The deadly Coronavirus has pushed millions of students worldwide to the brink of a lost session. SHALINI SAKSENA explores how online education is being seen as a saviour in these lockdown times
According to a UNESCO report 130 countries have implemented nationwide closure of educational institutes, impacting over 80 per cent of world’s student population. In India, it has impacted 250 million school-going students and millions of college-goers. Though it is of paramount importance that they remain safe and at home, it is just as important that their education is not interrupted.
To ensure students don’t lag behind academically, many educational institutes across the country have shifted from physical classroom learning to online mode for several programmes. The JK Business School (JKBS) has partnered with Google to conduct all its classes and official work online. This means that institute can host meetings with up to 250 participants, live stream to up to one lakh viewers within a single domain and record and save meetings and classroom sessions to Google Drive.
Professor (Dr) Sanjiv Marwah, director JKBS tells you that this global health crisis will not hamper their belief of delivering intellectual excellence to their students. “While students, faculty and staff were told to leave campus after the Holi break to ensure social distancing, they all are today, completely networked and connected through online mode of teaching and learning. We are a socially righteous and technologically advanced institute and believe that digital and virtual space should be effectively used to ensure everyone’s physical safety at the same time, the school stands committed to deliver quality education to its students and we are doing so,” Marwah says.
Like, JKBS, there are several educational institutes that are looking at alternatives. Over the years, many edtech have come up to offer online learning. While there was a lot of lip service that it was a good option, there weren’t many takers since students continued to throng physical campuses. Today, things are different. The campuses are empty. Parents and students don’t lose out academically given the uncertainty for how long the lockdown will continue. The online mode of education is no longer an option but a necessity. The advancement in technology has made it possible for institutes to offer a real live classroom experience sitting at home even though there may be hiccups to begin with.
Nitish Jain, president of SP Jain School of Global Management, which has campuses in Dubai, Singapore, Sydney and Mumbai, tells you that given the present pandemic of coronavirus and social distancing everything has moved online. “It reminds me of the turn-of-the-century times that gave huge boost to the IT industry. This is one such time for online education. People have been looking at the online education for a long time. But it never picked as since students went to a physical campus. We also have a mindset that online classes are boring and going to a physical campus is the only way to learn. To an extent this is true. One would rather see a physical Professor teaching and engage with him. But schools like us have developed online education with high level of technology which is engaging. We call it Engaged Learning Online (ELO). There are two other universities that I know of that uses this technology — Harvard and Oxford,” Jain says.
The technology is such that one can feel the physical presence of a Professor in the classroom. To begin with, there weren’t many takers for this interactive technology. “We needed people to try it but there weren’t any takers since there was no compelling need. Now in the last six weeks we have had 2,000 students who are on to this. While this was not the way we had wanted a breakthrough, but the industry has got the boost it needed,” Jain tells you. While, it is expensive to develop the technology, an expense for the educational institute to invest in, for students there is available at no extra financial burden.
“The ELO allows students sitting anywhere in the world have access to a live classroom and hence a huge benefit They can be in the comfort and safety of their homes and gain knowledge with no compromises,” Jain says.
Jain tells you that it is important to understand the difference between synchronous and asynchronous learning when it comes to online learning. Asynchronous learning means that there are pre-recorded lectures. While MOOCs became popular because one had an Ivy League Professor teaching at no cost, there was a fated flaw and hence only five per cent completed it. When given a choice of when to learn, a student is not going to do so. In synchronous learning, live Professor is teaching. But there are roadblocks here as well since the teaching happened over Google hangout with a headset. Again, not in tune with being in a physical classroom. The ELO puts one is a situation of a live class where one can see one’s peers and the Professor, attendance is taken and students can ask questions. All we need a top-notch Professor, say from Sydney campus, teaching executives sitting in Nagpur. Technology is changing everything including education,” Jain opines.
Does that mean that the country’s education system is in for a revolution? Does this mean that we are looking at a situation where physical classrooms will disappear? Are we looking at a new method of teaching? One is told that that there is no one scenario to fit all. There will some programmes that will totally be taught online and the rest may have a combination of online-offline classes – hybrid classes. “This is because technology has the benefit to reduce tuition fee. Those students who can’t afford to study programmes due to financial constrains now have access to it. Online learning will also ensure a wider reach for the institutes. Also, certain classes, executive programmes and adult education, will go online,” Jain says.
It is not just higher education where subtle changes are taking place. Platforms like Geneo, an interactive digital space by Schoolnet India Limited, have announced free live classes for students of Classes VI to X on its learning platform. It is offering live classes for Math, Science and English based on the first term syllabus of the new academic year of CBSE schools and those schools following the NCERT textbooks. The mentors will conduct topic-wise classes based on the school curriculum. Sessions will include access to learning videos and exploriments on the platform to achieve concept clarity.
Shourie Chatterji, head, Digital Initiatives, Schoolnet India Ltd explains: “With COVID-19 outbreak, the learning lifestyle of millions of students has been affected across the world. Access to quality learning is imperative for holistic learning of the students. We ensure learning never stops and that students continue to receive quality education.” To access the live classes, students can visit www.geneo.in and create a free sign up. Once logged in they should select the appropriate standard and click on join live classes. Students will get access to the classes schedule and all the learning material upon accessing it on mobile phones, PCs, laptops, chrome books and tablets.
