If demonetization leapfrogged fintech, COVID induced lockdown and physical distancing induced long closure of campuses across the world have tremendously pushed edtech ahead. We have come to a time when blended learning delivered phygitally (physical and digital together) has come to stay. Beyond this complete campus lockdown phase, during which time mentoring-learning-assessing has gone online globally, we shall be moving towards blended phygital education in 2021, which will be the new normal ahead.
For this, first one has to be a digital personality with smartphone and net connection, and with laptop and wifi connection. Next, one has to learn how to create, deliver and engage in content across multiple online platforms, and how to take matter learnt online to matter practiced offline face to face. Third, one has to now learn assessment with open book through analysis and application, through quiz, through applied projects, through phygital presentation and actual work in labs and studios after using virtual labs and studios.
Fourth, education will now move from a system imposed disciplined endeavour to voluntarily participated and internalized process. It will be truly a learner-centric education now in the new normal, and shall be far more participative than the past.
Hence, teachers cannot remain the sage on the stage, telling the last word in syllabus, its interpretation, its delivery and its assessment. S/he has to be the mentor who mentors inside and beyond the classroom, creates proprietary content (self-videos, ppts, cases and lectures) and brings together aggregated content from open sources (youtube videos, URLs, cases, slideshares, MOOCs, etc). Mentors have to motivate, show a path, be the agony aunts and uncles, friends, and start from a structured syllabus and move to organic syllabus.
And the students cannot be the pre COVID times typical students any more going ahead. Students study in classroom, are taught by teachers, limited to given syllabus, and study for marks, grades, degrees. Learners study within and beyond the classroom, from mentors, peers, personal experience, books, digitally aggregated content, through projects and assignments. Learners learn for lifetime, and hence learn to learn further as things learnt today are obsolete soon.
Also, with Artificial Intelligence, robotics, automation, Machine Learning and internet of things being the other emerging realities, the skills for mass production or education to do the same work repeatedly will be totally irrelevant ahead when machines will take over almost all such work (more than three fourths of all human work today). Hence, new age skills, apart from technology use, have to be in areas like creativity, innovation, incubation, problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, design thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence and risk management. Each of these can be qualitatively and quantitatively mentored to any youth from an early age of say 15 years till 25 years of age, and will become his or her second nature.
Yes, for this, doubling public education expenditure, digital access to the hinterland, considering digital connectivity as a human right, digital literacy as a fundamental pre-requisite in any work, providing cell phones and laptops or tabs en masse, announcing cheaper data packages for students, CSR in the field of domain of digital connectivity by corporate houses, etc and more would be needed soonest to bridge the yawning digital divide in the otherwise class divided society.
Force of the Pandemic in Education:
What demonetization of late 2016 did to fintech in India, the nCOVID19 pandemic of early 2020 did that to edtech and healthtech world-over. There is a forced migration to digital learning which is laying bare the underbelly of the much touted Digital India campaign a couple of years ago.
World-over more than 770 million students have been disrupted by COVID19 and the consequent lockdowns globally. The United Nations has warned of the unparalleled scale and speed of the educational disruption being caused by Coronavirus. India has over 37 million students enrolled in higher education. An interruption in the delivery of education has already caused a disruption that might be long-run.
Learning or academics or education broadly has three functions: creation of learning content through research, writing, packaging with visuals; dissemination of learning through classes, lectures, notes, self-study, discussions; & assessment and evaluation of the education of the learner by various methods. All these three have been majorly impacted by the self-isolation imposed to ensure social distancing so that the learners and the mentors may first be protected from the spread of the infection of COVID19. The lockdown across the world is simultaneously a boon and a bane for the teaching-learning community today.
Digital Haves and Have Nots’ Dichotomy
COVID-19 is, in fact, amplifying the struggles that children are already facing globally to receive a quality education. Even before the outbreak of the virus, there were 258 million out-of-school children across the globe — principally due to poverty, poor governance, or living in or having fled an emergency or conflict. While there are programs dedicated to ending the existing crisis in global education, the dramatic escalation that the COVID19 has introduced newer challenges for around 550 million children who were so far studying but do not have access to digital learning systems.
The digitally deprived large chunk of masses- being bereft of access to digital resources like a good internet connectivity, laptop or ipad for use, electric power and smart phone- across the globe are forced to waste productive learning time. The digital divide in every developing and under-developed society was never so glaring as it is now. Though more than 70% of Indian population has been covered now with mobile telephony, the resources needed for digital learning from distance or at home are not there with more than 1 out of 4 people in the country. Same is the case with youths in the formal learning age. This is the bane today.
India has been speaking of digital education for long but it has stayed on as a possibility and not a reality for more than a decade now. Even IITs and IIMs have used digital platforms on the side for sharing of content and debating on issues sporadically. The larger mass of 900 plus universities and some 44,000 colleges have actually not digitized their content, not made access to online learning mainstay of their teaching-learning process, except the distance learning universities. In fact, the old school educationists looked at online and distance education with some disdain all across South Asia. They are in for a major shock now.
