October 26, 2021

Education in Corona Times

Amongst the many sectors and industries that have fallen prey to the most unprecedented, and arguably the most debilitating crisis the modern world has seen over the last one year plus, is the Education Sector. Many have argued, in happier and healthier times, not imprudently, that education is the foundation on which the edifice of life is built and nurtured. Profound thoughts…which have, in a manner of speaking, been challenged by Corona, as indeed so many other established dogma have been. 

Well, niceties are farthest from peoples’ mind in these strife ridden times, when every facet of life, as we knew it till two months back, has been turned over on its head, We however, pick Education, as one of the several areas to have been hit by the pandemic and try, in our befuddled state, to find a way out of the web and maze woven by Corona. 

Several webinars and meaningful writeups on the subject lately have given us some insight and Idea in re the way ahead. The panacea, globly offered, is on-line education and it’s multiple variants… essentially drawing the conclusion that nothing is lost – you can sit at home  and not only complete what you had set out to do, but be none the worse for wear. Even improve your prospects, some argue. 

I do not necessarily question this hypothesis, if indeed it can be called one. It has been thrust upon us by circumstances beyond our control and it would be pointless to grudge it or flow against the tide. Having dealt with education vasca parent and counsellor for long, I can briefly crystal gaze and see where we, more particularly the students and young career seekers, are in this complex vortex that they find themselves in and, to suggest a probable  way ahead. I am no techno person…and will keep my address limited to nuts and bolts issues, with the minimum necessary tech overtones. 

Academic sessions, from school to post graduate level have been adversely affected by Covid 19. There is understandable angst, anxiety and apprehension amongst students. On its part the education boards and universities seem to be fighting  a losing battle against dates, truncated syllabii, postponing of exams, rescheduling of semesters etc. 

You are aware of the problem and it’s manifestation. In sum, as averred, academic sessions have been thrown out of gear, examination schedules disrupted, admissions for next years academic session taken a hit, syllabii for next year likely to be curtailed, research programs gone haywire, education grants undergone a major cut due to shortage of funds, aspirations of those wishing  to join the workforce this year could take a knock, new institutions which were to come up in the near future may not, for now at least….and several associated and attendant academic  issues . On the administrative side, the aspect of teachers’ salaries, retention of ad hoc/contractual staff, scholarships, maintenance, renovation of buildings and infrastructure, co curricular activities, sports, exchange programs, etc are likely to suffer. 

There is also the issue of a large number of students wanting to pursue higher studies abroad. Not only can they not travel abroad due to prevailing restrictions, the ever spiralling exchange rate of the US dollar, again occasioned by Corona induced economic crisis, has put most programs out of reach of middle class parents. Moreover, given the suspicion and even hostility with which foreigners are viewed by countries after the pandemic outbreak, Indian students are unlikely to be welcome for the next 2-3 years at least, in USA and other nations.  Since a large number of such students will be constrained to now study in India, the competition for the limited seats in top notch Indian colleges would be more severe. There are connected issues of aspiring students going into clinical depression at the prospect of their lives’ ambitions coming a cropper due to no fault of theirs. 

So, as you can see, just like other aspects of society and industry, educational institutions, practices and policies are either already in a mess or are going to be.  Students,  teachers and administrators have all been affected in one manner or the other. The problems are many and will take years to fix. They have to be dealt at multiple levels.  We shall however, for now, focus only on  students and uninterrupted learning. This brings us to ‘e learning‘ and on-line education (OLE), which have suddenly found favour with students, teachers and institutions.  

OLE is not new in India or elsewhere. The present crisis has however, given it a new, larger dimension. Closure of schools, colleges and termination of classes for a prolonged period literally force education institutions to go in for imparting instructions through electronic means. While technology has certainly been an enabler in this, as indeed in so many other fields, the issues briefly flagged below need consideration: 

  1. Not all institutions (givers) and students (receivers) have the wherewithal and/or the expertise to go fully electronic.
  2. The personal touch of the teacher is compromised, if not altogether lost, in OLE. It is too mechanical to truly serve the ends of education.
  3. In households with more than one student (siblings), working (from home) parents, lack of limited devices and physical space, on line lessons can be severely impeded.
  4. A general reluctance on the part of students and parents to accept OLE as a means of mass education which can truly replace personal teaching.
  5. Issues related to attendance, discipline, distraction of students. A casualness creeps in over time.
  6. Frequent technical glitches, power outages, disruptions and poor bandwidth in most places detract from value of lessons imparted.
  7. There is very little interaction and exchange between the students and teachers. The process is mostly one way.
  8. Conduct of practical classes and lab experiments for science students would pose a challenge.
  9. Apropos above, an effective, failsafe system of feedback from students, in real time is not possible. This also has the potential to compromise the value of lessons imparted.
  10. Lack of familiarity and expertise in matters related to computer technology and other modern day tech aids, particularly on the part of older teachers, can be an impediment.
  11. Supervision and monitoring of younger teachers by mentors, heads of departments etc is not facilitated.
  12. Other benefits of wholesome education, such as interaction amongst students, teacher-student bonding, cultural spin offs of learning etc are missing in OLE.

