Author: Ambika Anand
The world is facing one of the largest health pandemics. The Covid-19 grew quickly from its first emergence to a truly global phenomenon. This crisis has disrupted the activities of various sectors like oil and gas, automobiles, MSMEs, aviation, agriculture, retail, travel, and hospitality. Economists fear that the detrimental effects of the disease shall leave no sector unaffected, even the evergreen ones like education. It has made it very clear that the situations are far from normal and that ways have to change to fit ourselves to the changing times.
The disease and its harmful effects can be seen as an inflexion point in the graph of the education sector where there is a new trend with new ways to adapt to the needs in these circumstances. As per the data provided by the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)) 1.26 billion children worldwide have been affected by school closures due to the pandemic. This is 72% of the world’s student population. India comprises over 320 million of these learners. It is still uncertain when they can return to their schools or colleges.
Experts from the World Bank have pointed out that even before the pandemic, the world was facing a “learning crisis” and already off track to meet Sustainable Development Goal 4, which commits all nations to ensure that, among other ambitious targets, all girls and boys complete free, equitable and quality primary and secondary education. Before the pandemic, 258 million children and youth of primary- and secondary school age were out of school and low schooling quality meant many who were in school learned too little. Even worse, the crisis was not equally distributed. The most disadvantaged children and youth had the worst access to schooling, highest dropout rates, and the largest learning deficits,” the team has pointed out in a report titled “The COVID-19 Pandemic: Shocks to Education and Policy Responses”. Therefore, after the pandemic imparting education and providing access equally has to be taken seriously.
The months of March and April are the busiest in a school’s calendar where the child gives his final exams and starts the next grade. However, due to the disruption caused the corridors are silent, the excitement to get their new bags and start the next grade has been put to hold.
Understanding the critical state of affairs, the schools have been shut from March. While some of the students had given their end year exams while some were waiting to give theirs. Moreover, the education for those primary kids who were to start their schooling is at a halt too. Not only this, the primary students who have just started schooling have no idea about their new academic calendar.
The pandemic comes with its set of threats but opportunities too. The schools have started with their online teaching where teachers have started taking their lessons online on Google meet, zoom, or other virtual classrooms. The students are asked to attend the online classes and catch up with their studies from home. This definitely boosts the Edtech sector which was already booming pre-pandemic. However, after the health advisories mandated the shift of education from physical classrooms to virtual ones, the Edtech has gained a lot of momentum.
Taking the example of BYJU’S, a Bangalore-based educational technology, and online tutoring firm founded in 2011, with the help of its free live classes on Think and Learn app, BYJU’s has seen a 200% increase in the number of new students using its product, according to Mrinal Mohit, the company’s Chief Operating Officer. Not just in India, but the online movement has seen an upward trend in many other countries like Tencent classroom in China, Singapore- based collaboration suite initially developed by ByteDance , Alibaba’s distance learning solution, DingTalk, Google meet and Google Classroom features of Google and Zoom app.
According to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), more than 1.5 billion school children around the world are using online education, following the global lockdown.
Not only the private players, but the government has also offered resources so that all students have access to learning and thereby launched its own digital learning portals. Some of them are:
- DIKSHA- National Digital Infrastructure for Teachers
The portal is basically to make sure that the teachers are given enough assistance to the online teaching and makes it smooth for them during the pandemic. The portal records all the data in the life cycle of a teacher- right from the time she enrolls to their retirement.
Through this application, the government seeks to empower the teachers. It will help teachers to create training content, profile, in-class resources, assessment aids, news, and announcement and connect with the teacher community.
It is a joint initiative of the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Govt. of India and National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT). To make sure no students miss out on any concept, the web-based portal provides all kinds of books and text material including the NCERT books online.
- National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER)
The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD), Government of India has launched a National Repository of Open Educational Resources (NROER ). It provides all the resources in multiple languages. It provides them access to e-books, e-libraries, e-courses and need not research and gives all the resources in one place. It helps to test the students with regular assignments.
