Online learning during lockdown
Online learning during lockdown

Post-Corona Education: Need To Start On A Clean Slate

The education industry has perhaps seen the most drastic changes as technology is forced to be adopted

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

Having escaped the two World Wars and past pandemics, we thought that 9/11 and the recession of 2008 were cataclysmic. We thought that the world would change on account of those, but life came back to normal fairly soon even though terrorism emerged as a permanent menace. The security hassles at the airports are the only big difference that 9/11 has created, though mankind became more vulnerable despite building up of nuclear stockpiles.

Compared to the COVID-19, striking full force across the world, the disasters of the early 21st century were of limited impact. The year 2020 will be remembered as a turnaround point in human history, not just because many will die, but because the COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to reinvent ourselves. The only question is whether the course of history will change or whether the pandemic will only hasten the processes which are already in progress.

One area which needs to adjust speedily to the new situation is education, which had already changed in the last few years because of the technological revolution. The use of technology, which was till now an additional support system for effective teaching has become the new norm as normal classes have become hazardous. For parents, teachers, and students, it is possible that some aspects of schooling might not go back to the way they were before.

With COVID-19, educational institutions are rapidly changing the basic way they do their work. Some have become old-fashioned correspondence schools, with the vast majority of interaction happening by written mail. Others have tried to recreate the school setting online using digital tools like Zoom. Others are in-between, directing students to online tutoring and practice programs, and posting videos. Most people believe that the present arrangements are temporary and they wish to get back to normal as direct interaction between teachers and students as an essential ingredient of education.

In the current crisis, COVID-19 is forcing parents to be teachers and forcing everyone—students, parents, and teachers—to adapt to online learning tools. Some people get comfortable with some of these adaptations. Likewise, while families are now stressed out trying to educate their children, they are also experiencing educational methods and tools that they have never seen before. They are getting more accustomed to them. Mothers and fathers are becoming more responsible to educate their children.

Machine learning is not new to many education systems, though, in India we have absolute faith in the importance of teachers in not only teaching students, but also in shaping their character. Modern methods like Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCS), Flip Schools etc were considered dilution of the role of the teachers and were not easily adopted. They were seen as luxuries of the western world at best and necessary evils to make up for shortage of teachers at worst.

Use of online tools as the main method of teaching will not be easily accepted in India. The lack of adequate internet facilities, lack of equipment and poor power situation in villages will be pointed out as the problems in adopting online education. But most students will soon have laptops and some type of internet access, narrowing the digital divide. Teachers are going to like many of the tools and they will have an easier time using them now that students have some experience with them. Online tools can be helpful complements to in-person instruction - instead of a replacement for it - allowing teachers to focus more on engaging students and mentoring them.

There may also be some shift towards tutoring at home, at least till online tools are installed. Families will get more accustomed to online learning. However, this approach has the significant disadvantage that families have to play the role of monitor and teacher. Few families want or can afford that, given their work schedules and other responsibilities. Moreover, research consistently suggests that students learn less in fully virtual environments. In-person, teacher-led instruction simply has too many advantages.

A shift to some online tools could shift the role of teachers, making them more like coaches and mentors. They can point students to very good online lectures and then be there to provide guidance and feedback, and to make connections across topics. The roles of students and parents could also shift. Now that they have more places to look, they may be more likely to try and address learning needs on their own. When roles change, everything else can change with it—though in less predictable ways.

There have been many efforts to introduce machine learning in India. The main reason for the campaign for MOOCS was the knowledge gap between college syllabi and the results of modern research. The teachers tend to remain within the confines of their learning acquired several years ago as they neither have the time nor the inclination to acquire new knowledge. A text book in Kerala had a CD attached to it and it was written in bold letters that the book should not be used for teaching without seeing the CD. Most teachers did not bother because they had no CD player in the school and their personal CD players were not meant for such purposes. As for MOOCS or its Indian version, Swayam, the teachers found the effort to identify suitable courses and to monitor progress with a view to give credits an unnecessary burden. If MOOCS were used widely, it would have been easier for the system to switch to machine learning when it became necessary because of COVID-19.

Flip schools were also suggested as part of educational reform. Here the students were given lectures on their mobiles to listen to them at home and come to class to do their “homework”. They could interact with the teachers and learn the application of lectures for solving problems. Here again, lack of equipment, difficulties in systematic follow up and other inconveniences were cited. Flip schools are likely to become common in the post-COVID-19 system because of its self-learning advantages.

Online examinations will be the biggest challenge in India, where there have been hardly any effort to reform the examination system. Essay writing is a major part of the examinations and collective evaluation is the norm. Online examinations will have to be either objective type or solution based answering of questions. Some universities have tried, but abandoned the experiment. Now that this has become a necessity, strenuous efforts will have to be made to redesign the examinations to make them more machine friendly. If the new system works during the crisis period, it can become part of the new norm, which will be economical and hazard free.

An educational system, which was changing rapidly in many countries to suit the current technology and commercial needs, has suddenly and unexpectedly come under extreme pressure to expedite changes overnight so that the learning of students around the globe is not disrupted even for a short period. Those countries, which had a positive mindset about changes in education have been able to accomplish much in a short time. But India, which has been conservative and reluctant to welcome change, is still far behind. If only the reforms suggested were implemented earlier, we would have been in a stronger position. We have to start on a clean slate and catch up with the transition brought about by COVID-19.

The Lede