Pandemic learning loss myths and reality

EducationWorld February 2023 | Magazine Teacher-2-teacher

While some learning loss is inevitable because of switch to online teaching-learning, many assumptions about learning loss suffered by students during the pandemic lockdown are exaggerated writes Rajesh Khanna

Rajesh Khanna

India’s education sector experienced a tectonic shift during the pandemic that forced schools and higher education institutions (HEIs) to re-think and re-invent the way mainstream education is delivered. During the prolonged lockdown and emergence of new issues such as social distancing, education institutions across the country were compelled to switch to the online mode of teaching-learning. While this new pedagogy did serve the all-important purpose of faculty-student engagement, it has limitations.

According to a recent survey conducted by the staffing and recruitment company TeamLease, students countrywide experienced considerable learning loss. While students believe that their loss varied between 40-60 percent of what they would have learnt if institutional lockdown had not happened, HEI leaders estimate it to be at 30-40 percent. Moreover, the sudden shift to online education has raised concerns about the quality of online education itself.

While some learning loss is inevitable, many assumptions about the extent of learning loss suffered by students during the pandemic lockdown are exaggerated because of several misconceptions. Among them:

Learning loss is same for all students. The pandemic has undoubtedly affected students at all levels, but not to the same extent. Indeed, it’s quite likely that some students improved their learning outcomes because of the forced switch to avant garde digital technologies and close supervision of family elders. However, the majority experienced learning loss due to logistical, social and emotional adversity because of lack of resources, excessive interference from family and above all anxiety generated by the pandemic. In my opinion, the prime cause of learning loss is lack of preparation rather than subject knowledge delivery — deficit of maturity and self-sufficiency, rather than changed circumstances forced by the pandemic.

Online learning is ineffective. This is the most common misconception based on widespread belief that if nobody monitors students, learning loss is inevitable. However, it’s important to note that these days best universities and HEIs encourage academic integrity while lightly monitoring students’ progress online. The upside of online learning is that it offers flexibility to students, allowing them to learn at their own pace and develop deep understanding of their subjects. The online learning revolution has taken away the constraints of time and space and improved access to learning material. Moreover, online learning material is enriched by easy integration of multimedia content.

Online learning is not cohesive. Progressive, contemporary universities offer technology platforms allowing students to network and engage in peer-to-peer learning which is becoming increasingly important in the new digital age. Students can interact with teachers and peers via discussion boards, online chats, and videoconferencing. Admittedly this is easier in conventional classrooms and more difficult in online learning environments. However lately, HEIs use various stratagems to encourage students to work collectively on group projects and assignments. Instructors are mindful of using holistic approaches to teaching, assigning projects that focus on the aptitude of learners so that they learn to work in professional workplaces. Online learning has forced all stakeholders in education to innovate, and that process itself has contributed to improved outcomes.

Online learning is the sole cause of learning loss. With the sudden forced switch to remote learning, faculty members weren’t able to teach very well despite best efforts. Teachers and students had to overcome technology challenges, sudden social isolation which created mental health problems and illness. Low-income communities working on the front lines of the pandemic as essential workers experienced severe damage in terms of sickness and death.

Consequently, it’s unsurprising that students from low-income and working-class households experienced greatest learning loss. Other contributory factors included reduced fund flows to institutions, pressing demand for improved infrastructure to support distance and blended learning models, and reduced mobility which adversely impacted regional and local HEIs.

An unexplored contributory factor to students learning loss is massive decrease of sarcasm and humour during teachers’ interaction with classes. Unfortunately online learning has banished humour and sarcasm as a learning aid as the body language and responses of students can’t be observed by teachers.

Now even though the pandemic-induced lockdown of education institutions is a bad memory and most HEIs are back to business as usual, technology continues to play a key role in education. Going forward, education institutions are likely to adopt a blended learning model, incrementally inducting digital technologies into teaching-learning and research. For educators, it’s important to understand that digital and traditional education cannot be segregated into watertight compartments. They represent a continuum in the growth and advancement of the education ecosystem. A judicious blend of the two can benefit teachers, learners and all stakeholders in education.

(Prof. Rajesh Khanna is president of NIIT University, Neemrana)

Also Read: Azim Premji University study reports post pandemic learning loss

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