The initiative is modified for assisting in classes 9th-12th. It is to make sure that the learning is not affected by any means. The courses offered are free of cost on subjects like Engineering, Science, Humanities, Management, Language, Mathematics, Arts and Recreation, Commerce, General, Library, Education. After every course, there is an assessment so that the students get a good record. UGC has already issued the UGC (Credit Framework for online learning courses through SWAYAM) Regulation 2016 advising the Universities to identify courses where credits can be transferred on to the academic record of the students for courses done on SWAYAM.
While these are some of the portals made available by the central government, some of the states have made their own like Odisha Government has announced a helpline and came up with an application named BHAROSA to make sure students do not face any mental or psychological pressure. The Delhi Government collaborated with Khan Academy and MacMillian Academy to offer some interesting courses to the students where they can learn beyond their curriculum. Happiness classes are organized as a part of MISSION BUNIYAD to tackle the stress among the budding stars during the difficult times. Cluster-wise channels are created under Microsoft teams and CRC co-coordinators are provided with tablets by the state education department, under the CCC, to monitor the Command and Control programme in each school under their cluster in Gujarat. In Andhra Pradesh, through the application of ABHYASA, the class 10TH students are provided with a pool of material to study. The state is also broadcasting the lessons through Doordarshan and radio.
The colleges faced a similar situation as the schools where the education was brought to a standstill as the colleges were shut soon after the mid-semester break. Some of the students reached their homes while some still struggle to somehow reach their domicile. For many colleges, shutting down abruptly stalled the examination calendar, creating much uncertainty about the impact of the lockdown on the academic year. From the internal examinations to the internship/placements drives, all froze in these uncertain times. However, unlike the school students, college students are more worried because many of them are ready to trace their careers and start their jobs thereby are more vulnerable to lose out.
The students can be categorized into three subgroups to make the analysis more precise-
- The students joining their colleges and the first/second years
- The students in their terminal semester
- The students who wish to pursue their higher education abroad
Even though a lot of efforts have been made to transform the education platform to online mode, but there seems to be no perfect substitute for the physical classrooms. The students joining this year are uncertain of the new examination process and also, are amidst their board exams. There are no proper guidelines of the admissions based on the ECA category on how the prelims are to be conducted. As per UGC guidelines, the new academic year shall start from September but everything seems to be very hazy. “Over the longer term, the college admissions process next year will be more complex, due to online tests, online schooling, and changes to requirements,” said Venkatesh Swaminathan, founder and CEO of LifeLaunchr, a member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
The first and second years are worried about the disturbed cycle of their studies and the time they could have invested in getting their internships. Many organizations have started their virtual programs so that the freshers can utilize their time better. However, the second years are skeptical about the entrances of their master’s courses and its preparations they wish to undertake.
Talking about the second subgroup, the students in their third year of college never knew when they had their last tour of college before the pandemic affected masses. The majority of them seem panicked because of the insecurity about their jobs. Even though some of them had pre-placement offers but due to the bearish phase in the market, many of the firms have frozen their recruitments. Many of them are yet to give their entrances for higher studies and struggle to find the right atmosphere to take it forward.
The students who wish to further move abroad for studies are the worst hit. The situations are not at all appropriate in the near future to move out of the country for any purpose. They shall be forced to take some time gap or pursue courses online over the internet. With the change in priorities, the changes in the norms of the visas or permanent residencies may also be severely impacted.
As per the UGC guidelines, institutions may choose to conduct their final exams either online or offline, depending on the infrastructure they have and the severity of the pandemic in their areas. However, for the offline mode, the exams have to be conducted later when the situation normalizes and areas where there the curve has flattened. Not only this, if there is a need, the colleges are asked to mark on the basis of internal examinations and further change the paper pattern. The time may be reduced to 2hours instead of three hours and the pattern may be open book or MCQs. “In case of intermediate semesters, the practical examinations may be conducted during the ensuing semesters”, the guidelines add. The UGC has suggested a summer break between 1st June and 30th June and has asked the institutions to adopt certain social-distancing norms before they reopen, in keeping with the panel’s recommendations.
