Covid-19 has forced universities across India, and the world indeed, to suspend physical classrooms and shift to online classes. In India, while this transition has been smooth for most private universities, the public ones are still adapting. There have also been debates on the nature of classes, and the future of examination and evaluation — whether they could be conducted online or not.
While faculty grapples with new ways of managing this sudden transition to online education, students are left clinging on to their mobile phones and computer screens. If the lockdowns were to continue for some time, how would higher education be affected? What are some of the deeper issues that require introspection? And what does this mean for the students going forward?
First response: Going digital
As soon as the Covid-19 crisis broke out in India, the larger universities like Delhi University (DU) and Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) announced the suspension of classes until March 31. While others waited to see what would happen next, they started exploring online classes.
Private ones like Ashoka University shifted to the online mode by mid-March and remained largely unaffected by the nationwide lockdown enforced on March 24. “Our faculty members are giving lectures online (on Google Meet, Zoom, etc). So, the academic activities are much less affected,” says L S Shashidhar, professor and dean of research at Ashoka University.
The IITs also shifted to conducting online classes, and sharing study materials and audio files with students over the internet. Timothy Gonsalves, director of IIT Mandi, says: “The faculty members are available online during interactive sessions for students to clear their doubts. Depending on the nature of the course and students’ internet access, teachers are supplementing Moodle (an open-source learning-management system) with assorted social media and online platforms.”
The universities and teachers Business Standard reached out to agreed that their transition to online teaching had not been very difficult. However, if the lockdown continued over a longer period, some investment in infrastructure and additional training for teachers and students would be required, they said.
Transition to digital
Online education is conducted in two ways. The first is through the use of recorded classes, which, when opened out to public, are referred to as Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs). The second one is via live online classes conducted as webinars, or zoom sessions. Universities require high-speed internet and education delivery platforms or learning management systems, besides stable IT infrastructure and faculty members who are comfortable teaching online. Students also need high-speed internet and computers/mobiles to attend these sessions or watch pre-recorded classes.
There are many platforms created to enable online education in India. These are supported by the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), and the department of technical education. There also are initiatives like e-PG Pathshala (e-content), SWAYAM (online courses for teachers), and NEAT (enhancing employability). Other online platforms aim to increase connectivity with institutions, and accessibility to content. These are utilised for course materials and classes, and running of online modules. They include the National Project on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), National Knowledge Network, (NKN), and National Academic Depository (NAD), among others.
The National Law University of Delhi was among the first to have an open MOOC among the law schools in India, and in March, after the Covid-19 crisis broke out, it opened the course out to the public. Students can avail of study materials in law as well as digital resources as entrusted by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and MHRD.
G S Bajpai, professor and registrar of NLU Delhi, who led this initiative along with the vice-chancellor, explains: “This was a measure to cater to the needs of quality education for students across the country who are unable to join top institutions. In the field of science and technology, such measures were already well grounded. But there was no such initiative for legal education until NLUD took it up.”
The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a project of MHRD initiated by seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), along with the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, was created in 2003 to provide online education. The aim was to have web and video courses in engineering, sciences, and management.
Bharathi Balaji, head of operations at NPTEL India, says Covid-19 has pushed institutions, faculty and students on to online learning like never before. “NPTEL has grown since it was started, but the level of percolation was only decent. In the past six years, we have explained to people what it means to use online education, and tried to break down their inhibitions. Now, because of Covid-19, there is no option but to adapt and utilise online education.”
Technology enables; it can limit, too
Dinesh Singh, former vice-chancellor of DU, strongly advocates higher education utilising the full power of technology. According to him, technology can enable different teaching methodologies, and also allow teaching a large number of people across the country. "In a country like India, we don't have enough teachers or easy access to good institutions — we should, therefore, adopt a focused, systematic programme of using the power of technology to enable learning," he says.
Singh says there may be some merits to face-to-face teaching, but maintains it is not necessary, given the number of online tools and innovative methods of teaching available to enable learning. "Using bare-bone technology can make a huge difference. The less of face-to-face teaching you do, the better — you must have some of it, but it doesn't do much. We need teachers to make students think. They must be mentors and gurus, not someone standing in a classroom and lecturing as students take notes."
He explains this further: “Suppose a gifted maths teacher is talking to students, and digitally recording the whole session. He then uploads it to the web, and adds daily supplementary videos, notes, comments, and feedback from students over a period of time. That would become an insightful and comprehensive process. It would be available online and could be viewed by anyone who wants to learn. This is just one way; there are many innovative ways to use technology and improve learning and teaching.”
However, while technology is enabling, it can also be limiting, especially in India, where basic access is a challenge. Not every student has a computer or fast-streaming internet at home. This leads to issues with attendance and participation in online sessions. A survey by IIT Kanpur revealed that 9.3 per cent of its 2,789 students were not able to download material sent by the institute or study online. Only 34.1 per cent of them had internet connection good enough for streaming real-time lectures. Another survey conducted by LocalCircles among 25,000 respondents found that only 57 per cent students had the required hardware — computer, router, and printer — at home to attend online classes.
IIT Mandi’s Gonsalves says: “The main issue with online teaching is that some of our students come from remote villages with slow and patchy internet access. Exams would need to be conducted at commercial exam centres. Students would need to travel to the nearest centre.”
Anita (name changed), a final year BSc student at Noida’s Amity University who returned home to Kerala, explains how adapting suddenly to online classes, has been difficult for her. “We have to be online every hour, for every class, because attendance is marked accordingly. At times, we are unable to listen to the teacher, as the network is slow, and there is a lag. It is also stressful to look at the phone or computer screen all day long.”