Having listed the above deficiencies, there are a few plusses too. Notable amongst these, in the Corona backdrop are:

  1. No requirement of physical movement and exposure.
  2. Social distancing norms are adhered to.
  3. Breaks the monotony of physical teaching and learning.
  4. A digital record of all classes can be maintained for future reference if required.
  5. Online assignments by students are facilitated.
  6. Adverse aspects of college life, such as politics, hooliganism, etc avoided.
  7. Will usher in a culture of remote working and e-awareness which will assist students in the future.

Experts can give several other pros and cons of OLE. However, it would be prudent to accept the reality of e-learning for the foreseeable future at least and adapt ourselves, individually and systemically to this new method of teaching and learning. Certain aspects which teachers, students, administrators and policymakers need to consider are listed below.

  1. Grants and aids to educational institutions should cater for the development of infrastructure that facilitates e-learning. Enhancement in grants may be considered. Fee structure may also have to be tweaked.
  2. Online teaching and certification must be recognised by boards and considered at par with regular degrees.
  3. Selection and appointment of new teachers in every discipline must factor in their qualification and expertise in e-education techniques.
  4. Subsidising of equipment such as computers, browsers, software etc by the Govt for students belonging to economically weaker sections of society.
  5. Enhancement in data connectivity across the country to enable smooth, uninterrupted, free connections in all areas, including rural belts.
  6. Modification of the syllabus of all subjects so as to make it more e-learning friendly or digitally compliant.
  7. Practical lessons in all subjects, as applicable, be converted into DIY forms under parental guidance.
  8. Packages for online examinations be devised at the level of boards for schools and universities for colleges. Given the strength of students, conduct of online exams, if resorted to, would be a gargantuan exercise and pose a huge challenge. It will need to be very carefully planned and executed.
  9. Prescribed books at the school & college level will need to be digitalised so as to enable easy online access by students and teachers.
  10. Likewise, schools and colleges will need to create ‘e-libraries‘, wherein a student or researcher can have immediate e-access to any book or publication that they wish to use.

As can be seen, funds would be a prerequisite for a full changeover to e-learning mode. As stated earlier, revenue for HR related ventures would be at a premium. Institutions may therefore have to find means of revenue to build and sustain the e model of teaching and learning. Older institutions have adequate financial reserves and may consider tapping into their trusts and deposits to meet the new challenge.

Before rounding up, it may be pertinent to flag a couple of other points on a related aspect, which could require intervention of the HR ministry.

The first pertains to the system and pattern of school, college education in India and how relevant these are to the careers and job opportunities with which the young work force of tomorrow would be confronted. With massive digitalisation, Robotics and Artificial Intelligence, many established professions such as law, medicine, teaching, banking, etc may lose their relevance, at least in part. Much of the work being done in these by professionals would be taken on by AI. I do not wish to go into details, but the aspect requires a long, hard look.

With fewer, if any, students able to go abroad for higher studies, it may be desirable for the Govt and universities to enter into agreements with other govts and universities to establish branches/campuses in India with an attendant faculty exchange program. This may enable bright and desirous students to get degrees from reputed international institutions without actually going abroad.

Today a number of students and young professionals are going in for on-line courses. The lockdown period has enabled many of them to utilise the time to get several certifications .The HR ministry should bring out a list of such certification providing entities, and based on their credentials, grant them recognition. Holders of certificates from such recognised entities be deemed eligible for jobs which require the kind of skill set in which they have received certification.

The subject has been touched only superficially..As stated at the outset, the paradigm shift in the field of education, brought about by the unfortunate advent of Corona, requires flexibility and adaptability on the part of all. Some changes are radical, while others only cosmetic. The measures suggested herein are not exhaustive… but intended to trigger thought amongst those in the practice of teaching and learning. Pedagogy will have to undergo a change, as much as the art and science of edification. Those who fail to adapt, shall do so (or rather not do so) at their peril. However there is no cause for despair…the enlightened shall overcome. Education, in whatever form the times decide, will continue to be that torch, the perennial, inextinguishable beacon which guides us from darkness into light.


Dheya Career Mentor
Maj Gen S Pachory (retd) 

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