When the going gets tough, the tough go online: Why digital learning is here to stay

Digital pedagogy is a new experience for both students and teachers trying to achieve constructive dissemination of knowledge through advanced tools. This article looks at the ways in which new and innovative methods of learning are actually creating changes that might impact the education system in the long run. Virtual classrooms as a viable substitute for physical classrooms in times when social distancing is key, connecting across barriers in ways never thought possible, reducing the need to compete with the rest of the class – these are some of the changes anticipated, making it possible to allow one to learn at one’s own pace.

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world”

 Nelson Mandela

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis and the resulting lockdowns have not only affected nearly every sector of the global economy, but has also battered education systems in developing and developed countries. Students have gone home, staffing has been reduced, and many academics are now working from home. Higher education institutions face multiple hits to their income due to theCoronavirus crisis, including the probable loss of foreign students. With jobs scarce, domestic student applications may remain steady in the short term, but campus life will not return to normal. Institutions will be under even more pressure to offer value for money. Can traditional, campus-based universities adapt by choosing the right technologies and approaches for educating and engaging their students?

The adoption of online solutions in recent months has been unprecedented. In the short term, educators are applying a ‘quick-fix’ solution by switching entirely from in-person to remote instruction, a move that has been forced upon them by sudden mandatory campus closures. But they are quickly realising that remote learning is just a baby step experiment in the quest for an alternative medium to classroom teaching, which includes effective student engagement tools and teacher training. Lately, video-conferencing apps like Zoom and Webex are throwing universities a lifeline. However, educators are still struggling to maintain the same depth of engagement with students they could have in a classroom setting. They need to find solutions quickly to enhance the quality of education they are providing. With the online segment still comprising a small fraction of the $2.3 trillion global higher education market (less than 2 per cent), the market is ripe for disruption. Hence, the trend of collaborations between universities, online education companies and technology providers may continue beyond the pandemic.

Uncertain times give rise to challenges and the education industry has been stepping up to face these challenges and convert them into opportunities. The pandemic has been working as a catalyst for the educational institutions to grow and opt for platforms and techniques, which were on their radar but were never implemented. Although many institutions have already moved to online learning, a permanent shift would entail a radical change of business model, with a broader customer base but lower fees. This shift would expose the sector to more external competition and churning, with only the most prestigious institutions likely to retain market share. Higher education leaders are also concerned that the longer the pandemic stays, it could have a deeper impact on the sector by disrupting enrolments in courses, creating cashflow crunch leading to slowdown in research and consulting activities.

Even though the country has been adapting to the new-age learning, there are still obstacles that the sector needs to be wary about. It is a fact that only 45 crore people of our total population of the country have access to the internet and hence to e-learning. Those residing in rural areas are still very much deprived of the latest technological advancements which is an impediment to the reach of online learning across the strata. Also, significant percentage in rural India do not have access to personal laptops or computers or they are available for a limited time, and phone screens are not conducive to long learning hours. In addition, data packs and their costs can be a big deterrent both for teachers as well as learners, especially for synchronous communication. Teachers as well as students require proper training and more user-friendly platforms to make them familiar with digital technology for a satisfying experience and ensuring inclusive learning beyond the urban setup. The UGC (University Grants Commission) and MHRD (Ministry of Human Resource Development), Government of India, are attempting to address such issues through initiatives like SWAYAM online courses, Pathshala (e-content), SWAYAM Prabha (DTH channels), CEC-UGC YouTube channel, National Digital Library and Shodhganga (digital repository of dissertations).

Dr Bhaskar Basu, Professor, Information Systems, XIMB and Dr Kalpana Sahoo, Asst Professor, Organisational Behaviour, XAHR

So where does this leave stakeholders navigating difficult waters as both instructors and students? Like everyone else, it leaves them stressed, overworked, and concerned about their future. There is a lot of work to do in a short amount of time and there is also a lot of work to do that is completely unknown to them. Persons with disabilities (PWDs) are more vulnerable than others having more needs related to healthcare, safety, and accessibility. MHRD has launched Manodarpan initiative to cater to psychosocial support to students, teachers and families for mental health and emotional well-being during this COVID outbreak and beyond. It is hoped that Manodarpan following the call for  Aatma Nirbhar Bharat Abhiyaan will reduce the mental stress and prepare the key stakeholders for the challenging future.

As painful and stressful a time as this is, it may fashion a long overdue reform of our education system. The pandemic has been a great leveler in a way, giving all stakeholders (educators, learners, policymakers, and society at large) in developed and developing countries a better understanding of our current education systems’ vulnerabilities and shortcomings. It has underscored how indispensable it is for our society to be digitally literate to function and progress in a world where social distancing, greater digitalisation of services and omni-channel integrated communication may increasingly be the norm. More fundamentally, COVID-19 is forcing us to challenge deep-rooted notions of when, where, and how we deliver education, the innovativeness of colleges and universities, the relevance of lifelong learning, and the distinction between traditional and non-traditional learners.

Sometimes transitions feel like an abnormal disruption to life, but in fact they are a predictable and integral part of it. While each change may be novel, major life transitions happen with clocklike regularity. Difficult, painful transitions can yield great understanding of our lives’ purpose. Learning is a key process in human behaviour. Learning new skills and acquiring new technological competency involves both physical skills and mental activities. First and foremost it is the responsibility of the educators and teachers to get accustomed to the various digital learning tools and programmes before they can apply them to teach students. Therefore, it is an optimal opportunity not only for the learners but also the trainers to get empowered with hybrid learning or digital content resources. What is more beneficial about web-based digital learning education is that it has allowed educators to increase their efficiency and productivity. It gives us the opportunity to decide the best teaching method that teacher can employ in the classroom to impart knowledge to your students. In addition, it decides whether the teaching methodology is suitable for the students or for the particular subject.

Digital learning is not bounded with the traditional classroom-type of teaching where every period was supposed to be of forty minutes but it has given the freedom to both the students as well as the teachers to choose their place. There is no need to compete with the rest of the class, but rather online learning allows us to learn at our own pace. In this context, digital pedagogy is a procedure which helps in improving the instructions of the students. It is altogether a new experience for both the students and the teachers and inspires them to do something constructive while gaining the knowledge through advanced tools. The attitude of the teachers and educators also plays a vital role in increasing student’s anxiety or curiosity about internet-based learning. Teacher should always be encouraging his students to make full use of the new tools while learning and enhancing knowledge. Bringing more diversity and creativity to the class by the teacher is the strong motivators for the students.

This article was originally written by Dr Bhaskar Basu and Dr Kalpana Sahoo for the Edex live blog and can be found here.

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