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Is This The New Normal?

The pandemic has completely deranged this activity leaving both students and the faculty in a quandary.

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We have seen several epidemics like SARS, Swine Flu, MERS, Ebola, Zika and now Covid- 19 since the last century. There will be many more epidemics, maybe pandemics and each new one will come at us, more potently than the previous ones. Plagues and epidemic like outbreaks have ravaged humanity several times, sometimes changing the course of history and, at times, signalling the end of entire civilizations. The current pandemic has disrupted every activity of our lives. Education and Academics is an important and celebrated event in every student’s life. March to June is also a very busy time with examinations and evaluation taking centre stage, but unfortunately even that has been disrupted like never before. Known disruptions can be mitigated. but how does one mitigate an unheard-of and unprecedented phenomenon disrupting our lives? How must the Indian academic landscape prepare for these disruptions? 

There are two problems and our preparation must address both. One is immediate and the other long term. Immediate is to complete the unfinished curriculum of the academic term. Most of the Institutions and Universities must have completed at least 60% to 70% of the curriculum. The best option hence would be to consolidate, kind of aggregate all good online content, or the various massive open online courses, available both in the public and the private domain. Most of them like Coursera are giving it free for the students and the faculty, at least till end of July. The faculty must hand hold in aligning the online content to the remaining curriculum. One can also take help of Machine Learning algorithms that the learning platforms provide to align the curriculum.

Sanctity of learning is effective assessment. The pandemic has completely deranged this activity leaving both students and the faculty in a quandary. Why cannot we give a complete go-by to the end year or end semester examinations this year except for those in the final year. National Accreditation agencies such as NAAC and NBA stress a great deal on continuous assessments to evaluate student outcomes. We also know that accreditation is mandatory. This year’s assessment can certainly be based on the credits of continuous evaluation. If need be, this can further be modified by adding a certain percentage of marks obtained in the previous two semesters. An objective type, online examination that is generated from AI based question generators and randomly distributed online, to the student community can take care of the final year students. In fact, online assessment would declare the results almost instantaneously paving their way to a future of further education or a timely employment.

In order that these examinations are held, as they must be held, there are several service providers who have technical solutions for their conduct online. All the processes involved in a paper-based examination can be digitized through online examination system. Right from student learning assessment and entry-level candidate assessment all are done online. With smart classrooms and Learning Management Systems, it is now easier for teachers to conduct interactive learning sessions, map students’ knowledge, and create progress reports. Online examinations are conducted on web-enabled devices like laptops and desktop computers. They help to accurately assess a student’s knowledge in a wide range of subjects. Actually, it uses fewer resources and reduces the need for question papers and answer scripts, exam room scheduling, arranging invigilators, coordinating with examiners etc.

Question Paper Formation, Online exam, Multi-Lingual Support, page navigation, Time Management, Work Management, Booking system, SMS/email alerts, e-hall tickets, payment gateway support, result processing features auto-grading and instant score generation in an examination supply chain, are all possible.

Proving authenticity should not be a problem where a webcam picks up the profile. Students appearing for the exam are verified using biometrics-based authentication features. Many service providers use biometrics data, that includes fingerprint, face recognition, palm print, hand geometry, iris recognition, and retina. They also provide remote proctoring during the examination, so even assigning staff members for invigilation may be dispensed with. 

In the long term however, consciously, the Institutions and the Universities must implement blended learning, partly face to face and partly online. All courses must be credited when done online or offline. There can be a debate on the percentage, but a 70::30 face to face::online would be the best bet. Continuous assessment appropriately credited, must eventually replace the Year end / Semester end examinations.

It is also a concern that we may have bad connectivity in the villages or rural places. The students also may not have access to computers, webcams etc. In such places, BSNL’s DSPT or the Digital Satellite Phone Terminal can be established to make voice calls as well as access unlimited internet at 64KBps, with no capping limit and no capping on speed limit. There could be a onetime investment of about Rs.1.2 lakh for the equipment.

Another option we have is Cable TV which delivers television programming to consumers via radio frequency signals transmitted through coaxial cables, or in more recent systems, light pulses through fiber-optic cables. As per the latest Broadcast India survey (BI-2018) by the joint industry body BARC India, the country now has 197 million TV homes with a growth rate of 7.6%. A total TV/cable penetration of 81% in 2020 is a massive infrastructure that can be used during these difficult times. Additionally, Satellite TV, and almost 100 million households subscribing to DTH is a bonus. Education content can easily reach remotest corners, albeit during specific times, if only cable TV operators could be brought on board. This is where the government must step in and also provide smart tablets that are explicitly designed to learn online and conduct assessments online. They will not cost more than Rs. 5000, so it is doable. If nothing is available, then designated nearby schools must provide the facilities of proctored exams to whoever registers in those centres.

Pandemics will always change the course of our living and we must be innovative to overcome. Engineering is an applied science and everything of that cannot be virtual. Hybrid or blended learning that mixes traditional institutional attendance with Laboratory or home instruction will gain value in times to come. A number of home assignments will add value to the instructional designs. However, several regulations will have to change. The entire education ecosystem will need to transform into a facilitating, student centric paradigm unlike the current faculty centric paragons. All the stake holders will also need to retrofit their expectations to the new realities emerging. This may not be as easy as said. Transition from “class room teachers” to “guides” to “course monitors” is not easy. It does not work if the education supply chain is not in sync with the market requirements. Perhaps most of all, the new prototype may need everyone to learn how to share, cooperate and get along with others. It may also seek families to network with each other and find opportunities to collaborate. May be this can even push people off the mobile for a while. That can be a lot of good.

All said and done, Hybrid or blended learning is interesting for two reasons. First, they blur the lines around what we consider a “college”, the other making it much easier for families to get high-quality materials and instruction for their children in a wide range of subjects. The critics would argue that the people expect to be bored by eLearning. We must appreciate that eLearning doesn't just "happen. It requires careful planning and implementation. Only a transparent, efficient, effective, responsive, agile, innovative, and focussed decision making will carry us through, in these difficult times.

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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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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