational organisations cope with reduced resources by making the selection process even more selective and admitting fewer students, hence the extremely competitive college entrance examinations in Asian developing countries.  It is paradoxical that these countries in the throes of development — which would benefit the most from educated students to accelerate their societal progress — are the ones that are least able to afford the resource allocation or show long-term sustainability in commitment.

 

COVID -19 makes this inefficient model untenable because it selectively incapacitates the few preceptors who are the critical to the process. If you lose the teachers, how do you teach? Or measure learning?  The residential and the favoured model of selective high quality education (such as the IITs or the IIMs for example) is even less favourable because it brings teachers and students in close proximity, thereby increasing the transmission of any contagious infection. The fear of infection may be more dramatic than the reality but again the picture of Columbia University illustrates the point – the committed fortunes are not productive. In developing countries with less efficient health care and fewer colleges (per capita) this cessation of teaching is more dramatic and more damaging to societal progress.  The model for education fails because the central tenet of education that

  • the preceptor contacts in person many students to teach and measure learning,
  • the students come from around the world and
  • the prolonged contact in residential colleges – the preferred model

all facilitate the spread of contagion from the students to the teacher.

 

In this essay, my thesis is twofold. Firstly, a viable mode for education in the presence of infectious contagions can be provided through bidirectional communication. This can be provided for both audio and video by information technology (commonly meeting software) from the preceptor to the student and vice versa. This removes the distinguishing features of current education – prolonged, localised contact with many global students – which endanger the experienced preceptor. Already this is being done with varying degrees of enthusiasm around the world. Secondly, I believe that this model of remote, bidirectional audio visual education is particularly suited to developing countries whose goal is to produce the greatest number of high quality educated students, in the shortest possible time with the least commitment of scarce financial and organisational resources. If true and enabled, this changes the essential model of education which we have outlined. The latter part of this essay is devoted to the development of this feature using tools developed to implement the first.

 

Remote bidirectional audio visual education removes at its conception the fundamental expense of the traditional education which is assembling the students in proximity to the teacher. Both the students and the teachers are distributed geographically with neither the faculty nor the students physically located together or even in proximity to each other or even on the same continent. This distribution makes college buildings, meeting halls, convention centres, real estate property, residential facilities for students and teachers and the hundred other items of education experience essentially redundant or more likely, significantly reduced in utility. Additionally, the process allows for a facile movement of the student form one teacher to another, even though they may be quite distant from each other. Thus it is easily understood that learning from two or more teachers, teaching complementary or disparate subjects, is quite feasible without having the student to be physically present at any of the teacher’s locations.

 

There are four additional advantages, subtle but important, in trying to multiply the educational impact of the preceptor. First, the delivery of education through technology is reliable, unlike the delivery in person, because independent of the class size every student is exposed to exactly the same thought and deduction process. Second, delivery through technology is increasingly efficient with class size – that is the cost of education for the thousandth student is small fraction of the cost of educating the first – since the capital cost of the infrastructure scales downwards. Contrast this with current models where there are limits on in-person class size and the expense of the thousandth student is typically no less than the first. Third, the curriculum for each student is instantly and easily customisable – you learn what you need to.  Fourth, delivery through technology scales in quality with utilisation. The education of the thousandth students will be smoother than the first because the inconsistencies are weaned out with experience. Contrast that in person delivery where human nature ensures that the quality of the instructions rapidly degrades with the number of in-person interactions.

 

I envisage a distant, distributed mode of education which is efficient at teaching and measuring learning. It is of great advantage when applied to cases and countries where there is demand for highly quality educated people – in short, a society striving for more education with only minimal capital and financial resources to deliver them. The qualification striving is important and critical. The benefits to both the poor and paradoxically, the prosperous societies are less clear. The developing nations of Asia, India included, fall clearly in the group who would benefit. The progress of society which depends on the number of people who can make this progress happen and measure it (the educated) is frequently the determining factor in how fast the society transforms itself.