Apoorva Jha, a student of sociology at Delhi’s Ambedkar University, highlights the issue of connectivity and internet as a key challenge for most students. “Many students survive on 1GB or 2GB daily data plans on their phones — not everyone has WiFi at home — and they have to manage their entire course work on that.”
Not just about classes
Many feel that online education is not as easy as speaking into the microphone at one end, and connecting a laptop or phone and listening in on the other. There are other challenges with this form of education which are faced at both ends of the spectrum — students as well as faculty.
Ashley NP, who teaches English at DU’s St Stephen’s College, highlights that there is substantial learning that is lost when education goes online. “Education is not just about classes. It is about interactions, broadening of ideas, free-flowing open discussions, debates, and mentoring of each student. While we try to do all of this, a lot gets lost in translation on the online platform.”
Yamini Mookherjee, a second-year law student at Jindal Global Law School, highlights the difficulties, especially for a discipline like law, where discussions and debates form the backbone. “We cannot engage online in the same manner as we would in a class. Viva, moots, debates, and classroom discussions on polarising topics require nuanced perspectives — these lose their flavour when done online,” she says.
Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Chancellor and Professor of History at Ashoka University, agrees that mentoring, debates, and casual conversations are better in traditional classrooms. "There is just no comparison. I find students asking fewer questions online. The greatest advantage of face-to-face teaching is eye contact. It is easy to gauge if students are following what I am saying. There is an excitement present in the real classroom."
He adds: "The biggest negative (of shifting courses online) has been the absence of face-to-face contact with students and their cutting off from the university library. Students often do not have access to online facilities, especially the underprivileged ones who live in places with poor connectivity."
There are newer institutions that have tackled online education in their own ways. Takshashila Institution, a think-tank and school of public policy, has offered online education since 2011. With over 3,500 alumni, its courses run online on an integrated learning management system, with live webinars, recorded videos, and contact workshops.
On whether online education fails to incorporate mentoring, interpersonal relationships, and brainstorming, Takshashila Director Nitin Pai says: “It is possible to do all of that if you know how to deploy the technology. The key success factor is that both students and faculty must be comfortable with technology.”
He, however, adds that the online education model cannot replace the physical classroom. “We need good public universities at the undergraduate level which can produce educated people. Universities are great spaces for young citizens to interact with each other across lines of diversity, get along, have fun and engage in academic pursuits. Online education should be a supplement.”
What does online education mean for the future? Author Mukul Kesavan, who teaches history at Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University, highlights the problem of inequity, underlining that only some of his students are able to attend online lectures. “One way to get around is if you can create class emails and reading lists, and send recording of lectures. But this is not an experiment that can be sustained in the long term without excluding everyone coming from towns or villages where there is an obvious problem of technology access.”
He adds that the advantage of online education is for universities like Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Open University (Ignou), which offers distant teaching and is able to effectively utilise technology. “If universities can enforce Zoom teaching, if classes are taken to nodal places, and the institution takes the responsibility to connect students there, this can work well. But the downside is that, if done badly, it will be another legitimisation of bad, meaningless online education.”
He also adds a word of caution about how there might be a bid to defund the already strapped public universities under the guise of online teaching. “The state might decide that online teaching can be used for undergraduate education in a dematerialised way, and cut the salaries, upkeep, and funding of public institutions. Also, the idea that teaching can be dematerialised could lead to the next thought — of using resources produced elsewhere to mass-educate people within public education. These are especially true of STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which might reduce universities to examining bodies that have subcontracted intellectual content to MOOCs produced elsewhere.”
Higher education is seldom about exams, classes, or grades. Rather, it is about an experience that prepares a student to become a functioning member of the work force, with requisite knowledge, skills, and life experiences.
“This is fine for now. But what happens a few months later? Will the university be responsible if we don’t get the grades, or if our careers are impacted, simply because we are struggling with online classes and figuring out what methods will be used to gauge our knowledge,” asks a final-year student of social sciences from a public university in Delhi. He does not wish to be named.
Students have complained about lack of clarity going forward and what the plan of action would entail, especially with respect to examinations, results, internships, and placements. While most institutions of higher education are trying their best in this situation, nobody knows what will happen next.
Most educators across institutions agree that there is a need to invest in creating standardised online education platforms, and not using apps and Google hangouts only; and to train both students and teachers. Others highlight the necessity to introspect on the nature of these platforms and how students are taught using different online tools and methods, while keeping accessibility and equity challenges in mind. There is also the need to understand all this across academic disciplines and institutions.
The way ahead can be charted only if we take into account the diverse views of experts, and incorporate all the lessons learnt from the summer of 2020.
Online education for teachers
* Allows innovative methods of teaching with the help of technology and online tools
* Allows reaching out to a large number of students across geographies
* Especially useful for distance learning
* Online teaching takes time and practice
* There is little consensus on how students can be evaluated in a fair manner
* Inability to have a face-to-face connect with students and facilitate free conversations, discussions, and mentoring
* Inability to reach all students because of technological limitations
Online education for students
* The ability to learn using different online tools and methods
* No disruption in learning because of the pandemic
* Listening to recorded and live conversations and working at their own speed
* Lack of free flowing conversations, debates, and discussions
* Technological difficulties related to weak devices or access to the internet
* Getting used to learning and being evaluated online
* Studying while living at home, with family and other distractions