PART-I | Re-structuring higher education in a post-pandemic world

Alongside addressing any shortcomings of online teaching we need to adopt and implement innovative and creative teaching pedagogies to make teaching-learning process more effective in a hybrid or blended mode; even in the post-pandemic era
PART-I | Re-structuring higher education in a post-pandemic world
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Higher education has transformed dramatically throughout the world over the past fifteen months making a paradigm shift from classroom-based teaching to online, remote teaching and learning. Pertinent to mention that the pandemic affected as many as 1.6 billion learners in more than 200 countries impacting more than 94% of the world’s student population besides bringing far-reaching changes in our teaching-learning methods(WEF, 2021).Countries that were prompt enough to withstand this tidal wave of disruption, transition and adapt themselves to the newly evolving system were the ones to emerge successful in continuing with their teaching and learning without any cessation whereas those that were reluctant to the new order are still struggling to find ways and means of reaching out to their students in an effective, acceptable and productive manner. We live in an age of discontinuity and more and more organizations face a dynamic and changing environment that in turn requiresthem to adapt. As stated by Peter Drucker “we face an age of discontinuity in a world economy and technology. We might succeed in making it an age of great economic growth as well. But one thing that is certain so far is that it will be a period of change.” Therefore, a renewed understanding of our teaching and learning is needed.

No doubt there is no substitute for face-to-face classroom teaching, owing to the enormous positive impact of body language, facial expressions, personal care, individual attention, better connectivity, one-to-one interaction, on-the-spot questioning and re-questioning, unlearning and relearning that it envisages but when there is no other option but to change the medium of instruction and switch over to online platforms as a fall-out of the pandemic and resultant lockdown, we need to transition fast andembrace the change as quickly as possible along with all its features lest we shall be left behind in our march towards knowledge acquisition, progress and development and nobody in the world will wait for us. Albert Einstein has said that the measure of intelligence is the ability to change and according to Clayton “if we hope to stay competitive-academically, economically and technologically-we need to rethink our understanding of intelligence, re-evaluate our educational systems and reinvigorate our commitment to learning.” So rather than brooding over the pangs and qualms of online teaching we need to scramble ourselves up and adopt the change with open arms at least till we are able to switch back to offline classroom teaching in full swing.

A survey conducted by Ipsos for the World Economic Forum from October 23 to November 6, 2020among more than 27,500 online adults under the age of 75 in 29 countriesrevealed that seven in ten adults globally (72%) are of the opinion that, five years from now, higher education in their country will be conducted online at least as much as in person. On an average, across the 29 countries, just over half (53%) agreed that in-person higher education is worth its cost versus about one-third (36%) who to the utter surprise of many readers disagreed (IPSOS, 2020). So the notion that in-person education is always the best does not necessarily reflect a majority opinion. As per this survey the majority of respondents think that the split between online and in-person learning witnessed during the coronavirus pandemic is here to stay. One in four adults surveyed (23%) believed that higher education will move mostly online, while around half (49%) thought that it will be split between in-person and online. Only 29% respondents were of the opinion that it will be delivered only or mostly in-person. Therefore, even in the year 2025, higher education will in all likelihood be a hybrid of in-person and online learning, according to the latest Ipsos survey mentioned above.

In light of this survey and many other recommendations rolled out by the leading experts of higher education around the world, it is high time that we revisit and review our teaching learning practices in the countryand align them in tune with the reforms being brought about at leading universities around the globe. Ongoing pandemic has provided us with an opportunity to pave the way for fully adopting digital learning in a blended mode that has already been successfully initiated at various universities of Jammu and Kashmir. University of Kashmir too was among the first to commence online teaching soon after the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic last year. Need of the hour now is to innovate and implement all types of alternative educational pedagogies and evaluation strategies pro-actively. In compliance with recent UGC guidelines we need to embrace online education in the blended mode as a means to expand access and strengthen excellence in our higher education sector.It is a matter of great satisfaction for all of us that our universities have successfully operated amidturbulent circumstances, financial catastrophes and disruptive upheavalsin the past and have endured well, survived gloriously and emerged victorious in overcoming challenges of all sorts and now is the time to live upto the global challenge of digital transformation of higher education. The shift might not be easy but it will certainly be rewarding. We have to respond in a timely manner to the ever-increasing demands for greater access, affordability, effectiveness, life-long learning in addition to the multiple competing demands ofour students, society, state, industry and local communities for suitability, viability and sustainability of our higher education.

Early this year our universities and colleges in J&K had resumed functioningto a considerable extent in a staggered manner maintaining covid-appropriate behaviour, though the teaching continued to be conducted online,yet only to be confronted with a very severe second wave of COVID-19 infection forcing us to close our higher education institutions again and revert back to online teaching from our homes on full time basis. I reasonably believe that this kind of scenario is likely to continue for some time at least since world over experts have opined that coronavirus is going to stay with us at least for another few years or may be even for ever just like HIV/AIDSand the moment we become lax and stop being conscious about the virus it is most likely to resurface, strike back with a vengeance and overwhelm us. Already speculations and predictions about an upcoming intense third wave of infection are rife and there is sufficient reason to believe that third wave could very well be followed by more waves until we do not achieve herd immunity against this dreadful virus that in turn requires a mammoth 60% of our population to either be infected and treated or getting perpetually vaccinated against the virus which is no small target in a vast country like India with a population of more than 1.35 billion souls. That is exactly the reason why it is being said that we must learn to live with the virus as there is no escaping from the same until herd immunity is achieved or till the virus stops throwing up new mutant strains. Under these circumstances while considering reopening of our colleges and universities any time in near or far future, we need to have a robust strategy in place. We always need to be prepared for eventualities and accordingly need to gear up our higher education system to face unexpected challenges and uncertainties in times to come. Our online educational platforms need to be ever ready to meet the demands of an abrupt transition from offline to online teaching and vice versa,as and when circumstances demand and that alone will make blended mode education possible.No doubt there are issues of equitable access and affordability with online education too just like our on-campus education has themall-over India, however, that does not mean we can stop online teaching and wait till goals of equity and parity are met. Both the things have to go hand in hand and need to be worked upon in tandem.

First and foremost step to be taken while restructuring our higher education in mid- as well as post-pandemic eranecessary for enabling us to continue our online education in a seamless manner in blended mode would be to overcome the current shortfalls of online education that maysometimes include lack of adequate IT infrastructure including proper digital software and platforms required for online education as well as online evaluation, availability of gadgets like laptops and/or desktops among all students, availability of high-speed internet connectivity in every nook and corner of our UT, constant electricity supply required to ensure last-mile connectivity to all our far flung villages for an equitable access to online teaching and e-resources. This has to be followed by adoption and implementation of innovative teaching pedagogies with a view to achieve student-centric, goal-oriented, outcome-based, skill-enhanced learning both during and after the pandemic.Our online educational platforms need to incorporate all essential features like marking online attendance in real-time besides maintaining a full schedule of timing and duration of lectures delivered, reading materials and assignments uploaded by the teachers, assignments submitted and grades obtained by the students. In short, we need to keep pace with the fast-changing global trends and advancements both in teaching technology and teaching pedagogies. Second part of this article will further dwell in-depth into other measures required to restructure our higher education in a blended mode during the mid and post-pandemic era (to be concluded).

Author is Dean of Academic Affairs at the University of Kashmir.

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