Shifting online is more than converting class-notes into PDFs or a collection of video lectures and e-books. Digitized learning content has to be contextualized and ‘byte-sized’ to make it crisp, engaging and understandable. Although there is no replacement of the field trips, social and cultural interactions during academic exchanges it may be possible to make the e-learning more user friendly through customization.
“It will change the way we live … things will never be the same … we have to learn to live with it … it will change us as a species”. These are some of the reactions during the COVID-19 pandemic. The world has changed dramatically in the past six months as the SARS-CoV-2 virus has taken the world by storm, infecting over 5 million people. Primarily a health crisis, it has given a nightmarish challenge to policymakers to decide between closing down the state to save lives or keeping it open to save the economy. Although lockdown was an apt step to contain the disease, the conditions arising thereafter are unprecedented and serious. The pandemic is expected to have a gigantic impact on global education in general and Indian education system in particular.
Coping with the pandemic
With the announcement of lockdown in India on March 23, 2020, over 1.5 million schools were closed. The act of suspending educational activity has hit the annual academic calendar very hard: the tail end of the session from March to May is crucial, involving internal assessments, board/ University examinations, project submission etc. It also marks the time for roll outs for the new session: admissions, entrance tests of various universities, competitive examinations etc. Therefore, a halt in all these processes has been devastating and distressing.
Secondary schools in the country differ widely from each other in their standards and then COVID-19 pandemic has revealed profound disparities in children’s access to support and opportunities. During the lockdown, in Aligarh only a handful of private schools could adopt online teaching methods and could engage their wards all day in ‘homework’. However, it has caused disproportionately negative impact on the most vulnerable (economically backward) children by putting an economic burden on their parents to access the online resources. Teachers who were mostly accustomed to the physical classroom found it difficult to adopt new methods of e-teaching. As a result online education went on an untested trial scale which was mostly hit-and-miss; the online evaluation and assessment also had major errors and uncertainty.
On a positive note though, this pandemic acted as a catalyst, pushing many teachers to devise innovative solutions within a relatively short time. Learning material has been delivered using interactive apps, asynchronous online learning tools (Google Classroom) or synchronous face-to-face video instructions.
The pandemic exposed the inadequacies of India’s university system. Numerous organizations do not have e-teaching or e-learning facilities, and most Professors are not well versed with e-teaching methods. At Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the move has been met with enthusiasm, and faculty have dealt with the challenges innovatively so as to minimize the loss. The University’s HRDC (Human Resource Development Centre) instantly launched an online Faculty Development Programme (FDP) for all teachers exclusively for management of online classes and research. Three other online courses were organized during lockdown period including one FDP on ‘Quality research and scholarly publications’ and another on ‘Disaster management and its mitigation’. Between synchronous video learning tools (ZOOM, WEBEX or TEAM etc.) and asynchronous online tools (Google Classroom, WhatsApp Groups, or e-mail), the latter mode of e-learning has been found to be more popular among teachers. A number of online courses and curricula for effective knowledge transfer such as SWAYAM, UG/PG MOOCs, e-PG-Pathshala or e-content modules, CEC-UGC YouTube channel, National Project on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), etc., have also been utilized by some faculty. The teachers have also been prompt to submit the weekly work report with details of course content covered.
Despite the availability of online resources, knowledge transfer has not been effective due to inequalities in the system. A vast majority of students in private or state colleges or universities of poor quality, with a dearth of qualified and motivated faculty; or come from disadvantaged families thus cannot afford continuous internet connections. Due to postponement of final exams of boards/ universities and entrance tests, it will be a major task for institutions to finish the entire admission process as early as possible. The disruption in research experiments and the destruction of the unattended research material due to unprecedented lockdown has also derailed the research outcome of researchers. By and large the limited usage of e-resources, ineffective delivery of course content and fluidity in examinations reflect that India has not been able to match up to other emerging countries during this crisis.
