Millennium Post

Leveraging digital learning

COVID-19 induced lockdown of educational institutions has afforded the education system a unique opportunity for restructuring as it goes digital, writes Ramesh Kumar Choudhary

COVID-19 continues to spread around the world turning into a pandemic affecting 210 countries and territories. An increasing number of countries and towns are under lockdown. The pandemic has shaken the entire world and caused a worldwide disruption, affecting all levels of education, institutions of learning and Industries. According to UNESCO's statistics, over than 200 countries have shut down school, colleges and universities impacting 90 per cent of the world's total enrolled learners. Many universities have closed campuses and moved on to online courses to productively engage the students at their homes.

India's higher education system stands as one of the largest in the world. As per the AISHE portal run by Ministry of Human Resources and Development, there are 903 Universities, 39,050 colleges and 10,011 standalone institutions currently operating in India. The higher education system of India is also bound to go through a transformation because of COVID-19. The University Grants Commission (UGC) exerts enough influence as an official regulator for the higher education sphere and has started advocating for online education in this changed scenario.

Despite significant growth and upliftment, there are several challenges faced by India's higher education sector. The higher education system of India suffers from certain chronic problems like shortage of faculty, outdated and often irrelevant syllabus, rigid curricula, lack of emphasis on research separated from teaching, a default in accountability, etc., making matters worse for the students. It is now a widely known fact that Indian students are opting out from pursuing research in their own country as the resources are compromised. Additionally, the research work suffers due to funding constraints. The British Council paper also highlighted the fact that cross-country collaborations would go a long way in the internationalisation of the higher education institutions in the country.

However, there is some silver lining to this dark cloud. The higher education sector in India has shown substantial growth from 2014 to 2018. From 10 per cent in 2004-05, the gross enrollment ratio (GER) in higher education has risen to 25.8 per cent as on 2017-18, as per the 'All India Survey on Higher Education'.

University education is neither spontaneous nor sporadic. Rather, it is a well-designed systematic programme carried out with comprehensive planning. Such commitments can help the universities to sustain Indian culture and civilisation.

It is time for the Indian higher education system to reflect on what makes a university great as the country faces this unprecedented challenge. The essence of education is to empower the lives of students, with a prerequisite of ensuring their health and well-being. Universities should make the safety and health of students, faculty and staff their top priority.

Recently, many universities in India took action to make a campus safety plan under the emergency response framework after the outbreak of COVID-19. The universities took essential measures for online learning and teaching to minimise the academic loss for the students. It is necessary to opt for online methodologies without compromising the quality of teaching, which is a paramount factor of higher education. This challenge has created a new opportunity for higher education centres to ensure that online courses have the same quality as in-person ones. It is now time to explore such possibilities to evolve stronger online teaching methodologies as an essential tool. As the lectures and practical sessions cannot be conducted conventionally, certain online educational platforms like Edhitch, Google class, Zoom, etc., may be an effective method for instructing the students. Leveraging modern technologies such as proctoring, learning management software (LMS) and a suite of examination tools are necessary for executing digital learning. There is also an urgent need to make examination tools scalable, secure and credible.

Universities serve as the lighthouse of human civilisation, inheriting knowledge and culture, as well as educating young talent. The universities also share a common objective to make the world a better place. At this critical moment, Indian universities should play an essential role in promoting confidence, trust and unity amongst the people.

Industries and employers often claim that the skill crisis is a big issue with the candidates they hire from India. Adoption of an outcome-based education system may address the skill crisis. Programme and course outcomes are required to be defined and integrated with learning management software.

This crisis is a blessing in disguise for the Indian education system. The importance of keeping our scholars meaningfully engaged during this trying period that is being witnessed in the country will directly help the economy to bounce back in due course. India is progressing towards possessing the highest percentage of the tertiary population in the world. The country can't afford to let go of our valuable human resource because of the lockdown of educational institutions. Otherwise, it will further impact innovations, increase unemployment and affect overall economic development and growth of the nation.

The Indian education sectors are required to seriously leverage the right kind of digital learning and strategies in this changed scenario. Certain strategic steps are requiring to be taken to achieve success. First will be to define the educational goals in clear terms. Exploring the wide range of tools and strategies for digital learning should be the second one. It is necessary to understand that the teachers are the leaders and not the technology itself. The system should engage all stakeholders of the learning and teaching process. A proper progress monitoring mechanism is also crucial for digital learning strategies. Last but not least, a gradual approach to achieving the transformation from direct classroom contact method of teaching to the digital one is also necessary.

The writer is the Vice-Chancellor, AP Goyal Shimla University, Shimla. Views expressed are strictly personal

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