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Online Education a Contingency Measure During Covid-19 Lockdown and Not Long-term Strategy, Say Experts

Image for representation.   (Getty Images)

Image for representation. (Getty Images)

Academicians say pursuing online education as a permanent policy runs the risk of confusing 'enrolment with learning', 'culture of classroom to footfalls in malls', and 'puts the burden of learning on the beneficiary – students'.

New Delhi: As the Covid-19 outbreak swirls, the government has taken some contingency measures of keeping students engaged through online education, preparing an academic calendar and online examination. It has constituted two committees under the University Grants Commission (UGC) with one of them specifically looking into systems of digital education and examination that can be pursued post corona.

The chairman of UGC, DP Singh, told ANI that apart from looking into the immediate need of academic calendar and online examinations the commission has constituted another committee, “One more committee has been formed for the promotion of online education. We are seeing at this time of Covid-19 and even later when all of this over, to give a push to online education. It is important for improvement in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in the country,” he said.

So two panels have been set up by the education regulator to chart a way in dealing with academic losses due to the pandemic and lockdown. One of the committees, led by RC Kuhad who is the vice-chancellor of Haryana University, is looking into issues of "on-time examination and academic calendar" and the second panel under V-C of IGNOU Nageshwar Rao is working on overall “digital education – exams and learning", etc.

The government is inviting suggestions digitally on pursuing online education in India. But academicians and experts are wary of online education in times of Covid-19, which is a contingency measure, intended to be pursued as a policy. It runs the risk of confusing “enrolment with learning”, “culture of classroom to footfalls in malls”, and “puts the burden of learning on the beneficiary – students”, they say.

GER AND LEARNING:THE ONUS WOULD BE ON STUDENTS

Gross enrolment ratio (GER) has increased during the last five years, as per the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE) report 2018-19. It has increased from 24.3 in 2014-15 to 26.3 in 2018-19. The report shows that increase is more under Scheduled Caste (SC) category which has gone up from 19.1 in 2014-15 to 23 in 2018-19. And for the Scheduled Tribe (ST) category, the GER has increased from 13.7 to 17.2 during the same period. In comparison to males, the increase in GER is higher for females.

The report throws light on how access in higher education has significantly improved in the past few decades, but it is still not sufficient to reach all young citizens; equity in and quality of education still remain big challenges.

While the GER of higher education has risen over the last several years, to around 25%, and notable progress has been made, the New Education Policy 2019 draft aims for GER to reach 50% by 2035, and “This implies more than doubling enrolment, from the present base of 35 million students, and including increased opportunities and access for students from socio-economically disadvantaged backgrounds and areas,” said the draft report.

Protiva Kundu, additional coordinator (research), Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, said that as far as enrolment is concerned, “It is difficult to conclude whether online education will improve GER or not.” This is because, on one hand online education gives opportunity to those who have obligations of accessing educational institutions (like caregivers, part-time earners etc) and at the same time, “there is already a low transition rate from school education to higher education”, said Kundu.

Experts we spoke to factored in the digital divide and said that expansion of online education will increase inequity and push the digital have-nots outside the education system. “This would increase the inequity in access to higher education,” they said.

Cautioning about a long-term online education plan which will also try to improve GER, Kundu said, “In online education, the onus of learning is more on the students. It would require personal discipline, in terms of staying motivated and keeping up with assignments etc. Also it would be problematic for instructors for effective assessment of learning.”

The burden might not just be defined in terms of onus of learning but also expenditure. “Expansion of online education will definitely reduce government expenditure on higher education, especially the infrastructure cost,” she said, and added, “It will put an additional expenditure burden of internet on students. We don’t know how the government will address this additional burden (subsidised /free device with internet to all students) or how the internet service providers will behave in this scenario.”

Before ending the discussion, Kundu said, “Increase in GER is not a yardstick of learning. I believe one-on-one interaction with their peers and professors is very important for learning.”

Anjela Taneja, who works on education and inequality at Oxfam India said that while it is possible to have meaningful, if usually not very high quality, distance education, “it is not clear that India is prepared with what is needed for this to happen”.

Tertiary education is not just about learning the specific skills and competencies, she argued, but learning happens best by face-to-face interaction with peers and supervisors which happens best in a real university environment. “The distance education can offer a supplementary mode of lifelong learning, but it cannot be relied upon as a strategy to upscale tertiary education of quality,” she said and pointed out, “The essential infrastructure necessary for online instruction including bandwidth is missing- as indeed India is discovering during these days of everyone working from home.”

NOT A PERMANENT APPROACH TO EDUCATION

The committee formed for the overall push to digital education in India is a result of the Covid 19 crisis. Former vice-chancellor of National University of Educational Planning (NUEPA) R Govinda said, “Under the present circumstances, universities across the world are engaging in online learning. This is a contingency measure – not a permanent approach to education.”

Though this development could give a boost to use of digital platforms for delivering higher education and therefore contribute to increased enrolment even beyond the present contingency, he thinks that cannot be the mainstay for expansion of access. “Because higher education is not just about getting more students into undergraduate courses. It also involves postgraduate studies, research and teamwork. It is about building a culture for scientific exploration – not just giving degrees,” said Govinda.

Harping on the point that online education as a measure taken in exigency should not be pursued as a long-term strategy, Syamdas Balakrishna Menon, professor at the Central Institute of Education, Delhi University, said, “The Covid-19 pandemic has presented us with an unprecedented exigency. Under the circumstances, congregations on campuses are not possible and so exploring alternatives to face-to-face interactions makes sense.”

However, improving access to higher education as indicated by the gross enrolment ratio (GER) is another matter altogether for him, because, “That is a long-term strategic issue. Let us not confuse such initiatives with the exigency plans to tide over the consequences of the present protracted closure of campuses because of the pandemic.”

SPLIT, FLIPPED, ALTERNATE CLASSROOMS FOR OPENNESS

Professor Menon, who doesn’t want exigency plans to be confused with long-term policies, said that India has a long history of higher education institutions employing open and distance learning modes as part of policy initiatives to expand the footprint of higher education, make it more accessible particularly to those on the geographical, economic and social margins and make it more inclusive and equitable. As a result, “Online modes of curricular transaction should be seen as part of this larger project,” he said.

For improvement in GER with rates of success in learning he said that often, online modes are blended with other kinds of media and methods – like self-instructional material in print, radio, TV and so on as well as contact time where there are direct face-to-face interactions. “There are also other dimensions of openness, for instance split-site (everything not on campus), split-mode (partly face-to-face, and partly through online), self-paced (self-scheduled by the learner), alternative pathways, flipped classroom (information gathering outside and reflection inside the classroom), etc.”

These are some methods that are part of ensuring not merely higher levels of GER, “but also greater rates of completion and success”, said Menon.

He added that there are short-term standalone courses, as of now (Global Initiative of Academic Networks) GIAN and (Massive Open Online Courses) MOOCs, which allow for online participation. “These short-terms courses can be a good way of encouraging independent learning and accumulation of credits and then be plugged into the architecture of a larger degree programme,” he said.

In such programmes, Menon said, “GER is more like footfall in a mall.” This he said may well be the future trend, particularly in the light of what might be a dynamic and volatile job market, “where everybody will need to constantly up-skill, re-skill and reinvent themselves every few years to move upwards or even to just about stay afloat”.

first published:April 17, 2020, 12:23 IST