Educational and Socio-economic impact of lockdown
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the Indian society to a distressing halt and further exposed the inequalities. Our fight against this global crisis seems to drastically change our way of educating younger generation.
The pandemic’s serious impact on higher education sector will be a true determinant of a country’s economic future as millions have already lost daily wages, food and shelter. Introducing exclusive online system with the prevailing apathy and inertia of most educators, the effective changeover from offline to online medium of teaching and education is a challenging task. It will be hard to cope up for the vast majority of students who lose opportunities to learn and a further extension of lockdown may worsen the conditions thus translating into economic and social disadvantage. Unfortunately, the technology-based education is more straightforward and cannot help or groom students individually. Many graduating students are looking for job interviews, and those with offers are yet to receive the certificates and mark sheets before taking up their jobs. Due to economic slowdown the employment deficit can also affect the paying capacity in the private sector, which accommodates sizeable section of the students in the country. Shrinking employments indicate towards the possibility of a major recession in 2020. Universities may observe a delay in student internships and placements and student counselling programs will be affected. There is anxiety and helplessness among the students and parents due to almost unpredictable conditions. The students enrolling in universities abroad viz., US, UK, Australia and China, may face visa restrictions.
It is worth pondering whether post corona pandemic, we will be a transformed society. There are grave apprehensions about the post Covid-19 Higher Education system framework. As discussed, India’s slow progress in higher education is also due to disparity in resource access by the disadvantaged students and the limited investments in universities. The latest budget’s allocation towards higher education has been a mere 1.3% of the overall expenditure, the lowest since 2010-11. Due to paucity of funds, the hiring services of faculty may be halted affecting quality and excellence. The impact will be reflected in societies with productivity affected. Therefore, educational disparities cause social and economic disparities thus creating the divide between the haves and the have-nots. The resulting impact in society will weaken confidence in democracy and promote unrest. The adverse effects of the pandemic reflect on the budgetary affairs and the future predictions. The low fee collection in institutes can create hurdles in managing the working capital. Income generated from the halls of residence, catering, conferences and sporting programs will be much less than expected due to closure of academic institutions. The level of the impact on higher education will depend largely on the duration of the outbreak.
Since the online mode has become the default delivery pattern of education during lockdown period and may well continue further. With the passage of time a stage will be reached when the best of faculty will be available to students across the globe. The quality of education will be judged cumulatively by faculty’s subject knowledge and IT skills. It could happen that a student can study courses from any College/ University of the world based on quality of teacher and fee structure, and this may lead to faculty redundancy.
Role of Technology in post Covid-19 era
Technology has, oddly enough, emerged as the lifesaver for maintaining social connections even as the COVID-19 pandemic crippled the world. This has motivated policymakers to support e-learning and to help lessen the digital divide. It is predicted that by 2024 the mobile internet may reach 85% households in India, and that may make online education more affordable and effective in the rural and backward areas of the country. Special funds should be allocated for digitization and to raise digital learning platforms besides supporting the marginalized students to lessen the digital divide.
Teaching in the field of biological sciences (which is my subject area) requires specialized equipment in the laboratory, and education in this domain involves face-to face instruction in traditional classrooms or laboratories. Many teachers find online education inferior, leading to decreased learning. This could be in part due to teachers lacking skills or support to teach online, so online courses and webinars have been organized at AMU during lockdown period to make the teachers familiar with online tools and methods. However, the nature of practical or laboratory work in most courses of biological sciences has been a challenging task when tried on a web format. Therefore, the exercises need to have integrated online component to convert it to hybrid format at least. Teachers have filmed their own demonstration or simulations can be utilized as a supplement. Virtual labs have also been recommended for demonstration of anatomy, physiology of animals especially due to scrapping of dissections by UGC and the advantage is that students can access asynchronously at their own convenience.
