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Has pandemic pushed higher education industry out of inertia?

Dr Dasharathraj K Shetty– Dr Dasharathraj K Shetty, Associate Professor, Department of Humanities & Management, Manipal Institute of Technology, MAHE

Higher education is experiencing a seismic change in many areas at the moment. If the predictions of techno and edu forecasters becomes true, when the COVID-19 pandemic gets underway, the world will alter faster than we can predict. We will see significant and long-term changes in our governments, institutions, organisations, and individuals resulting from new information and ideas.

Education systems in India have evolved over 2000 years of civilisation: from the gurukul system (one master to a few pupils) to the traditional university system (one to many pupils), to distance learning (one to many learners across the gamut), and finally to today’s completely technology-mediated education system.

While, higher education has been dispersed, and professors and students are struggling to adjust to the unexpected new norm of fully mediated teaching and learning, the pandemic has undoubtedly pushed the higher education industry out of inertia for adopting the next level of digital innovations. Today in educational institutions – classroom teaching, labs, experiential projects, academic management and internships and job placements are being carried out online.

Teaching and Learning: The mode of instruction today has become online. Chalk and board and classroom PPTs are now accessed by students using MS-Teams virtual rooms or any other similar tools. Students today have access to multiple teachers and can attend other teacher’s classes on prior request! Multiple faculty can join the session and share each of their expertise during the same course. The traditional attendance books have vanished! The attendance is recorded as soon as the students log in. All information about login-logout information of all present in the class is automatically summarised! Students today have access to the recordings of the live classes for revision or in case they have missed a session. The shy students could pose their questions in the chats, making them more comfortable. Physical infrastructure is no longer a barrier, and scheduling of the classes have become much easier! 

Many institutions have started offering credits to listed/approved Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that are available for enrolment over the internet. MOOCs have made learning new skills more affordable and flexible. Someone sitting in any corner of the country could learn from the best of the best professors anywhere in the world.   

Faculty Development: With shared workload, with students not being in campus, with travel time saved due to work from home mode of functioning, faculty have little extra time with them to plan for their personal development. Most of the FDPs have become online. ATAL FDPs are the best examples for this. With no restriction on number of participants, with no constraint of infrastructure and budget, these FDPs have seen a drastic increase in enrolment. With the faculty selection process becoming online, aspirants could give multiple interviews anywhere in the world, without worrying about how will he/she reach there! This has drastically increased the number of applicants attending the interview. Thus, both parties have an opportunity to have a best job/candidate.

Placements: The online mode has brought multiple operational and infrastructural advantages to the placement processes. In a regular mode of selection process, there used to be heavy competition amongst the companies to attend the campus and carry out the recruitment process. When multiple companies sought to visit the campus on same day, infrastructures such as discussion rooms, computers, auditoriums used to be the bottleneck. Scheduling the sessions by satisfying all the stakeholders used to create high stress on the placement department.

The online mode made the work much more manageable. Students can now attend multiple interviews at different places without choosing between alternatives because of the location of the interview venues. There could be cases where students even attended interviews in other parts of the world on the same day! Students can get internship opportunities from across the globe. Irrespective of standing of the institute in ranking, irrespective of location of the institute, with this mode of operation, companies have access to the best talent pool that could exist in any of these institutions. 

Alumni Interactions: This Covid-season saw an increase in alumni interactions. With work from home mode of functioning, with reduced travel time, everyone had little extra time to be spent on doing some work which was self-satisfying. Many alumni, made use of these opportunities to share their expertise to guide their juniors. They gave webinars and conducted guidance sessions to help the students from their Alma mater to achieve new heights. Even though webinars were conducted pre-covid era, the numbers hit a new high during the Covid-era, and even the participation increased drastically.  

Academic management and exams: While moving from offline to online mode for courses and lectures presents unique difficulties, which are still achievable. Most of these online leaning platforms have focused more on delivery part.  When it comes to assessment part, the tools are evolving and are yet to be robust. Faculty have explored quiz options to carryout formative assessment, with which they have an opportunity to know the reach of their class and if required, take necessary corrective steps.  When it comes to final assessment, even though exams are proctored online, it is not an easy task to perform. When the exam is in progress, the loss of connectivity is another challenge to be addressed. When complications arise, handling such cases and providing justice is a big challenge to be addressed. Revisiting the whole camera footage, can help to resolve such issues. But, in scenarios such as entrance exams, when it has to be done at a large scale in a short time span, can put lot of stress on both sides. 

Library: The pandemic saw a tectonic shift in how the libraries were being used. There was a drastic increase in the number of students requesting the remote-access login to access the library’s electronic resources that were earlier available only within the college intranets. Now libraries have started procuring more e-resources. The hit rate on the digital versions of the books have increased and the traditional hard copy readers were forced to shift to e-prints!

Even though, every section in the academic domain has adapted the available technology to sail through the unforeseen challenges of Covid-19, it is not all positive alone, there are multiple challenges too. As engineers, whose role is to come up with better solutions, all these challenges are opportunities. Some of the real-time challenges include internet availability with requisite bandwidth, and a large amount of data handling capacity. As already discussed, coming up with a robust evaluation mechanism is another opportunity for someone to address.

Engineering is experiential. Most of the learning happens through doing things individually or in group. Campuses like ours is known for this and children are missing these opportunities. Even though we have come up with standby solutions for laboratory sessions, we have a long way to go to give a feel of learning in an actual laboratory setup.

In the theory sessions, if the learner is not serious, opportunity to revisit the recorded lectures and flexibility to learn based on one’s convenience could make someone to relax a bit. With no opportunity for eye to eye contact, if the teacher misses to notice such cases, this could lead to disconnect between the student and the content delivered by the teacher. This can create disengagement resulting in lower absorption of imparted information by students.

Once the pandemic subsides, we may be eagerly waiting to switch over to our traditional way of handling things. However, a few changes will remain. Thus, it will be a blended mode of learning, by having positives of both.

Considering the above facts, can we conclude that India’s education systems evolved over 2000 years of civilisation, from the gurukul system (Education 1.0), to today’s completely technology-mediated education system, be called Education 4.0? Can we also conclude that IT has acted as a strategic lever in redefining innovation, growth and inclusion of higher education in India?

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