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Post-COVID Higher Education – a perspective

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Summary

Since online instruction is more intense and requires more effort in their delivery, universities may be forced to completely separate tracks for research and teaching. This could change the nature of university education beyond recognition and eventually branch out into two distinct streams – one that prepares students for industry and the other for a career in academics and research. While the former can be more easily delivered online, the latter will continue in the traditional mode but for a much smaller group of students.

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After deliberating for a couple of weeks, the government decided to bite the bullet in mid-March and directed the closure of all educational institutions till further notice. This also implied that the ongoing Board exams were suspended indefinitely, as were other competitive examinations, plunging an generation of students into a vortex of uncertainty. Most universities were caught unprepared although the faculty in the universities could see it coming sooner than later. The public universities packed off the students and closed their shutters pending the next directive from the government. Some of the new generation Private Universities sensed an opportunity to prove their mettle and instructed its faculty to switch to an online mode that were adopted by many US universities only a few weeks before.

 

Online instruction is dependent of two crucial components – availability of a versatile collaborative software platform and connectivity from both sides – the instructor and the learner. This is often not understood and too much importance is attached to the sophistication of the platform which often resembles the cockpit of a modern aircraft. Initial experience with this medium can be compared to the Bundesliga matches that resumed recently in empty stadiums. Public universities have a large number of students who do not have access to fast communication networks – this could vary between 20 to 30 percent whereas the demographic profile of a private university is believed to be between 5 to 7 percent. Therefore, even if the university is perfectly capable of delivering online instruction, they would still have to be sensitive to the fact that it may not be fair to a significant fraction of the students who may not have the necessary resources from their end.

 

Distance education started in India in mid 80s pioneered by the setting up of IGNOU. One only needs to visit their website that boasts of such core values like flexibility, openness, affordability, inclusiveness, and the promise of life-long learning. This model has been emulated by many other universities in India to reach out to larger and more diverse student population. However, it is debatable whether they have been able to match the standards of standard in-class education. Moreover, the distance education mode also relied heavily on availability of in-class infrastructure and connected many part-time teachers with part-time learners. Online education was an evolutionary leap in the same direction that has come up in a big way with the emergence of big players like Coursera and EdX and now BYJU’s which is targeting school-children. Even Khan Academy, that resembles a very conventional chalk and board classroom, is thriving because of the online mode.

 

Mainstream university education has flourished under the premise that there is no substitute for the ambience of the university campus and live learning with peers in the classroom and has been able to maintain an exclusivity till now. The mainspring of the intellectual inspiration is said to flow from the bustling quads and the umpteen brain-storming sessions in the cafeterias. At best, they would let some of the more popular subjects be taught using these outreach platforms which mainly contributed to building their brand value for the in-campus experience.

 

As universities closed down almost overnight, the faculty and the administration were scrambling to put together some methodology to keep the semester going, online became the only recourse and all the hesitations were cast aside in a hurry. The initial weeks were arduous and onerous from both sides – the teachers and the students. Many instructors who prefer teaching using power-point slides, found this transition easier to handle. Others preferred collaborative platforms like MS-Teams (formerly Skype Professional) or Zoom and many others that were mostly used as video chatrooms for both social and professional purposes. Others found tablets a good substitute for the blackboard, so much so that the sellers ran out of stock in no time. In all this, the internet has been put under tremendous pressure to provide the necessary bandwidth and much to the credit of its architects, it has withstood this test.

 

The inhibition surrounding these platforms may now disappear – although necessity is the mother of invention, commercial motivation is also a powerful driver. Indeed, there is now a strong lobby emerging that is advocating online instruction as a solution to many issues that traditional education is unable to address. The rationale is very similar to the benefits of distance education with the added advantage of technology providing easier solutions that didn’t exist a decade ago. So, what seemed like a force majeure in the aftermath of COVID-19, may actually become a post-Covid alternative and challenge the sacred cows of the (increasingly expensive) university education. There is also a realistic possibility that the post-Covid education may continue to gain momentum in an online mode, even after Corona has been vanquished! The remaining article would try to examine this scenario which the author feels is a very plausible one and could become a watershed in not only a pedagogical transformation but the very definition of education.

 

The following questions will be repeatedly asked in the coming months and years:

 

  • What is the efficacy of the online versus traditional modes of delivering education?

This will be difficult to answer as the requirements may adapt to the new paradigm. However, what will certainly require thinking out of the box is a new model of testing and grading. Learning and testing are intertwined intricately in the contemporary delivery of education. Often the challenges of testing and evaluation are more complex as they are harder to scale in the traditional models. While an online model will shift the onus of learning onto the learner, testing will have to be conducted in a secure and trusted mode that requires strict invigilation. Even in the distance education mode, elaborate arrangements have to be made for conducting a traditional physical examination. If this cannot be avoided, then the online mode cannot truly take it to a new level. Despite the availability of some tools like Mettl, Examity, Respondus, there is still a lot of apprehension about the reliability of these technologies.

One radical step could be to delink learning and testing, wherein online instruction will only focus on the former. The testing can be conducted by the organization according to their requirements for selection. For quite a while, the entry barriers to the next destination are considered much harder than the grades that one earns in the university which is only used as a preliminary filter. So this filter can become less rigorous, without seriously affecting the process of selection at the next destination. The self-certification tests conducted without the traditional support of physical proctoring can become a basis for a Satisfactory/Unsatisfactory grade which is what most universities have decided to adopt for the current semester. This could become the new norm which would actually bring relief to teachers and students alike.

