Understanding the new normal for education

An immediate response to deal with the Covid-19 pandemic was the imposition of lockdown. Now in almost all parts of the world, restrictions on the movement of people and in the conduct of business activities by and large have been lifted. Although all sectors of socio-economic life have partially or fully resumed with well laid down SOPs, but all the educational institutions still remains closed. New normal in the educational sector has been to conduct classes and examinations online. The jury about this new normal happening right from school education to higher education is divided. One group of people have readily accepted this new normal while as, the other group is questioning its efficacy. This difference of opinion calls for a critical review of the opposing viewpoints to reach to a logical conclusion about the issue.

During the lockdown all the socio-economic activities remained suspended but the activity of teaching particularly at higher education level continued through online. Social media was a buzz showing someone conducting online classes from the isolation ward of a COVID hospital and someone sitting at the top of a tree to get connected for online classes. Due to over exuberance and enthusiasm, many institutions have started offering even online courses. Notable thing has been the conduct of webinars taking the teaching fraternity by storm, and everybody is plunging into it.

The question is whether online teaching is offering a perfect alternative to the off-line teaching? The protagonists of online teaching-learning process contend that it serves the purpose of education as effectively as off-line teaching and in fact sometimes better than the regular mode of teaching. It is also being argued that online mode of education enables a student to move at his or her own convenient pace to learn the subject as it allows to revisit recorded lectures again and again which is not possible in the off-line mode of learning. Besides, online lectures supplemented by Chat Groups, Video Meetings, Google Chats and Document Sharing has been argued to have enabled teachers to reach out to the students more effectively. However, some protagonists of online teaching do agree that in addition to the problem of huge digital divide, the online teaching cannot truly replicate off-line teaching as it lacks in one important aspect i.e. the benefits of peer learning. But to them there is no other alternative to save the precious time of the students other than the mode of online education.

A glaring issue for online education during this pandemic has been the assessment of students. Online examination poses issues of ethical behaviour and integrity. It is most likely that appearing in the online examination while sitting at home, students will resort to unfair means. To overcome the issue of unethical behaviour, proponents of online education find solution in open book examination. Besides, software enabled proctored online examination is being talked about as a possible solution to check the unethical behaviour of students while assessing them from their homes. There are companies which offer camera-based face and body tracking devices with frequent camera scans of surroundings. Some companies even tout the use of artificial intelligence to detect if one is doing anything wrong.

The teaching fraternity by and large is not ready to accept online teaching to be a perfect alternative to ‘Chalk-and-Talk System’ of teaching-learning process. Antagonists of online education have cited various flaws which according to them render online teaching-learning process infructuous, like for both the teacher and the tutor delivering or listening a live lecture becomes boring and monotonous. There is lack of eye contact which is essential to scan the mental state of students, as such a teacher is unable to decide whether to repeat or reorient the material which is easily possible in face-to-face teaching-learning system. Besides, it has been observed that most of the students just keep their devices on record mode without being physically present thus making it harder to provoke or sustain discussion which is at the core of teaching-learning process. It is also being contended that chat boards and discussion fora simply cannot replace the physical tutorials.

Most serious limitation with online teaching is with respect to the courses where laboratory work is an essential ingredient. Yes, simulated practicals or dummy data can be used to train students but the significance of hands-on-training cannot be replicated by any means. The antagonists of online teaching believe that it is not possible for conducting live practicals, hence students are not able to physically visualize and prove a point. The medical and other technical students are the worst hit as their hands-on-training cannot be replicated by any means. Medicos and Engineering students cannot do the clinical classes and active learning, so important for honing their skills. The element of dirty hands in such streams has such a huge significance which under no circumstances can be underestimated.

Digital divide is being referred as one of the most serious constraint to online education. There is large chunk of population that is unable, or struggles, to participate in digital learning for the lack of access to internet. Greater emphasis towards online education by the govt without any advance preparations have made the people belonging to the weaker sections of the society extremely worried for their wards; a  feeling of exclusion as their children are unable to participate in online education for want of requisite technology/internet. According to Tribune News Services, a poor man namely Kuldip Kumar of Gummer village in Jwalamukhi had to sell his cow for Rs 6,000 for buying a Smartphone for online studies of his two sons. It cannot be treated as an isolated case; digital divide in India is really huge.

Jury is out to pronounce whether online teaching can be a perfect alternative to the off-line teaching? Higher education is fundamentally aimed to: Educate & train students to make them professionally qualified to manage different spheres of life efficiently and effectively, develop higher values of life, develop right attitudes & interest for leadership in public life. There is no possibility of developing higher values of life and potential leaders to lead professions and public life through online system of education because the achievement of these equally important goals requires intense interaction, debate & discussion, socio-cultural assimilation and greater exposure to the challenging real world settings. Even the goal of gaining holistic view of the subject knowledge cannot be fully realised through online teaching happening in the present form as being deficient in many respects. Those who argue that there is no option other than to conduct online classes to save the precious time of students cannot be agreed upon as there is no scope for ‘Something is Better Than Nothing’ in education. One will be able to discharge his professional duties only when he or she is fully equipped with the knowledge and skill set required for the job. In the larger interest of education, more appropriate would have been to declare one semester a ‘Zero Session’ at least at higher education level.

Online system of education could have surely proved of some help if done with advance planning and through e-classrooms fitted with cameras and real Black-White Board. But sudden move without any advance planning, training and preparations towards online classes by all means is bound to cause very poor user experience and acceptance. There is no denying the fact that offline and e-learning can complement each other. It has been suggested to use “Flipped Classroom Technique” where students are provided notes and pre-recorded lectures in advance and have discussion/ debate to clear doubts in the offline or online class. A blended mode of online and offline teaching learning and evaluation mode seems to be the best solution to get the maximum from both the systems.

Author is Professor in the Dept. of Commerce University of Kashmir.