However, with the online classes, there is a reduced burden concerning the work deadlines where they can work according to their productivity. Many of them can try their hands on different courses or skill training. They can get time to finally follow their passions which they could not with their normal schedules. Recent upGrad-FICCI research indicated that 92% of learners have adopted online learning as compared to 68% in the pre-corona period. Most of these learners are using the online platform for building digital skills in the areas of data sciences, AI, ML, full-stack software engineering, digital marketing, and MBA courses.
In the last month, higher education-focused upGrad reported having reached the 500K learners mark and had to double class and course capacity to meet the demand. Similarly, Unacademy claims to have witnessed more than 1Bn minutes watch time for its free live classes in the past one month and its daily active users rose to around 500K per day. Since March, there’s been a 110% increase in new subscribers on the Unacademy platform resulting in over 1.5 Mn registered learners.
- While we talk about the digital era and its advantages, we overlook the digital divide existing in our country. The digital divide cannot be erased overnight. For relying on online education and changing the face of education, we need a variety of tools and not just pre-recorded lectures. This is not something to be achieved when there is huge pressure to keep the nation and its activities moving.
- As per the finding of Mission Antyodaya, the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-2018 pointed out some shocking facts that may be important to understand the preparedness of our nation to move ahead on the lines of e-education. According to them, 16% of the families received about 1-8 hours of electricity, 33% have about 9-12 hours of electricity and 47% receive more than 12 hours of electricity.
- The teachers in schools or professors are not familiar with the virtual classrooms and teaching the lessons on video calls. They are not ready to make such a big jump to the features of an online education system where it is difficult for them to make sure they teach with the same effectiveness as the chalks and blackboards. Creating assignments online or getting used to digital portals is more of a challenge to those who are on the other side of the screen as well. According to the professors, there is no alternative to physical classrooms when it comes to any level of education. It is to be noted that discussion becomes tough in online environments and all the participants are not equally educated on how to make the best use of online platforms. The digital divide is not completely erased with Edtech.
- With the line of the changes being adapted on varying pace with all the stakeholders, it is noted that with online teaching there is a difference between the grasping speeds of students. Not all students have the same speed and since the teacher cannot look at all the students, some of them may not have clarity with what is being taught to them. Also, the teacher may have a different speed in comparison to the kids which makes it very difficult for a student to understand.
- A high number of vacancies, poor quality of teacher training and heterogeneous learning levels are some of the areas to be studied more. However, the lack of infrastructure makes the situation more serious. Not all students have access to internet connectivity or even computer. The regions like Bihar has approx 5% computer access while Kerala stands with 23.5%. Not only computers or laptops, but internet penetration is also not that great in masses. Those who have broadband, face issues of poor connectivity, cable cuts, and signal issues.
- The Edtech has its benefits but at the same time is not very safe. The Zoom application used widely to connect and teach lessons online was reported to leak personal information of the users. There have been a growing number of issues related to the secure online experience. This can be because Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) actors are taking advantage of the current situation when people are locked down in their homes and are heavily reliant on digital resources,” according to the report from cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. The issue of cybersecurity needs to be addressed on a priority basis.
- The Right to education mandates each individual to have equal access to education. However, due to persisting situations, online education may reach only the privileged. The government needs to ensure it reaches not only those who are lucky enough to be at safer places but those who are suffering from ill effects of the pandemic and those who are stranded without food away from home. The education and learning material should be available to the tribal as well. As per the report of the Hindustan Times, a survey in Wayanad district of Kerala showed that literacy among the tribal was much low than that of the district (89%). Even though there are applications like Gotra Bandhu and Gotra Sarathi but how to use them without having proper knowledge and awareness.