Minal Anand, CEO, GuruQ, an online tutoring platform, tells you that their intention is not to replace home tutors but to act as a compliment to the existing system. “Parents have always preferred home tutors. But now, they have had to shift to online since there is no option. This has given edtech a shot in the arm in these sad and tumultuous times. It has helped parents change their mindset that online education is not a waste of time and is good. The online platform offers 24x7 knowledge and students can choose a suitable time and study accordingly. Parents too can monitor what their ward has learnt for that day,” Anand says.
It goes without saying that online learning comes with its share of distractions and disruptions since students are not time-bound to study and there is no regimen which can be a cause of worry. However, there are some online classes where the teacher can cut those students out who are not paying attention or mute them as a sigh of punishment just in a live classroom scenario. Though it all sounds like a scene from a sci-fi movie, the fact is that the shift to hybrid learning has years to go before it can a permanent feature in a country like ours as there are several hindrances to overcome.
First, the parents who have had offline education. “They feel that if a system was good for them, it is god for their child. Second, the infrastructure. Online learning needs a good Internet connectivity. Parents still don’t understand the benefit of high-speed connectivity. One can’t have Rs 400-Rs 500 data package for the entire house and expect good connectivity. Third, broadband companies need to lower their cost to make is accessible to middle class families so that it is conducive for their children to study online,” Anand tells you.
Saiju Aravind, founder of EduBrisk tells you with certainty that physical classrooms are not going to disappear as they offer something beyond knowledge and rote learning. “Schools teach so much more than academics. It teaches life skills and communication skills, how to share things, it is about character building and regimented discipline. So physical classrooms will not disappear and therefore, learning environment will not change. It is a similar situation when computers were introduced in Railways and people feared job loss,” Aravind says.
He sees the present scenario as a blessing in disguise for the online education even though it is bad bargain. “Major developments took place due to constrains. This is a typical case of constrain. While online courses have been there for years, it is all augmented learning. These were great tools in the hands of regular teachers. But now, three things are likely to take place in the near future,” he says.
First, technology empowerment, how people will take to adaptive learning. Second, very high-level of curriculum adaptation by teachers where they will have a lot more at their disposal to play around with the curriculum and an exam system based on them. Third and the most powerful -- the analytics-based intervention. In other words, teachers will teach to the exact needs of the students.
Educationist Dr Shayama Chona tells you that given the present situation, there is no choice but to go online. “There are many free apps from the Government and even CBSE, an effort that needs to be lauded, that one can access for learning and students can utilise their time optimally,” Chona says.
She tells you that online mode is not an option but is a parallel to offline education. “There are many children who are disabled. The online mode is a boon for such students. However, there is no replacement for schools. They are more than just a place where a student goes to gain knowledge. A school is a place where it teaches how to interact with peers, it teaches social quotient and there is sports that adds to a child’s physical development,” Chona says.
Kamini Vidisha, founder ACadru, an online learning platform that offers multi-disciplinary modules and practical experiences, tells you that there are several advantages of e-learning. “It is extremely affordable. Second, accessibility as people have powerful streaming on their mobiles it makes it virtual learning from any place. Third, efficacy. While it is low in e-learning since it is linear but there are many edtech platforms that offer multi-disciplinary modules. This means that even an engineering student has to take up an Arts subject leading to a more experiential learning,” Vidisha says.
Therefore, platforms like Webinar can step in to offer a solution where it is not just Professor to student interaction but also among peers. The future she sees is one where the student may have to go through a pre-recorded lecture first before there is a physical lecture on deeper understanding of the subject with the Professor and peers discussing could be the way forward.
Dr Akhil Shahani, MD, The Shahani Group that provides careers to lakhs of students via its academic initiatives says that due to COVID-19, there is a shift to online mode. “There are many platforms like Zoom and Google Classroom that any educationist can use. Now, people who were giving lip service will have to adapt to these changes and this will lead to major change in the edtech industry, Shahani says.
Even though online education has been there for some time, what needs to be done is to take it to the next level. “Students have now realised that learning is 24X7, just like in the corporate world where there is constant exchange of ideas and emails. Students are now stepping out of physical classrooms and believe that learning can be anywhere and anytime. There will be distractions, A student will want to get up to have coffee or take a bathroom break. He may even have the lecture running and not pay attention. But there are ways to monitor that students actually study. One is to give them assignments and projects to do. Second, go for online doctoring. While this may appear to be intrusive, it is an effective way to ensure students study even while at home,” Shahani tells you.
He doesn’t see this change as a phase. Once the mindset and behavioural change takes place, people will adapt. Once they realise that online learning is just as good and they actually enjoy it, even if they have an option of going offline, they still stick to online. However, Shahani doesn’t see one module that will fit all. What he sees is smaller classrooms with collaborative exchange with 10-15 students. “This is when educationists might realise in the long run that they need smaller building and classrooms with facilitated interaction versus pure classroom learning,” Shahani says.