As we are reading this, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought the world to stand still. Social distancing and severe lockdowns across the globe has forced people to find innovative ways to do their routine jobs. One of the first measures taken by governments is to ensure social distancing and discourage all social, political, and religious gatherings. That signals the shutting down of the educational institutions for the safety of students, teachers, and their families. No doubt, these steps were taken by the government are necessary and brought in the right direction to stop the further spread of the virus in their countries
iStudents were asked to leave for their homes, and teachers are expected to carry on the classes through suggested online channels. Many experts are claiming that the crisis is going to revolutionize the education sector, with teachers becoming accustomed to conducting online sessions and students on their toes to make the most of it. However, few also question the learning effectiveness of the same. Many people feel that listeners are less active during online sessions and are more distracted with their surroundings. What I feel is that this is an opportunity given to us not only to test the online delivery of education but to integrate it in our learning experience in a way that it is not looked upon as an alternative but a complement to our pre-COVID-19 education delivery system. Enough has already been discussed on various online platforms regarding the benefits and drawbacks of online teaching being conducted across the globe. Most academicians also believe that this could be a temporary fix and that we will have to go back to traditional classroom settings sooner than later. However, considering that it is already a part of our lives, I would instead like to discuss what the three major parties involved in the process i.e., Institutions, Faculty members and students (and their family) can do at the moment to make the most of it.
What does it mean for HEIs?
A lot has been discussed in and around higher education institutions in the past few weeks on how to proceed with the academic calendar. Already the classes have been conducted through the various platforms, and some of the institutions have even explored the option of conducting online examination so that to remain on track. However, there are specific concerns, and of course, a lot can be done to enhance the overall learning experience. I would like to talk about certain measures that HEIs can take during this period to have a lasting impact in the long haul even after the COVID-19 crisis is over.
Experiment with curriculum: The first and foremost concern is to finalize the length of various courses and programs to be conducted through online platforms. This crisis has provided institutions with a unique opportunity. They can sit back on their drawing table and redesign their curriculum from scratch. They have an option now, more and more students are accustomed to online learning. Organizations can adopt an agile approach to education now. They can identify courses (or part of courses) that requires very less classroom discussion or personalization. These courses (or specific parts of it) may be recorded and stored in an institutional repository and can be made available to students online on-demand. This is an exciting time for concepts like flipped classes, which was on trial for a very long time in many institutions. Another crucial decision that needs to be made is the evaluation criteria for these courses. Are we ready for the online examination? What would be the nature of these exams? Does this testing ensure serious learning? These are some of the questions that warrant immediate answers from the institutions.
Improve infrastructure to support virtual/remote learning: there has been a long debate that which platforms should be used for online teaching, with virtually every available platform showing certain limitations. The very first step for any institution today is to bring in standardization as far as an online platform for teaching is concerned. This is extremely important to impart confidence among its students as well as educators. The move becomes exceptionally essential for courses in performing arts, engineering, biomedical sciences etc. The possibility for setting up digital labs for teaching courses like science and engineering is of utmost importance.
Encouragement and training for faculty members to adopt virtual instruction skills: One of the most underrated challenges that we face today is the readiness of faculty members to conduct online sessions. Just because someone is an excellent classroom teacher does not automatically make him/her an excellent online educator. The tools we can use inside a classroom are not available to us online. The quality of interaction a teacher can facilitate in physical space is not feasible in virtual classrooms. Whether they ask for it or not, it the responsibility of the institution to ensure their educators are equipped with the necessary skills to conduct online sessions effectively.
Finding a niche: We are living in times where seekers have endless choices in the form of Youtube, EDX, Coursera, Alison, and Udemy etc. For any institution to find preference has to be different from others. Institutions simply will have to find a niche, either in the form of top educators, quality content, distinct curriculum, experiential learning or so on. It will take some time and effort from both institutions as well as the people associated.
Finding the right financial balance: If shifting to the online platform for an extended period (or in some cases permanently), institutions will have to restructure their entire financials. More spendings would be made on maintaining infrastructure for virtual learning. Learning platforms, knowledge repository, cloud services etc. would account for more expenditure than physical space and infrastructure. Of course, the fee structure will demand a significant change as well. Finding the right balance would be a significant challenge for a few years.
What does it mean for faculty members?
I guess the most significant challenge today for any online educator is that of the low student engagement. Most of the online sessions suffer from ineffective discussions and lack of discipline. There is a noticeable decline in one to one communication between the teacher and students, making the sessions not only uninteresting but uninspiring to even the brightest students otherwise. Here the faculty members have to realize that these sessions could only be practical if they start focusing more on content delivery rather than information delivery. The use of technology, such as simulation, is necessary to make the sessions interactive. Another parameter that can be considered is the continuous assessment of students, which will bound them to pay more attention and increase their engagement. Teaching online is different from teaching in classes, the sooner a faculty understand this need, the better his/her delivery would be.
Another significant role that an educator has to take up is to mentor his students. Virtual learning not only increases the physical distance between the teacher-student dynamics, but it also impacts the psychological distance between the two. Understanding individual needs become all the more critical now as these individuals would not even have the luxury of peer support, as they would have in a traditional classroom. An educator needs to have more empathy towards students, mentor them, encourage them to perform better, and, most importantly, help them with their personal/social struggles. Besides the designated online sessions, teachers will have to work extra hard to find a medium to connect with their students to know them at a personal level.
The third most crucial task that faculty member engaged in online learning would have to do is to find ways to encourage peer learning. Peer learning is a vital aspect of traditional classrooms. The feeling of competition and a sense of collaboration among students teach them some of the most valuable lessons professionally and personally. Virtual learning deprives them of this experience. The teachers will have to design some activities and assignments that promote peer learning among the participants.
What does it mean for students and parents?
Students also have an added responsibility in these circumstances. The first thing they need to remind themselves is to focus on developing competencies. These sessions can not be just a tool to score some marks in exams. Information is readily available on the internet for free. It is important to develop skills and competencies. Whether one wants to become an entrepreneur or to seek a job in corporate, skills, and competencies are what is going to make it happen. The key here is to participate in the sessions, asking relevant questions actively, and applying the learnings in the real world. Self-discipline is the key to success should be the current mantra for every online participant.
Parents, too, can play a significant role in the environment of virtual learning. It is important for both parents and students to undergo a change in mindset. Parents must encourage the children to take the online sessions seriously, and there should be a proper schedule of activities. There would be several challenges in the journey for both the learners and educators, but if done right, the current challenges will lead to a better paradigm shift.
Dr. Naman Sharma
Indian Institute of Foreign Trade,
Ms. Swati Pathak,
Kolkatta, West Bengal, India
Mr. Gaurav Vohra
Teacher of Indian Culture
High Commission of India