Dr. Jitendra Kumar Das
Director, FORE School of Management, New Delhi
The COVID-19 virus pandemic is rampaging across the world with untold loss to economy and life. This virus has brought even the mighty countries to their knees; in its spread it has obliterated national boundaries. With no medical cure available at the moment, it has ruthlessly affected one and all irrespective of nationalities, rich-poor class, gender, social status, or even religious faith. As both the number of infected and the number of dead rises, governments across the world have to go through the necessary economic evil of lockdown measures that stifle jobs and economic growth. The priority, globally, is to save lives because growth can come later.
It is a wise thing to consider past as a guide to understand or forecast the future. When we are dealing with a pandemic as unprecedented as due to this COVID-19, how do we anticipate the future? The impact of this pandemic and the resultant challenges are something that the higher education sector is currently grappling with.
With plummeting demand and disruptions in supply chain, every sector of the economy has been impacted adversely, directly or indirectly including certain businesses facing closure, the education sector is uniquely placed, however. According to UNESCO , as of April 23, 2020 191 countries have implemented nationwide closure of academic activities, impacting about over 90 percent of the world’s students totalling over 1.5 billion students! The visible disruptions in academics are for all to see in terms of disturbances or interruptions in academic sessions, admission processes, examinations,evaluations of courses,convocation ceremonies (the highlight of a student’s life), etc.
While coping strategies are being put in place by institutions worldwide, many challenges seem insurmountable, and, perhaps, the biggest one is the uncertainty about how long this disruption will last. This uncertainty hangs over the choice of what tools to use to continue impartingeducation, the amount of investment that can be made, the extent of retraining to be undertaken, and several other pertinent aspects of it.
The challenges for students come not just from schedule disruptions, but there are over-imposing socio-economic implications considering the widespread prevalence of student debt, issues of migrant students’ accommodation and travel back to their homes in a lockdown situation, the difficult transition to online learning due to both lack of technical savviness and lack of availability of the required hardware, and untrained instructors who suddenly have to make the difficult transition to online mode. The fact that students in many of the impacted countries have unequal access to technology is something that will become glaring as classes attempt to move online. In some countries legal roadblocks in attending online classes by students on full-time student visa are some unique issues that have cropped up. Pedagogies developed over many years with concerted effort and collaboration now have to be revised if schedules and calendars have to be maintained in this challenging distance-learning environment to carry out academic activities online.
In terms of how effective the move towards online classrooms will be, that will depend on a number of factors, including but not limited to:
- Technical preparedness of the institutions and faculty to conduct the sessions using digital tools,
- Preparedness of students to be able to access and absorb academic contents online,
- Availability of content that can be delivered online as well as that can be weaved into online instruction,
- Adequacy of monitoring and evaluation processes that will need to replace physical processes,
- With almost all contents available on the web to students, developing pedagogy that is conducive to learning and evaluation that is not memory recall based but learning based. This perhaps will be the biggest challenge.
The move towards conducting academic sessions online is fraught with challenges, as listed above, but there are many opportunities as well, which are the silver linings and creating a new education ecosystem:
Technology access: In the immediate timeline, there are constraints on availability of resources required for access but in the medium term, the pandemic response by the education sector will boost technology access and make it democratic.
Copyrights: In response to the crisis, many authors and universities have made contents, including books and articles, freely available. It appears as if they have temporarily suspended their copyrights. This has further democratised access to content.
Research collaborations and partnership schemes: The crisis has rallied researchers worldwide and has resulted in deepening collaborations between international educational institutions to make content and technology available widely.
Virtual internships: Students in tertiary level education have proactively started taking up virtual internships that make the most of the situation as well as help them comply with course credit requirements. This has been further facilitated by the explosion in availability of data as well as proliferation of data analysis techniques. Many of these internships are beneficial for industry as well given that they are focused on how businesses can cope with the prevailing situation.
Sustainability: The hope is that the present crisis will bring out the best in humanity and lead to a renewed focus on sustainability by both industry and academia. This will create additional opportunities for creating new higher education programmes focused on sustainability as well as attract talent to this much needed field.
Expanding the base: The biggest opportunity perhaps exists in the reskilling and upskilling that many potential candidates will be thinking about. In a sense, this pandemic offers an opportunity to tap a large segment of the population that was not considering tertiary level higher education in the first place. Job market pressures combined with a larger array of courses being made available will perhaps entice these fence sitters to finally take decision to enrol in a distance learning programme. In other cases where people have been furloughed or retrenched, the opportunity cost of a full-time, residential programme reduces, which can also lead to an increase in enrolment in higher education.
Community building: Physical isolation can at least partially be overcome by creating online communities of students, parents, and teachers. Used innovatively for this purpose, the kind of digital collaboration and instant messaging tools at our disposal can be a fantastic resource.
We are witnessing emergence of a new ecosystem for imparting education that is likely to be very different from what it was barely a couple of months ago and savvy adopters of the changes will have the first mover’s advantage.