The traditional classroom environment primary or higher, used to deliver courses won’t hold up in the post-COVID-19 world and online education in some form shall be essential. Until the COVID-19 crisis, online learning comprised a relatively small share of education. Now the situation demands all the institutions to set up the infrastructure to improve student learning, engagement, and experience while operating remotely. Moving from on-campus to remote learning raises issues related to access and equity. There are the immediate logistical challenges of ensuring students have the basic technology they need to learn remotely. An institution’s ability to serve and educate all students and create a sense of community and vibrancy typically found on institution’s campuses will be on the test. Their ability to do so in a financially sustainable way will be a challenge. Administrations and Governments may decide to open the institutions, but students’ perspectives and concerns of the parents about the safety of their wards shall be the deciding factor for enrolment.
Post-COVID Scenario in India
There has been a massive shift in the demographic pattern due to the huge exodus of people, especially of the lower-income group. The shift has taken place from urban areas to villages. It is estimated that nationwide lock down in India resulted in the migration of 40 million workers. The schooling pattern shall change due to this also. While there shall be fewer students to be enrolled in urban cities, there may not be enough schools and seats available in villages, depriving education to the children from economically weaker sections.
Challenges for Institutions
The institutions, may it be the University imparting education for higher learning or schools and colleges providing basic and middle-level education, both face a daunting task. Will the classrooms remain the same post-COVID in near future? Will COVID force to replace bustling campuses with virtual classrooms and labs? Can institutions plan a fully remote or at least partially remote learning environment, providing a substantial shield from attending the regular classes and providing much-needed isolation? Will the demographic shift of working-class from bigger cities to villages make it compulsory to start virtual education?
The virtual classes or on-line education involves the use of radio (Community or Internet) to provide audio classes, Web Portal, web-based video delivery, video conferencing system, or a combination of all these with interactivity using WhatsApp, Google meets, WebEx, etc. Schools will also need to host virtual events to build a sense of community, providing mental-health resources and remedial-help options as well as helping connect students with social service organizations to fill the gap. Also, schools can play a role in scaling outreach, such as through video options for counseling, online mindfulness classes, and other applications and tools. Institutions will need to be much more proactive about their communications with students and their parents. Students will have questions, so institutions should develop and deploy an easy-to-use student portal that addresses commonly asked questions on eligibility, deadlines, and eligible expenses, with links to a simple application portal.
Those with learning disabilities or accessibility needs require particular attention. The priority should be to design specific approaches to suit each need. For example, institutions can record courses and add closed captioning, so that students who are hearing impaired or have auditory processing delays can keep up.
The rushed efforts to move to learn online will also increase the risks of cyber threats. such problems can be minimised by ensuring a robust system, making investments required to ensure security and data privacy, monitoring remote-learning platforms and collaboration tools, monitoring networks for malware, and monitoring student and faculty endpoints to catch data-related incidents. Further actions shall be required for scaling virtual private networks (VPNs) for data transmissions, implementing multi-factor authentication, etc.
Challenges for State Governments and Administrations
State Governments will need to consider increasing the infrastructure at State-run institutions. This will include setting up additional institutions, providing facilities, and technology for remote teaching. This will need training of faculty to adapt to a new mode of imparting education, interactivity, evaluation, etc. They will also need to provide massive support to students to succeed in a remote learning environment, by providing finances for necessary equipment and internet access. States can offer stipends for internet access and laptop rentals or purchases, or they can directly procure and lend equipment for under-resourced students.
Immediate action required
Big or small, public or private, colleges and universities are rich in human talent. To succeed in this brave new virtual world, the key is to empower and redeploy this talent to address the most pressing needs. One way to start is by identifying, activating, and partnering tech-savvy organisations with expertise in digital technologies and practices to build the infrastructure quickly and train the faculty and students to use online tools. Most of the institutions can start by providing audio delivery of courses with basic interactivity using WhatsApp on student’s mobile phones to which every student is well conversant. A streaming service by teachers at the predetermined time shall also keep the students regular.
Dr. H. O. Srivastava, retired as Additional Director General & Head of AIR Resources of All India Radio and Doordarshan, a post equivallent to the Level of Addl. Secretary to the Govt. of India. The views expressed in the article are his own