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COVID Is Driving Online: Can Online Drive Education?

Pandemics or no pandemics, blended learning is the future, for it makes a permanent record of thinking and therefore offers an opportunity for reflection and increased awareness of the inquiry process.

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Education is a panacea for all the ills that ail our societies. Is online education a panacea for everything that this virus is throwing at us? Fortunately, ICT comes with several threads for planning and implementing digital opportunity initiatives and thereby address educational issues. eLearning is the future paradigm for problems of Education for all ‘E4A’, lifelong learning ‘LLL’, continuous education ‘CE’, and globally compatible education.

There are 35 million students enrolled in the higher education system in India contributing to a small Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of 25. It is also said that India has 65% of its population below the age of 35 which simply means that there are at least four times as many outside as there are inside, who could have gone to colleges but did not or could not. Is it feasible to build more brick and mortar units to accommodate them? Will they attend colleges if they were to be built? The answers to such questions will be in the negative, for they either do not have the wherewithal or the money to do so. The need to take care of the families by work that pays, overrides every other need, even that of their own education. 

Aspirational supply chain seeks better educated and better-skilled personnel. Hence, upskilling and reskilling, both are as important. What then is the way out? Online education, blended learning or hybrid learning methods may provide an answer. Be that as it may, COVID 19 has further complicated the storyline by displacing even the college-goers from their perch. We now are left fending for both, the college-goers and those who do not. Crisis such as the current one must make us introspect if our policies were right and sustainable. 

Online or blended learning has answers to at least some of the questions. Several institutions have subscribed to online learning platforms in the last couple of months. Where the content is interactive, intuitive and interesting, students have largely taken to it. But not all. Students are struggling to connect in districts large and small. What would the students living in remote areas, unserved by internet providers do? Many students and their parents are dropping out of touch with the institutions completely, unavailable by phone, email or any other form of communication. Online learning can present new obstacles, particularly with uneven levels of technology and adult supervision. The reasons are many and revealing by the day, as we try finding our way through this pandemic. 

Chronic absenteeism is a problem in our colleges even during the best of times, but now, with almost every college or university in the country closed and lessons being conducted remotely, more students than ever are missing class, not logging on, not checking in or not completing assignments. The absence rate appears particularly high in institutions with many low-income students, whose access to home computers and internet connections are poor. What does one do when some teachers report that fewer than half of their students are regularly participating? Will we end up having more summer sessions, a delayed start in the new term, or perhaps having some or even all students come back to classrooms to complete the unfinished semester, once they are able to return to classrooms? To maintain social distancing, will we need to bring students back to institutions in waves, in order to reduce the number of people inside classrooms and buildings at any given time? Many skills build one on another. Will we need some kind of the beginning of the year diagnostics to try and figure out just where the students are, or how much they have lost? A lot of our students have siblings they have to take care of, and their parents may still be going out and working. Scholarships and other funding are typically tied to student enrolment or attendance counts across the country both at the under and Post Graduate classes. Many Institutions may have to make efforts to distribute digital devices to students who do not have their own at home. The governments may have to pitch in by distributing mobile devices for distance learning, smartphones to serve as home Wi-Fi hot spots. Further, many rules and regulations may have to be tweaked for all this to happen. 

There is also an animated discussion on what fees must be charged for online education. Should it cost less, more or the same? Engineering is an applied science and cannot be completely virtual. Blended learning may be the answer for courses where competency-based skills are assessed. A certain mode of delivery has its own costs associated with it. While face to face needs brick and mortar establishments, faculty, and costs on several other value-added services, likewise, online education too needs faculty to handhold and subscription to content that can engage an unattended student for the entire period and its own set of different value-added services. Blended learning will have expenses incurred due to laboratories, workshops etc. In fact, as time progresses, a mix of online and blended, in probably a ratio of 30:70 may work. How does one do the costing of such arrangements?  

An interesting case that this pandemic has thrown at us is worth debating. ‘insidehighered.com’ reports that in the US, at least five institutions and university systems are facing class-action lawsuits filed by students who want refunds on spring semester tuition and other fees. The lawsuits claim that online classes don't have equal value to in-person classes and are not worth the tuition that students paid for on-campus classes. The lawsuits filed by Anastopoulo Law Firm, which has offices throughout South Carolina, also contend that the decision by these institutions to use pass/fail grading systems this semester have diminished the value of the degrees they offer. It will be interesting to see how Drexel University; the University of Miami and the Board of Regents of the University of Colorado react to these charges. Would in future, fees charged to become a sore point across the Globe?

Many Universities in the west and Europe actually base the fees charged on the credits earned rather than on any other factor. Established in 1906, a Carnegie Unit is the measure of the amount of time a student studies the subject. Hence one credit hour refers to one hour of contact time between the teacher and the student. Typically, a course may have 3 to 4 credits, one credit hour being one hour of classroom teaching. Now, to find the tuition fees, all that one needs to know is the total credit hours required to complete the degree and multiply by the credit cost. Will then credits earned face to face or online be different if they lead to the same degree? How then they could be charged differently? The catch really is if credit were to have a blended content, its cost also will vary accordingly.

Pandemics or no pandemics, blended learning is the future, for it makes a permanent record of thinking and therefore offers an opportunity for reflection and increased awareness of the inquiry process.   However, there is a lesson as Bertrand Bull, Chief Innovation Officer, and Associate Professor of Education at Concordia University, says. “In order to create an engaging learning experience, the role of the instructor is optional, but the role of the learner is essential.”

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


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COVID-19 pandemic impact education

Dr. S.S. Mantha

Former Chairman of AICTE, Dr. Mantha is an eminent academician. At present, he is Chancellor KL University and Adjunct Professor, NIAS, Bangalore.

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