In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, online education has become a buzzword as some are eulogising its endless potential and others are casting aspersions, and predicting doom for the education sector in India. Of course, online education is not a substitute for face-to-face classroom interaction between students and teachers. However, we need to understand the apprehension of people about the “online education”, which is fast emerging as the “new mode of education”.
There is a widespread recognition that online education can become an additional tool, technique, opportunity, and avenue for further exploration of and experimentation with new ideas by both teachers and students. Online education should not be equated with the supply of more and more information, rather it is a process of retrieving relevant information, synthesising and critically analysing, and presenting them to students coherently and effectively. Online delivery of education requires re-learning not only on part of students but also on the part of teachers. In the “new mode of education”, the role of teachers is going to become more important because they have to decide what is relevant information and how to critically analyse and deliver them; and it is challenging also because the students will have the opportunity to evaluate and scrutinise the teachers as all the sources of information are available at the click of the mouse.
Effective communication is one of the most essential characteristics of a teacher; how a teacher was teaching inside a classroom was very little known beyond the circle of the students who attended his or her classes. Online teaching, which may be recorded and put on a website, could be seen and compared with other teachers’ methods. Online education is not passive broadcasting of news reports or entertainment channels, they also adopt different strategies and styles to connect with their audiences. This is the reason some channels and movies become very effective in communicating their messages and transforming people’s ideas and thinking.
Teaching is an art, and teachers have to become an actor and performer; teachers need to learn new ways of performing on a digital platform, to connect with their students, to create curiosity among them, to understand their requirements and help overcome anxiety and ambiguities perplexing their minds.
Resistance to technology is coming from two factors: Fear of mediating reality and psychological fear of surveillance. Opposition to online education emanates from people’s apprehension about the safety of their data and the fear of being watched. The moment we enter online education, we leave behind digital footprints captured by smart digital devices and the Internet of Things. In a study, it was found that most of the people have limited knowledge about what types of personal data are collected and how they are used. Some scholars are apprehensive that “authoritarian administrators are attracted by online education as it offers centralised control and scaling at will”. Contrary to their belief, internet-based online education is not centralised control and administered by an authoritarian regime, rather it provides an opportunity for the democratisation of education, both for teachers as well as for learners.
Another fear is that contrary “to face-to-face interaction where a teacher creates a communion with students and critically shapes their thinking and learning experience”, technology-mediated interaction distorts the form of communication. The fear of distorted reality emanates from the assumption that technology-mediated reality may not present the intended meanings or may even distort the meanings of reality. However, we know that we grasp reality only through the mediation of either our sensory perceptions or through technology. Even our sensory perceptions are shaped by the mental frame of our mind that we acquire through our upbringing and social experience. We do not have access to naked reality. All reality is mediated through technology and theoretical framework. Take the example of coronavirus, we cannot see it with naked eyes, we have to use an electron microscope to visualise it; technology-mediated image (reality) is presented to people through media and people construct their imagination about coronavirus. People who are sufficiently exposed to news, talks, discussion, and presentations on the coronavirus do acquire the level of understanding that scientists and doctors want them to acquire. Similar is the concept of online teaching: how effectively we are presenting our ideas.
Many studies have shown that it is little or no difference in students’ performance between television education and face-to-face education or between video instruction and face-to-face instruction. In a study conducted by Allen & Seaman in collaboration with Pearson and the Sloan Consortium, it was found that most of the academic managers (75 per cent) recognise that learning outcomes in online courses are equal to or better than classroom courses. Although the findings of these studies could be contested, they indicate the heralding of “new mode of education”.
It will not replace the traditional mode of education rather it will reinforce the “traditional mode” and exist in tandem with it. The educational institutions which are not going to get the reinforcement by adopting the online learning management system will face their existential crises. The new mode of education is not infringing upon the traditional mode of education, it is rather entirely a new way of making the education available to people anywhere, any time, at their own pace and convenience. Technology is not going to replace the need for a teacher but they do require to embrace the new paradigm of education.
It is the teaching style of the teacher and his ability to engage the students that makes a physical class an interactive learning class. The same is true with the online delivery of education. The effectiveness of technology-mediated learning depends on three factors: easy and convenient access to technology, the willingness of the teachers, and the motivation of the students. The internet services are fast expanding in the country and the digital platform for delivery of education is becoming user-friendly day by day as they provide both synchronous and asynchronous communication and support the exchange of a variety of didactical elements such as texts, graphics, audio and video materials in real-time. Attitudes of a teacher, his/her teaching style, and his/her dexterity in dealing with information communication technology are important to make online education effective. It has been found that students attending a class of a teacher who has a positive attitude towards online teaching and learning and who encourages the use of technology are more likely to experience more positive learning outcomes. It is true that in online teaching students feel isolated as there is no classroom environment for interaction. This could be overcome, to a large extent, by adopting an interactive teaching style and encouraging students for more interaction among the class by engaging them in individual as well as group activities. Technology mediated interaction may pose, sometimes, technical problem, an effective teacher must be able to do some basic troubleshooting task, or be backed up by a technical team to support online delivery of education. Socio-economic and demographic characteristics of students do influence their learning outcomes. But this is true in both cases, online as well as in the traditional mode of education. The online mode rather provides better opportunities to design different levels of learning materials and allowing them to proceed with their own pace of learning.
Online education has been adopted globally to expand access to higher education and training needs of people as a supplement to the brick and mortar capabilities of their higher educational institutions. As the internet facility is expanding in India and the technology for online delivery of education is becoming user-friendly, it is the right time for Indian universities to embrace online education as an additional programme lest they lose the opportunity to Western universities.
Many renowned universities have already started the online programme and many more are in the process of launching their graduate and postgraduate degree progammes to cater to the growing need of the students across the world. India is getting ready for the digital revolution. There are more than 600 million internet users, more than half of them are in rural areas and 90 per cent of users have 4G connection. The majority of internet users (70 per cent) are in the age group of 12-29 years, the main cohort engaged in education and learning programmes. Globally, India has the cheapest average 4G tariff at $0.26 per GB. The Government of India has launched the National Broadband Mission intending to provide broadband access to all villages by 2022.
Online higher education is not only intended for the traditional cohort of (18-24 years of age group) people, rather it is open to any age group of people in the society. As the value of lifelong learning is greatly recognised, the need for online education will increase tremendously in the society. Many studies have shown that online availability of educational and training programmes have helped the working class in Ghana in improving their skills and career advancement and prospects of changing their career. There is indeed a digital inequality in terms of access to digital technology and the ability to use them.
There is also a substantive digital divide along with gender as there are only 35 per cent of women internet users in the country. However, the solution to these problems is not to reject the technology but to work for bridging both types of digital inequality and to capitalise on the opportunities thrown up by a new wave of the technological revolution. The recent step of the Government to allow 100 universities to start online education and separate TV channels for delivering education from Class 1 to XII is in the right direction. TV is accessible to more than 90 per cent of the population in the country and it will certainly help delivering the education to most deprived and marginal section of the society.
(The writer is a Professor and Chairperson of the Centre for Studies in Science Policy, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)