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Get a healthy mix of online, classroom learning

The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 offers accreditation to institutions for running open distance learning and online programmes. This is a unique opportunity for Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) to enhance the courses being offered, improve access, increase enrolment and provide opportunities for lifelong learning. Even before the lockdown, online learning platforms like NPTEL and MOOCS were being utilised in Uttar Pradesh (UP) for technical education. However, these were considered largely experimental and the reliance on e-learning in higher education was minimal. The pandemic, however, decreed teach-from-home and learn-from-home. The PM e-Vidya scheme was launched and HEIs in UP embraced online education. Around 15,000 teachers adopted online pedagogy and over nine lakh students benefitted from it during the first two phases of the lockdown.

However, like any technological revolution, online education brings with it both opportunities for unparalleled growth and threats in the form of newly vulnerable populations. To get maximum dividends, we need to construct a structured environment for online education with the twin targets of inclusion and personalisation.

Content preparation, delivery and assessment will need to be optimised differentially to match the needs of varied target groups. High calibre e-content is the foundation of any such programme. A wealth of course content is available in English on various open-source platforms. This may be integrated into the curriculum to maximise delivery at the earliest. Meanwhile,  efforts have to be made to prepare content in regional languages. The course material needs to be engaging and interactive, with liberal use of audio, video, visuals and other features tailored to the course.

For instance, a course in zoology would be more visual while a course in language will require an interface equipped with grammar and spellcheck. Online learning is self-paced and self-motivated. Students can learn at their own speed, going back and re-reading, skipping or accelerating through concepts as they choose. However, it relies heavily on the learner’s inclinations. Laid-back students may fall behind the rest of the class. Thus, a time bound-schedule with frequent evaluation is necessary. Special attention must be paid to students not doing well, as to why their grades are slipping.

This scenario again points to the need for a robust system of content delivery and assessment. Discussion forums and Breakout rooms (Google Classroom, Moodle, Zoom and so on) allow small-sized groups to be formed, with the instructor being able to visit each of these and share his notes. With whiteboard integration, science teachers find mini gadgets like tabs with pens convenient for performing mathematical derivations and solving numerical problems. Cross-institutional collaborative learning is also possible on platforms such as MS teams, WebEx, Skype and Google Hangouts which allow learners to discuss problems in real-time. Simulation software and virtual labs help in imparting practical knowledge to the students. This needs to be supplemented by tutorials and remedial classes, which should be personalised and customised further.

Classroom interactions are also essential for learning from peer groups and acquiring networking skills and civic sense. The challenge is to arrive at an optimal blend of online and classroom teaching. Topics that require introspection and debate should be taken up in traditional settings. For example, philosophy requires the ability to analyse a given set of hypotheses and synthesise new postulates. It may be difficult to acquire this proficiency virtually. Assessment of the students both during and at the end of a course has always been a challenge for distance learning programmes. Using e-platforms, a combination of online and offline evaluations may be used. Artificial Intelligence (AI)-enabled verification, face movement recognition, screen locking and remote invigilator are some techniques that can minimise chances of use of unfair means during online tests.

Simultaneously, stringent quality control measures need to be put in place to evaluate teachers. Of course, the end-term performance of the students is an absolute parameter for making such assessments. But concurrent evaluations are essential to check time lags and protect the students’ interests. The Learning Management System (LMS) is a good solution that can be indigenised and adapted by institutes. It can review performance and learn about the impact of teaching with dashboards and reports. Institutions can modify the existing features of LMS to identify a user’s learning abilities, articulate accordingly and extract meta-data to make suitable recommendations for helping them.

External reviews of content delivery by subject experts and industry doyens will be vital to upgrade the standards of education. Peer review is a necessary part of any academic endeavour and will become easier through e-platforms. The NEP paves the way for multi-disciplinary institutes through course flexibility and transfer of credits. Online education will be a cornerstone in this. A Computer Science major student wanting to create a start-up can do courses not being offered in his/her college, like an Economics or Commerce minor, from a university specialising in it, through an e-platform. This way, students can get a well-rounded education encompassing all their diverse interests.

Basic compulsory courses like ethics, health and hygiene, digital awareness and communication skills can also be offered by universities online. Some HEIs can strive to become centres of excellence for providing specialised courses, like  AI, Internet of Things and Machine Learning, creative and liberal arts or yoga and meditation, online. Students can attend these even during their vacations, thus freeing up time for regular courses. The increased flexibility in timings may be used to maximise the pay-off from physical college hours.

However, the biggest challenge in UP is equity and inclusion. The NITI Aayog, in its Strategy for New India @75 report, highlighted the quality and reliability of the internet as a major bottleneck. Only about 25 per cent of students have access to smartphones, laptops and the internet. Universities will have to develop mechanisms with in-built functionalities to overcome these deficiencies.

They can develop tabs preloaded with e-content and devise a system for issuing such tabs for a fixed time, like books issued from the library.  Students can use them at home, even without internet connectivity. The local industry can be motivated to use their Corporate Social Responsibility funds (CSR) to provide hardware and software to colleges. The National Broadband Mission, aiming to provide internet access in all villages by 2022, will be a great help. The Government can establish e-Learning Parks in schools in remote areas with computers and internet connectivity. Students enrolled in higher education programmes can use these to access digital platforms after school hours. (MR, Inputs: Agencies).

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