Education is not merely about completing the syllabus in time, or about lecturing on a topic for hours to convey profound bookish knowledge. Gaining experience for life through social interaction and communication is a major component, and this nuanced art of living can only be achieved through classroom learning.
We are going through an unusual situation caused by the deadly virus SARS-CoV-2. The pandemic has already changed the existing world order, leaving humanity in a state of uncertainty. All sections of society have started to adapt to this new world order through different modes and mechanisms, and terms such as social distancing have become part of life. Needless to say, the pandemic has had its impact on the education sector too.
Teachers and educationists of the country have responded quickly to the chaos caused by the pandemic and introduced virtual classrooms at all levels of teaching. Instead of rethinking the purpose and meaning of education, authorities responsible for education in India have viewed the situation through a techno-managerial lens. They are concerned only about the technical side of teaching and learning; how existing technology and apps can be effectively used for online teaching. The system has failed to go beyond the technical aspects of teaching, trying to inject a ‘normalcy’, pretending that nothing has changed, going ahead with the existing syllabus and the same old bookish knowledge.
The lockdown period can offer an opportunity to evaluate the existing education system. Beyond merely finding a technical solution, perhaps we need to unlearn the old system. Using mass communication to reach out to the wider population is not a new phenomenon in the west, but for India, this kind of shift en masse from classroom teaching to online learning is new and comes with many fundamental challenges that are deep-rooted in our culture and society.
The alarming digital divide that exists in India is a fundamental problem. Delivering technology-based resources to economically backward communities and remote rural populations is a big challenge. When half of the Indian population still suffers from extreme poverty and is most vulnerable to the pandemic, how can we expect these parents to facilitate ‘online learning’ for their children? Online teaching would further widen the gap between the haves and have nots. Besides, there are many backward districts and many villages that are not yet electrified. There are also many areas where scheduled caste and scheduled tribes live as a cohort, and these areas are often the least developed.
The pandemic has made different levels of beneficiaries of education. The urban rich get all the benefits of online education, the middle class partially enjoy the benefits, while the rural poor have to deal with connectivity issues (both electricity and the internet), and the most affected backward communities like STs/SCs are not even aware of the technological advancement and the possibility of online learning. Sensitivity is needed to address the gaps that will surely widen.
I would like to make some comments on how the pandemic has left the research community in chaos. As a researcher, I realize the opportunities that the online world offers in terms of open knowledge and access. Through webinars and other online forums, we can collect a wealth of information in our areas of research from anywhere in the world. It also helps in communicating with fellow researchers. However, all these types of online facilities were already available for the research community, and not much has changed.
COVID-19 has left the research community on a knife-edge for the entire academic year. As a result of the sudden closure of universities, research scholars have had to go back to their homes where they do not have access to data, scholarly articles, or other basic facilities. The pandemic has hit the cohort of social scientists who are working on primary data since it is difficult to conduct any kind of field studies at this point in time. Researchers in different areas of science who are working experimentally in laboratories are also in a state of uncertainty and confusion due to travel restrictions.
Even though students and teachers have adapted to the online platform, many universities are still hesitant to convert to this new model. Researchers who have submitted their theses are able to appear for viva voce as most of the universities are conducting the exam online, but scholars in the third or fourth year of research are in a dilemma, since there is no provision to submit the synopsis or thesis online. Many universities still insist that students should submit the synopsis or thesis in person. This is exactly the difficult situation I am in now and, as I cannot travel to Chennai (where I am enrolled for PhD) to submit my synopsis. I strongly feel that it is not only the student or the teachers adapt to the changing situation, but the university administration should also come out from the traditional system.
Hitherto, we discussed the confusions and worries about online teaching and learning process, it is essential that the technology must incorporate with education in this modern world even if there is no pandemics like COVID-19. The way in which the banking sector adopted technology into its various functions in a step-wise manner is a good example in front of us. While we quickly adapt to the new world order driven by the pandemic, one should understand that the online teaching platform will never be a replacement for the classroom. As in banking, a gradual adaptation of technology into teaching is what the system requires at this point in time. However, assessment issues need to be addressed and we need to worry about connectivity, access, and economic barriers.
Education is not merely about completing the syllabus in time, or about lecturing on a topic for hours to convey profound bookish knowledge. Gaining experience for life through social interaction and communication is a major component, and this nuanced art of living can only be achieved through classroom learning. We should understand the limitations of technology and the right proportion of online and offline teaching should be the mantra.
Ann Mary Jose is a PhD scholar at the Institute for Financial Management and Research (IFMR), Chennai. Views expressed are personal.
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.