Alongside, reality is that the digital penetration across India is still abysmally low beyond tier 1 and 2 cities and towns. It might keep whatsapp running and false content shared, but cannot truly replace face to face learning even remotely. The current pandemic has laid this bare so very poignantly. Hence, while the digital haves use zoom, webex, google class and other webinar platforms to talk, discuss, complete assignments, the digital have nots depend on occasional phone calls from their mentors and at the most a Facebook post or a whatsapp group chat with videos often not downloading.
In Indian context, reality is that 52% of all students from Class V to Post Graduation in the university are now out of any form of education due to closure of campuses and non-availability of access to digital education, and this is more than 150 million students. Remaining 48% have varying degrees of access to digital learning, with only 27% having reasonably good access to technology driven online learning. Similar is the situation in many Asian and African nations, with the challenges being worse for girl students as parents prefer to invest only for sons when they have crisis of resources.
It is clear that going ahead digital access will be a human right, and those in governance must wake up to the reality that youngsters need inexpensive tablets and easy data access. A nation that spends less than 3% of national budget for public education (lower than Tanzania, Angola and Ghana, et al), with the states putting in 2.5 (Bihar) to 26% (Delhi), with Delhi being the only state in double digits, cannot ensure digital education for the masses.
The pandemic has made it imperative ahead that entire education of India has to be a blended one with digital access and tools (device and internet) reaching the hands of learners in the most remote parts as well. This can only be aimed for with a minimum of 7% of budget for public education, upgradation on public education infra-structure, physically and digitally, and a massive retraining of the teachers at every level, letting the dinosaurs among teachers go in the interest of the learners.
If there was no enforced social distancing and students home-locked across the nation (and the globe), the transition of those with partial or full resources to complete digital learning pedagogy would not have been quickened. The process now has to move ahead to the next stage to bring in policy changes on allocation, training, infrastructure, pedagogy and evaluation process of education. The New Education Policy, announced recently, has called for 6% of GDP for education in India, but the reality till date is lesser than 3% of GDP.
This will bring in unforeseen impact on public education. In a blended form, learners seek education voluntarily and collaboratively. Each lesson or skill or chapter is expected to lead to an outcome, a model, a design, a solution, a performance or an application, either simulated or real life. Education is not to be instructed, but explored organically, not to be imposed but experienced collectively fostering diversity, teamwork and mutual respect. These values today are only present by exception, which the current crisis may once again ignite. The post COVID learners even in public education system can be of a different breed fuelled by digital expectations.
Apart from government spending, there is also the need to allocate mandatory 2% of profits of corporate India for investing in creating digital access to India at large. Further, telecom companies need to come out with special packages for students and teachers with regards to internet access. And, in the people’s sector, non government organizations should roll out voluntary support to digital access for all Indians through movements like 1 Million Mobiles (donating discarded but functioning older cell phones from every home to the less privileged) and donate computers and IT infrastructure hours of private educational institutes with good IT infrastructure. These all together, along with much higher government spending in public education, can make the entire nation digitally connected.
Digital Learning Tools Today:
The pandemic requires universities to rapidly offer online learning to their students. Fortunately, technology and content are available to help universities transition online quickly and with high quality, specially on the digital plank, though at a cost and with the risk of several teachers and administrators being forced to go out of the system.
Digital learning on the go or from distance calls for tech-led holistic solutions. It requires several content pieces to be transmitted digitally. These content pieces can be in the form of pdfs, ppts, URLs, YouTube links, podcast links, case-studies, etc. There can also be e-books, audio-books, kindle based content, magzter sourced magazines, etc. Then this can involve learning without being face to face through boxes, as in Google Class, or learning face to face as in Zoom live audio-visual discussions. People may also use GoToMeetings or MicrosoftMeet sessions also. Attendance can be taken on Google Spreadsheet and through Whatsapp Group chat of a batch of students too.
There are other tools that can take digital go miles ahead. Flipped classroom method with an active learning classroom can have all study resources given a day or two in advance, and the actual session starting with a quick quiz, then doubts clearance, and thereafter a few issues of the future or counter points to what were given earlier, like possible different scenarios or new research findings not shared earlier. This is quite an effective way of learning, which is internalized, collaborative, experiential, bottom-up, as distinctly different from teaching, which is instructional, hierarchic and top-down.
Then there are MOOCs, collaborative distance learning, wikis, blogs etc. Individual resource-rich institutes develop their customized secured and IPR protected Learning Management Systems, through the use of BlackBoard or TCSion LMS. Other LMS options like Kaltura or Impartus allowing video recording of talks also ar in use in many places. There are CourseEra courses, Swayam online lessons from UGC and similar other avenues to learn online.
