COVID-19 is here to stay. Even after an effective vaccine is found, it will continue to be with us. It has affected all aspects of our lives, and the education sector is no exception. The current situation has forced us into a revolution in the education sector, the widespread adoption of digital technology that can not only cater to the current pandemic, but it is also important when aiming to provide quality training to a country of 1.35 billion people. Although we are not completely trained and equipped to do so just now – this is the alpha version – this is just the beginning. If this opportunity is properly used, the future will be an era of technology-driven higher education in India.
The process of knowledge dissemination has been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, given the fact that societies all over the world need to get back to classrooms in some form or the other, and that as of now, social or physical distancing has become mandatory in almost every aspect of our lives, including education, this will have to be done gradually and carefully. One positive outcome of the lockdown is the acceleration in adoption of digital technologies and this can upgrade the education system, both for students as well as for teachers. However, both groups will have to make serious adjustments to get the most out of online education since at present both students and teachers have an incomplete understanding of the tools and technology they need to use.
The mode of training
I teach postgraduate courses in Data Science and allied subjects at Amity University in Gurgaon. For most of these courses – Business analytics, Cyber security, Computational biology and others – computer based training is important. In some subjects within the sciences, there are courses that require laboratory based experimental activities. Some subjects are purely theoretical.
There is no doubt that laboratory courses are essential in some disciplines. For these, instruction can be given in a blended mode, theoretical portions online, while the laboratory part can be provided to students on campus but in small groups. Purely theoretical courses can go completely online. The third types of courses mainly classified into application-oriented courses, which needs computer based training to solve various application-oriented case studies.
Among all these courses, a major share in the job market is captured by application-oriented courses through IT based companies. Adopting online mode for these courses has additional advantage to prepare students for their job culture, as mostly these jobs requires online meetings with clients, discussions and connect remotely with different team members to perform a particular task. In this article, my focus is mainly on application-oriented courses that can be taught completely online.
Current challenges in online system for higher education in India
In India, the major challenge in rural areas is still a reliable and continuous supply of electricity. A second hindrance is network reach and connectivity. When focusing on higher education, though, a small percentage of people in rural areas opt for this, and those who are interested typically move to urban areas.
According to data (from Dec 2018) there are 121 crore mobile phones users in India, 45 crore of which are smart phone users, with 56 crore (41%) being internet users [1,2]. In 2019 it was reported that the average broadband download speed in India is 34.07 Mbps . This bandwidth may be sufficient for online streaming of lectures, but data shows that connectivity issues cannot be ignored even in urban areas. There are many households that have access to smart phones but not to broadband connections.
Role of MOOC in higher education system
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) have captured global attention since 2012 when it was projected that they might transform higher education. Globally, several thousand courses are being offered (Coursera, EdX, Udacity, FutureLearn, Udemy etc) and in India, there are the SWAYAM and NPTEL portals. An advantage is that these courses are scalable, they allow for optimal utilization of resources, and being self-paced, are not bound by time constraints.
The UGC has now issued a Credit framework for online learning courses through SWAYAM. Universities and institutions are allowed to assign 20% of the credits in each semester for courses offered on SWAYAM. Can this methodology change the education system? If these pre-recorded MOOCs are so effective in teaching, then why there is a need to invest on expert faculty all over the country for a particular subject?
I personally believe that MOOCs are another form of reference material. Not every student is the same, and similarly every teacher has a different way of teaching, different ways of addressing the doubts, different way of interacting with students. We cannot get the complete in-depth knowledge and confidence until questions are raised and they are answered properly, that allows us to think in that particular subject. Teacher-student interactions are greatly needed, whether online or in a classroom.
As it happens, despite the fact that many MOOCs are delivered by domain experts from reputed universities, they have failed to reorder higher education. Justin Reich and José Ruipérez-Valiente note in the January 2019 issue of Science  that
- The vast majority of MOOC learners never return after the first year.
- The growth in MOOC participation has been concentrated almost entirely in the world’s most affluent countries.