- Online education for students needs not only the attention of students but it requires a great deal of parental involvement. The parental involvement needs to expand from just attending PTMs but to make sure that their child is using the technology right way.
- Also, one of the concerns related to the lockdown and its impact on the economy is the finance requirements. The students may not have enough to pay for the rent and fees for the colleges. According to RBI, the outstanding student loans dues are about Rs71, 700 crores as on November 30, 2017.
- The students who wished to pursue higher education abroad have to wait for at least a year. The National Association of Foreign Student Advisors (NAFSA) points out that in 2018-19, more than one million international students are enrolled in colleges and universities across America, contributing some US$ 41 billion to the economy and in the process supporting 458,290 jobs. But the perception of getting visas difficult, anti-immigrant rhetoric and general safety concerns have led to a 7 percent decline in International students heading the way of the United States educational institutions, it is being pointed out. The novel coronavirus is bound to impact this scenario and for different reasons. There may be adverse effects of the pandemic on those who had to leave for home, final year students waiting for optimal practical training permit, those waiting for their H1B visas and those who want to get permanent residency.
- Even though the students opt to take classes online, a lot may be missed due to the different time zones.
- Moreover, with online education when everything passes on to the laptops or phones, the increased screen time may affect the health of the child. Also, the child may use gadgets more for other purposes than to study which can prove to be a big distraction.
- The inability to meet regularly may hamper the normal working of the schools and colleges where there shall be difficulties faced by the officials in doing the signing of important documents. The students who learn more with peer interactions and team effort may lose out on their holistic development forced to sit at homes in front of laptops.
Recommendations and Conclusion
Unprecedented situations may be used as an opportunity to revive the old system and introduce structural transformations in the way of doing things. The measures adopted at this hour may help our country to look at the aspects we never knew existed. Relying completely on the pillars of Edtech and taking it forward we shall understand how to make it full proof. Moreover, this can be used to come up with a blended model of learning mixing the elements of technology and the traditional way of physical classrooms where one can be used to fill in the gaps of another. However, this requires positive intent and action on the part of all the stakeholders involved, especially the public education system, to undertake institutional reforms to ensure continuous and efficient delivery of education to all.
The government needs to focus on strengthening the training modules and modes of delivery. Moreover, attention needs to be first given towards the accessibility and affordability of the basic amenities to all. The authorities need to have a strong network with the local authorities so that efforts can be made to make sure that the penetration of technology is improved at grass root levels. Professional development is one of the important outcomes we can hope post pandemic.
For the schools when the situation normalizes a little and we see the progress the schools can call about 50% of the total students in classes and on the days off for the remaining online interactive tools can be provided. The education about health and hygiene as well as proper guidelines of social distancing goes without saying. It would be equally important to focus on maintaining the child’s curiosity and willingness to study. The schools need to make sure they do not overburden the kid and over expect too much in the stressful times. Parents especially to those who do not have much knowledge should be given proper guidelines or the schools can provide proper tutorials so that they are able to further guide their children better. Teachers have to take a strong lead in these extraordinary times. There is a strong need for them to inculcate the computational thinking in all the subjects. This will move students to solve problems with expression, creativity and logical understanding.
Not only the players of educational fields but the banks should adopt an ethical policy towards outstanding education loans. The government, with a holistic approach, should try to revive the public sector units, so that the students struggling to find the job after their colleges can utilize their skills. A greater emphasis on employing new graduates entering the job market needs to be taken on a priority basis. There should not be any hike in the fees for the colleges so that students from each income bracket have an opportunity to follow their dreams.
The aftermath of the crisis may not be spoken well unless we face the issues but there needs to be a collective effort to combat any undesirable circumstances. Starting at an individual level, each person needs to be aware and take proper measures to avoid any negligence concerning their health. All stakeholders need to keep the greater good well above their personal preferences.