At AMU, due to the continued lockdown we replaced the lab project with a comprehensive review work on or a related theme. Students have been invited to discuss results, present seminars and take viva- voce exams on the web. The excursion tour report has been transformed into a virtual tour report by asking the students to survey the institutions on web. Remote instrumentation involving manipulation of scientific equipments like sensors, cameras, microscopes, chromatographs, thermal cycler etc. has been introduced. For lab exercises involving surveys, the collected data is to be shared and interpreted online. Some of the subjects like biodiversity or taxonomy involve more interactive surveys and observations on natural behaviour of organisms; hence online studies may not provide explicit information.
Conventional education dispensable or indispensable?
Our teaching methods do need to be updated and the pandemic may have given us an opportunity to do so. Face-to-face interaction has always been considered as the best form of communication and like most traditional universities in India AMU largely follows this practice. Although there is a lack institutional support and adequate platforms for online teaching, the lockdown has made us realize the value of online learning and the opportunities that it offers. This initial period has had a number of technical glitches in software and unreliable internet/power supply and there has been some apprehension in using several online teaching apps due to security concerns. We have had to rely on asynchronous tools like Google Classroom or sending the lectures through WhatsApp or e-mail. Some students in far flung, remote areas of country e.g., Kashmir or North-East, or those from adjoining countries like Afghanistan do not have continuous or high speed internet hence they have received the study material through e-mail. If all classes go fully online then it will be a problem to manage as all do not have unlimited data or a fast internet connections at home.
Further, shifting online is more than converting class-notes into PDFs or a collection of video lectures and e-books. Digitized learning content has to be contextualized and ‘byte-sized’ to make it crisp, engaging and understandable. Although there is no replacement of the field trips, social and cultural interactions during academic exchanges it may be possible to make the e-learning more user friendly through customization. Another important issue is that students may not devote full attention to online classes. Interpersonal communication, ethos and other social attributes will take a back seat in online education which also will affect the teachers’ support and help to the weaker students.
The most widely used assessment methodology at AMU is through assignments followed by quizzes, and going online for such assessment may not maintain the same quality and standard. Lab work/ practical – the vital component of any biology course – has not been effectively taken in online format. Handling animals or using equipment by oneself has more merits than virtually examining them; hence virtual lab will remain secondary in value to authentic lab and field experiences and majority of the current conventional exercises may appear nonconvertible to online mode.
We need to be guarded not to compromise on the quality and look for the best solutions available. That’s the reason, even in the post COVID-19 era, offline or conventional education models will not become obsolete. However, an integrated learning of classroom and online modes will be the best practice to follow by blending the two judiciously as per the context and the course content.
Impact on research and related activities
The pandemic has brought ongoing research to a standstill with uncertainty looming large about funding and career choices. It is likely to have a disproportionate impact on early-career researchers and those working on fixed term positions. Due to the lockdown fieldwork was suspended, and a large number of students, fellows, and visiting scientists returned to their homes without finishing their research tasks. Many projects including those collecting primary data on ecology, biodiversity and climate change requiring regular surveys and data recording have been put on hold. Projects involving seasonal parameters are likely to be delayed for a year or so due to loss of a season. Students carrying out experimental work in genetics, microbiology, molecular biology etc. have suffered the loss of time since all previously collected samples are in waiting or have been damaged.
My project on nematode diversity in natural and disturbed habitats has also been adversely affected from the point of losing crucial sampling months. Besides, the samples already collected needed to be analysed rapidly before being badly degraded. The cancellation of conferences has also been detrimental for students, post-docs and faculty for career development. 2020 had been declared the “Year for Biodiversity Policy and Planning” but this has received a serious disruption since several important meetings have had to be postponed.
The crisis has also created much apprehension about the future and it is not clear how long it will take to normalize. Although productivity during lockdown has not been very remarkable, nevertheless, the lockdown has reduced stress, improving mental and physical health, both of which are valuable. It is clear that we have to find new ways to continue doing science in the best possible way by thinking and focusing on those aspects which are going to be crucial in the immediate future.
Qudsia Tahseen is a Professor at the Department of Zoology, Aligarh Muslim University. 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.