- Low completion rate have not improved during the six years studied.
We may also expect the similar pattern in SWAYAM and NPTEL unless universities and institutions take up to 20% of the courses in their curriculum from these portals.
The pandemic has changed these statistics to some extent. MOOCs are very helpful for professionals and for those who already have some background knowledge about the subject and want to upgrade their skills. It is also helpful for self-motivated students who can invest time to find the answers of their queries while attending these courses. For a majority of the students it may be difficult to connect with these lectures. However, online learning needs to go beyond MOOCs: they need to be based on interaction with the instructor.
Another issue in online instruction is that there is no monitoring of the students, and no safeguards against plagiarism, cheating, using ghostwriters for assignments and online exams and other unethical practice.
Technology in higher education
Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine learning (ML) have had a major impact in almost every sector in recent years. Big data tools can have a big role in the development of a technology-driven era of higher education. AI and ML based models can guide students by estimating their success rate to complete a course with satisfactory grades. AI system can also help students with special needs to get more equitable education, helping screen students with learning disabilities [5,6,7], diagnosing reading and academic difficulties of any student, in addition to carrying out routine tasks such as reading passages to visually impaired students.
AI models can be designed to work on adaptive learning, to offer personalized teaching based on the learning requirements of a given student. The current knowledge and skills of an individual can be assessed, and a recommendation system can be developed to suggest what courses are next required to achieve proficiency in a domain of interest. [8,9,10] Both students and teachers can be guided to upgrade skills. These technologies are already being used for language learning and improving writing skills. [11,12,13,14]
In an online environment, recording basic information like students attendance and time to attend a lecture is simple. Furthermore, AI can also be useful for more complex matters such as the use of computer vision to help in facial analysis, gauging emotional response to determine attentiveness of students, etc [15,16,17]. Periodic assessment can also be simplified, using ML to identify the weaker area of the student . For purely theoretical courses, natural language processing based text processing systems can also be used for evaluation and grading [20,21]. Augmented and virtual reality techniques can take book material to the next level, to visualize experimental set-ups . This may be one way of teaching experimental subjects, at least in the initial stages. Even in biology, this technology can be used to demonstrate the anatomy and physiology of living organisms.
Technology will continue to play a major role in educating future generations, although human intervention cannot be ignored if education has to be optimal.
COVID-19 will be with us for a long time. The current situation has accelerated our use of digital technology and can transform our education system for the better. There is also no looking back from here. It is essential that the government should invest more in education, health and research sectors. Special funds need to be allocated for digitization and to raise digital learning platforms. The private sector also needs to participate, and should enhance research capability in order to develop proposed solutions. Finally, it is essential that the government offer financial support to all students in order to lessen the digital divide.
Face-to-face interaction in classroom teaching will take time to return, and almost surely, it will return with new norms such as a blended mode, or with changes in student-teacher ratio so as to maintain proper social distancing. Meanwhile we can use this time to experiment and deploy new tools and technology to make education meaningful to students who are not able to go to campuses. We can also devise plans to increase access – Education for all – in both rural and urban areas.
- J. Reich, J.A. Ruipérez-Valiente. The MOOC pivot, Science, 2019,Vol. 363, Issue 6423, pp. 130-131
- N. Madnani, A. Cahill. Automated Scoring: Beyond Natural Language Processing. 2018, Association for Computational Linguistics, 1099–1109.
- S. M. Patil, S. Patil. Evaluating Student Descriptive Answers Using Natural Language Processing, International Journal of Engineering Research & Technology, 2014, Vol. 3 Issue 3.
- P. Pantelidis, A. Chorti, et, al. Virtual and Augmented Reality in Medical Education, Medical and Surgical Education – Past, Present and Future, 2017.
Alok Srivastava teaches Data Science and Computational Biology at the Amity Institute of Integrative Sciences and Health, Amity University Haryana. He is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at IBCB, Visakhapatnam. The views expressed here 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.