Online Learning: A solution to disruption in education?

By Avik Chanda and Atanu Ghosh The Covid-19 outbreak, which has spread across 191 countries, is continuing to severely disrupt industries across the board, one of which is education. As schools, colleges and universities remain fully or partially closed, it is estimated that 90% of the world’s learners, totaling an […]

By Avik Chanda and Atanu Ghosh

The Covid-19 outbreak, which has spread across 191 countries, is continuing to severely disrupt industries across the board, one of which is education. As schools, colleges and universities remain fully or partially closed, it is estimated that 90% of the world’s learners, totaling an astronomical 1.6 billion people, are being affected by the pandemic. The figure for India alone is 320 million. Here, clearly the most adversely impacted have been the school students appearing for their board examinations, some papers for which are pending to be undertaken. Leaving aside the myriad challenges for the authorities – of concluding the examinations, declaring results and then delivering curricula in a brutally compressed new academic year – the sheer psychological toll on the students is debilitating.

Institutes of higher education are likewise going through the biggest crisis they’ve faced in their entire period of existence. With no immediate prospect of students enrolling for the upcoming academic term, coupled with a stoppage of existing curricula that were scheduled to be delivered in the classroom and also no sector-specific relief provided as yet by the government, institutes risk losing their bread-earning source of revenue. Consequently, a vast majority of them are scrambling to leverage online modes of learning as a stop-gap measure, if not a solution that can sustain in the longer term.

Over the past two decades, advances in digital technology have seen a steady rise in the MOOC (Massive Open Online Classes) mode of education, even among premiere universities across the world, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, and in India, by the IIMs, XLRI and other institutes. Both in India and abroad, though, until now, they have been fairly cautious in their offerings of online education, limited the scope to niche, short term courses or part-time executive management catering to working professionals.

Two main reasons account for this. First, premiere institutes have continued to focus on classroom-based education, as a visible quality differentiator, separating them from an exponentially increasing number of new entrants in the sector, primarily relying on online education. The second reason relates to security and intellectual property rights. For premiere institutes, the security and protection of their course content is an overriding imperative. The bulk of smaller players in the online educations sector, on the other hand, rely on a wide range of tools, such as Zoom, Google Hangout, Webex, Microsoft Team, Lark, and Jitsy, often even operating on free, trial versions of these products. The risks from a standpoint security breach are substantial, something that has been reinforced by the recent issues reported with Zoom.

But the present crisis has now precipitated a three-fold challenge for premiere institutes: to provide online, undisrupted education that is high-quality, scalable and secure. Professor Soumyakanti Chakraborty at IIM-C articulates the latent opportunity that’s present amid the crisis: “Many institutes of higher education in India have been quick to embrace digital technologies to keep the ball rolling. Although primarily driven by immediate needs, this would help us gain valuable experience. Changes which otherwise take years may now be forced upon us in months; programs we’ve been conducting in campus may now have to be shifted online, partially or completely. What we need to do now is to make pedagogical adjustments to adapt our regular courses to online teaching.”

Professor Santosh Sangem, Associate Dean of XLRI School of Business and in-charge of Virtual Interactive Learning (VIL), shares his his institute is geared to address the issue. “At XLRI, we have been using our virtual education programme for short as well as longer duration courses. Alongside this, we developed relationships with technical service providers, and had been trying out a range of platforms, testing them for scalability and robustness. Fortunately, we had both the methodology and supporting technology in place. So when the COVID outbreak happened and the lockdown was announced, it was a question of scaling up the operations in a very short span of time. Due to our previous experience in virtual interactive learning, we were able to shift our regular fulltime and part-time MBS programmes to an online mode, within a week of the lockdown.”

But even once the lockdown is lifted, chances are that social distancing restrictions will persist, preventing congregation in classrooms. How would the institute cope in that scenario? “We have invested in setting up 20 new studies for delivering online training.” Professor Sangem explained. “This would address the need for social distancing, while allowing us to conduct our courses in an uninterrupted fashion.” This overall approach finds resonance across other premiere institutes, which are also aggressively converting their classroom to online programmes.

As telecom providers struggle with unexpected spikes in demand for telephonic and network connectivity that are stretching their supply capabilities, challenges with technical glitches and scalability of quality online education may persist for a while. However, at least in the short term, online education appears to be providing a way out for educational institutes, to retain their connect with the market, and sustain some proportion of economic activity. But most importantly, it is establishing itself as a medium by which to engage learners in meaningful activity, and perhaps to a little extent, even alleviate the incalculable stress and anxiety they are currently undergoing.

Avik Chanda is a business advisor, researcher, columnist and entrepreneur. He is the author of “From Command To Empathy: Using EQ in the Age of Disruption”. Atanu Ghosh, visiting faculty at IIM-C & XLRI, is an expert on VIL.

Source Article

Lois C. Ferrara

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