 

However this is not the ultimate panacea to all educational needs for all of these countries and societies. There are other education models largely centred around learning by doing, practical education as practiced in the sciences in PhD. research projects, by physicians working their way through post M.D. residency, by lawyers working their way clerkships and trainees around the world that this model of distributed and distant learning has at best, a peripheral effect. But for the bulk of classroom education in high school, undergraduate college and graduate university, in every convention and meeting, in every training class where the current practice is a preceptor teaching to an assembled group of students this common model would work. Undoubtedly the technology will improve and become more capable, more immersive and, ultimately, deliver an experience which cannot be matched by the traditional classroom.

 

But will it be implemented? In my view, this depends on the extent to which the society is striving. In prosperous societies where education is easy and accessible to the vast majority of those who choose to pursue it and who have a reliable working model of in-person face-to-face education that has been honed and financed through centuries, this change is a risk and a disruption. Adoption of distant learning effectively devalues decades of investment and will therefore be discouraged. Meetings and conventions which do not have this inherent investment but are nevertheless extremely time and resource inefficient will be the first to adapt. In developing nations that have a much more overwhelming need but fewer resources for enablement of education, this could provide the answer. Society can have an adequate number of educated citizens without having to wait for centuries of growth and investment. Thus these theses apply more to developing rather than developed nations.

 

It is pertinent to comment that distant and distributed teaching is not new and has, in the past, had indifferent success: it is the equivalent of observing that books do not teach. The critical difference for this proposal is that the attainment and testing of learning, though long term and multi-scale (namely classes, sections, tutoring) distant engagement of the student is the quantifiable goal. That is possible only though the most important part of the technology of bidirectional engagement – from the student to the preceptor.

 

It is fair to be critical of this proposal in the sense that education is not just learning but also the social growth and mental enlightenment in the interaction with peers, and this model in the most distilled form does not cater to that. However there is a middle ground which retains the essence of distant and distributed learning but also provides an opportunity for peer-to-peer and peer-to-faculty interaction in a limited use of the existing educational and meeting facilities. I believe that for the scarce high quality educational institutes and universities in India we consider the prospect of having, as an illustration, three independent but parallel batches of students every year. Each batch spends four months in residence and eight months in distant and distributed learning. That time in residence should be adequate to attain some of the peer-to-peer contacts and the ability to work to common goals that mark education. This model ensures that the intake and the output of educated students in countries with limited facilities but a great inherent demand can be rapidly met without either needing new preceptors (a rare and very precious resource) or the hardware and the commitment of financial resources of educational organisations. The IITs and other premier educational institutions could easily triple their output of graduates with minimal increase in resourcing. Maybe we indeed can!

 

I will close with a trite example that illustrates my point. The visualisation of stories as entertainment can be done in live theatre or in distributed, mass produced movies. Undoubtedly the latter was propagated to expand the reach of the former to audiences that were initially at least quite unknown and distant. The first movies were pictures of the theatres – the movie set. But the scope of this latter art was much larger: depictions of distant scenes, real or imaginary, which could not be on the stage found a niche in movies.  Distributed and distant education will be able to implement and adapt to these extensions of the educational experience. Will the student be educated? Yes, maybe differently, in the same way that both movie audiences and theatre goers are visually entertained, but differently.

 

But there is one more point.  What does this proposal of changing a five thousand year model of education have to do with COVID? Actually COVID is merely the catalyst. It has made our current models of education inadequate and untenable, requiring us to develop new solutions, and to learn to adapt tools that already exist to aid in the process. Like all pandemics in human history, COVID-19 will be eventually be managed. The success of new educational systems that are necessary for the social growth of the country will depend, in the final analysis, on whether it is cheaper, faster and more effective to teach large numbers of students this way. I believe that this will be borne out.

 

This article is part of a series called New Directions in Higher Education in India after COVID-19. The remaining articles of the series can be found here.

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