 

  • Has traditional liberal arts education championed by the Humboldtian model kept up with the needs of the 21st century?

There is already a significant discourse available on this topic emerging out of debates on globalization and a utilitarian view of education. With the objectives of education more closely aligned with job- seekers, does one really need to go through a broad-based college education for 3-4 years? In this regard, the role of the IT industry cannot be overlooked. The IT boom starting from the late 80s, redefined the preparedness for jobs and many Indian IT giants like TCS, Infosys and NIIT took the lead in short-cutting the rigorous university education and used in-house ad hoc training programs to churn out trained manpower like no other country. In retrospect, this was achieved through a clever combination of techno-management skills that did not require a full-fledged college education and certainly within a fraction of the cost. It may be emphasized that the cost of education is not just what a student pays but also the subsidy provided by the public universities.

To cut a long story short, online instruction can be made more flexible to meet such needs which raises the next concern and is already touted as a game-changer.

 

  • Would 21st education break away from the traditional constraints of time and space?

A university education demands that its seekers spend a certain time in a certain location and it is considered an aberration if there are gaps in the contiguity. It makes intense demands in terms of continuity and focus which is not easy for many and often beyond one’s control. The curriculum is also designed in a way that it discourages long breaks although many universities allow students to return. In contrast, the online instruction paradigm, going by the recent developments pioneered by the Coursera model, makes it a lot easier on the learner by chopping down a semester into modules and morsels which are typically of 10 hours duration coupled with online testing. In essence, it is chopping the eight semesters of education having typically 120-140 credits into smaller fragments, where a learner can choose his/her own pace. Moreover, theoretically one can be on the move, and connect seamlessly from anywhere in the world ! Although it sounds incredibly alluring, there are some important points that we must ponder on before we jump in.

  1. How different are the outcomes of the fragmented learning from the compact education?
  2. Are the differences significant enough, not to take this leap or it is primarily for those who cannot afford it – both in terms of cost and other constraints?
  3. Which disciplines are more amenable to the new paradigm? A short answer is STEM subjects require closer interaction with the instructors and laboratory facilities.

 

  • Will traditional universities survive?

One possibility is that every university will be forced have a hybrid model? In that case, education could become the monopoly of a few hundred chosen organizations? Seemingly the online mode will allow a university (service provider) to reach out to orders of magnitude more pupils than is currently possible thereby justifying fewer institutions. This phenomena can lead to the Corporatization of Higher education. Although the Corporate-Managerial style of administration has been increasingly adopted in Universities, there is still an appreciable difference in the cultures. However, online instruction will require delivery models that are beyond the scope of academicians and consequently, it will only accelerate the metamorphosis.

How would the life of a university Professor change? In the current dispensation, teaching often takes a back-seat (especially for under-graduates) and many leading universities protect their elite faculty by hiring temporary instructors. Since online instruction is more intense and requires more effort in their delivery, universities may be forced to completely separate tracks for research and teaching. This could change the nature of university education beyond recognition and eventually branch out into two distinct streams – one that prepares students for industry and the other for a career in academics and research. While the former can be more easily delivered online, the latter will continue in the traditional mode but for a much smaller group of students. Clearly, the graduate programs will survive in the traditional style and there will be less demand for Professional Master’s students as they will get upgraded through the online certification programs at a much lower cost.

 

  • If Higher Education undergoes this change, will School education be left behind?

The bottom-line is the acute crisis of good teachers and youngsters opting for such a career. That is where online instruction enjoys a huge edge – the teacher-student ratio is not of consequence and it is the self-learning that will become the key. Content is no longer a challenge in the Internet era and even traditional teachers take help from knowledge platforms like Wikipedia.

In the coming months we are likely to see an increasing clamour from the business world to promote online instruction beyond the COVID crisis. It appears to be natural fit for the needs of the Business and Management Schools, Executive education and short-term re-training programs that the Industry has been advocating for in the last decade. It can be opined that the Industry will play a leading role in the post-COVID education framework.

 

I would like to conclude with a simple observation about the likely impact of these developments in our country – India never managed develop any credible education system barring a a dozen exceptional institutions. There are many reasons for this but it will be futile to delve into those as there are no easy fixes and most pundits are not optimistic that there can be any. However, there is a clear redemption in the new paradigm and India is likely to adopt it faster than many countries given its recent fascination for techno-determinism.

 

Sandeep Sen is a Professor of Computer Science and Director, School of Engineering at Shiv Nadar University, Greater Noida. He is currently on lien from IIT, Delhi. 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.

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1

Thanks for this insightful piece. I just chanced upon this today. Have written a more or less similar piece but with a darker sense of what the turn to digital education involves. below is the web page of my piece. Hope you will find the time to read it.

http://www.raiot.in/longread-zooming-towards-a-university-platform/

2

Indeed, I just read your article and there are some uncanny similarities in the issues that are highlighted and this one posted probably approximately a couple of weeks before. Although it is not unusual since we feeding from the same information base of events and opinions, we seemed to have hit on very similar cords.

3

good view points expressed