Learning digitally can be further assisted with Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR) and Mixed Reality (MR) which can take the viewer to an enhanced experience even integrating scenarios which are yet to happen creatively bringing them within the learning experience. These are immersive and contextual experiences, and artificial intelligence driven chatbots can further enhance the digital interface of the learner and the mentor.
Digital Learning Value-adds:
Incorporating big data analytics and content management, educators can develop an individualized curriculum that enhances how each student learns (e.g. playlist of learning content in WiseWire changing for each student). Many in the West have started the use of the millennials’ language and style: Khan Academy video lessons, YouTube use, distinct style and language for young learners. Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, Imessage, Instagram, Facebook & Whatsapp are being creatively integrated with school education. There is a case of a management school in India, where the professor sends a 3 minutes interesting video on the subject he is taking up next through group whatsapp to increase interest in the batch towards the topic being taught.
In the US, the smart-phone applications like Socrative and Plickers are helping teachers interact and assess students’ progress, collaborate via cloud-based applications to work and solve a common goal. Teachers can publish real-time quizzes and polls for students via mobile devices to keep them engaged.
Further, using anything from iMovie to WeVideo, learners can create video as a learning resource. YouTube (with privacy settings) and SeeSaw or Flipgrid are also alternatives learners can make use of. The benefits of SeeSaw and Flipgrid are that students can add voice recordings or text sharing feedback with peers. Students became the co-creators of content and as a result, more engaged, including their parents. Useful apps like Book Creator, Explain Everything and EduCreations can be utilised towards this end.
There are various software used to create digital content, like Camtasia, Raptivity, Captivate, Articulate Online, etc.
Yes alongside, social media use extensively will support learning online. Facebook Page can broadcast updates and alerts. Facebook Group or Google Hangout with advanced features in G-suite can stream live lectures and host discussions. Twitter can act as a class message board. The 256 characters help to keep messages succinct. Instagram can be used for photo essays. One can create a class blog for discussions. There are many different platforms available, such as WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix, Blogger for that. And, one can create a class-specific Pinterest board as well.
Digital Assessment & Evaluation:
Online quiz, open book examination with time-managed and proctored question paper delivered online, applied questions not based on memory but comprehension, telephonic interview etc have been the usual ways of digital assessment and evaluation of learning.
Assessment refers to learner performance; it helps us decide if students are learning and where improvement in that learning is needed. Evaluation refers to a systematic process of determining the merit value or worth of the instruction or programme; it helps us determine if a course is effective (course goals) and informs our design efforts. Assessment and evaluation can be both formative (carried out during the course) and summative (carried out following the course). There can be many ways for the same. Mentors can make learners aware of expectations in advance (e.g. one week for feedback from deadline) and keep them posted (announcement: all projects have been marked). For example, one can create tests that are multiple choice, true/false, or short answer essays and one can set the assessments to automatically provide feedback.
Possibilities in Education beyond COVID:
Online learning is the big winner from this – across all education levels; so proving quality now is at centre stage. However, going ahead, in the post COVID times, blended learning will be the way to go. The biggest future benefits of virtual instruction will come after our professors and students return to their physical classrooms. The necessity of teaching and learning with asynchronous (Canvas, Blackboard, D2L) and synchronous (Zoom) platforms will yield significant benefits when these methods are layered into face-to-face instruction. We will come back from COVID-19 with a much more widely shared understanding that digital tools are complements, not substitutes, for the intimacy and immediacy of face-to-face learning. Since professors are now moving content online, precious classroom time will be more productively utilized for discussion, debate and guided practice.
Moving ahead in the New Normal, teacher may more be called a mentor now as information and knowledge are at the fingertips of the students faster than that of the teachers, especially the grown-up learners, post 16 years let’s say. It was so earlier too, but even the facade of higher knowledge (read, degrees, age and experience) is not the greatest of value moving ahead. So mentors shall be needed to inspire, motivate, direct to a new domain of learning or action, bring in perspectives, lend shoulder to a grieving youth, but not just for knowledge and information which are anyways available.
Similarly, student can now be a true learner. They were always so. But the onus of learning is all the more on the learner now on (in the earlier regime teachers teach, students study). Students study for exams, marks and degrees, under the tutelage of teachers, with a structured syllabus. Learners learn within and beyond the classroom, from mentors and others, for lifetime use of knowledge for a career and life, within and beyond the syllabus, structured or unstructured, online or offline.
Engagement is the new currency in the post COVID education, as much as in entertainment. For a long time, the grievance in the classroom was that students are not present and neither interested to learn. That challenge is universal. But digital allows the learner to be engaged at his time, place and pace. And that is good enough. It is a qualitatively different world ahead. Good and bad education will not be decided by marks and numbers of degree certificates handed. It will be decided by the level of academic and related online and social media engagement of the learners, the quality of content shared by mentors, and the value and volume of content generated by engaged learners.
The author is a columnist and media academic, working as the Pro Vice Chancellor of Kolkata based Adamas University.