Higher Education steering through the pandemic cloud

pandemic cloud

The Global pandemic has been instrumental in transforming the higher education landscape in India. With blended & hybrid learning here to stay in the coming future, higher education is looking at a reformative journey ahead, writes Garima Pant of Elets News Network (ENN).

The year 2020 brought the education landscape across the globe face an unprecedented crisis that gradually snowballed into a catastrophe beyond imagination. With sudden closure of academic institutions, the present and future of students across the entire gamut was clouded with uncertainty. With colleges and universities closing down, hostels getting shut, research work getting interrupted, projects getting stalled and collaborations in the doldrums, the scenarios looked bleak. As the institutes scrambled to pull themselves together, moving to online learning was the only way. Cut to 2022 and the sector is trying to adapt itself to the virtual and hybrid learning environment with learning from the past two years.

As the pandemic struck unsynchronized notes across the education gamut, Higher Education institutes had to switch to the online medium to maintain academic continuity. The exceptional scenario also holds major implications for the way higher education students live and work, affecting their physical and mental well-being deeply. While the infrastructure readiness was a big question mark, the intent to keep the students engaged was witnessed all across. However, a lot still needs to be done.

UNESCO studies have revealed that close to 320 million school and university level learners were deeply impacted by the pandemic in India in 2020. As industry experts have stated that the pandemic has been a transformative lesson in change and provided the impetus for tech adoption. Digital learning went into an upgrade with multifaceted approaches taking the centrestage. Focus was divided amongst evaluation of online delivery methods, testing of new teaching learning platforms and implementation of innovative applications and approaches.

According to the World Economic Forum, there is a general consensus that heavy online learning is far from satisfactory and can only go a certain distance in what attention spans can tolerate. Back home, as per the survey by TeamLease titled ‘Covid-19 Learning Loss in Higher Education’ conducted in the middle of the previous year, students’ estimated loss of learning is between 40-60 per cent while the university leaders state that the loss has been 30-40 per cent. Survey findings indicate that it may take 3 years to repair this gap. Further, the findings also point out that in a comparison between India and G7 countries such as Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, United Kingdom and the United States, India has an estimated learning loss of 40-60 per cent while other countries range from 9.84 per cent (France) to 31.16 per cent (Italy).

Tech to the Rescue

Taking lessons from the first and second wave that caused major disruptions in the education delivery, colleges and universities were quick to adhere to the tech-enabled learning environment with online classes, lectures and even research work gaining momentum. The conscious effort to leverage technology platforms to deliver education across the nook and corner of the country has been a success story for many organizations who took the adversity as an opportunity. And the disruptions are here to stay.

Innovation has become the keyword and the thread that has been taking the business of online education ahead and reaching out to the remotest corners of the country. And it is not only the students who had to get adept and adapt themselves to the digitized learning environment but also the educators who had to reengineer their entire teaching pedagogy to match the needs of the present times. Learners and faculty were also allowed access to learning material and even collaborations from across the globe with just a click of the button.

Paramount Digital Divide

While on one end of the spectrum came leveraging the opportunity in adversity, the other end saw stark digital divide impacting the learning ability of students. With limited or no access to internet or even smart devices to maintain the academic continuity in urban slums and rural areas, adjustment to online education was a challenge. Further, absence of learning environment, peer disconnect, low retention levels and unavailability of resources among other factors have also been prominent.

If statistics are to be believed then data from the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) states that there has been a steady rise in the number of wireless subscribers in India over the past five years, equally distributed across rural and urban areas. However, online classes and e-learning entail more than just telecommunication. A smartphone with sturdy internet access is the fundamental requirement while a few courses also require access to computers and other devices and that is where the urban-rural dissimilarity makes quite a difference. The government and educational institutions are trying to work in tandem to come out with feasible and mass-reaching solutions to cater to the burgeoning needs of a wider student populace that is still struggling to come to terms with the virtual teaching-learning environment.

The Future Roadmap

Reinventing the wheel, the universities are also engaging and encouraging students to learn by choice and not merely by their presence in a classroom. Synergising technology like AI, ML by universities with the present and future industry needs to co-create a curriculum matching all standards is leading the path of reforms for a renewed India. Virtual internships, online researches and collaborations, virtual peer help groups and endless windows of opportunities are being presented to students.

There is a strong need to bridge the digital divide and strengthen the existing infrastructure to take maximum benefit of the digital revolution and also make education reach out to the masses. The future of education and learning is staring at a path that is going to be lit and led by technology. But for the country to grow and for the present and coming generations to find their footing, the digital wheel will have to encompass the entire populace with its offerings. And as the popular thought is going, blended and hybrid learning is here to stay.