Rethink education: Learning beyond classrooms is the new normal

COVID-19 has caused a paradigm shift in the Indian education system. Education organisations, parents and students have moved to online solutions to keep on learning and to continue the curriculum. A webinar on ‘Rethink the Future’ in education threw a light on how the sector view the crisis faring for the education fraternity.

   
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In the wake of COVID-19 schools, colleges and universities have had to suspend physical campuses and rely on digital ones. It can be called a crisis, a challenge, or an opportunity at the same time. But one thing is clear, moving forward sector’s digital maturity would be tested on many fronts. Digital transformation, connected campuses, user experience, online blended learning and more are now ‘new normal’ in the Indian education sector. 

So far, online education was considered as a second-class citizen in the education industry; therefore, it was restricted to fewer education institutions. Also, the limited internet access and connectivity issue in remote locations is still the biggest roadblock in the way of blended learning. However, the sudden outbreak of the coronavirus drastically pushed the digital transformation in the field, forcing to adopt various edtech and virtual solutions for continuity of the business.

The Guild, in association with VMware, organised an exclusive Virtual event focused on the way ahead for the education sector. 

Leaders from the education field discussed their preparedness on the digital transformation during the crisis. They threw light on how the sector views the crisis faring for the education fraternity in a webinar. Most of the experts believe the future of education is of Blended Learning and technology has played a massive role in the transition of the education structure from offline to online and campus to home. 

Blended learning is the integration of face-to-face instruction and the usage of online channels for classrooms. 

Addressing the panel questions, Rajita Kulkarni, President at Sri Sri University spoke on sudden changes and going 100 per cent virtual teaching environment, “We had an inkling of the situation way before the lockdown commenced. Thus, we were mentally prepared for the upcoming digital transformation. Within four days of planning, we send 98 per cent of students back home. And now we are conducting 100 per cent online classes and exams.”

According to her COVID-19 catalysed the process of online education. “COVID-19 has been a real journey for us. Though online education was not in our roadmap for the next year, COVID-19 has driven the process of digital transformation for Sri Sri University.”

On the same note, Dr KP Isaac, Vice-Chancellor at Hindustan Technical University (HTU) sharing his thoughts on their virtual journey, “The situation was not anticipated at all. Educational institutions were not prepared to go online. However, Online education is an essential tool to continue the education curriculum in this situation. With this scaling up IT infra is also as important. We have been working on it for the last two years. We integrated LMS system; also we are using video conferencing solutions for online classes,”

For conducting online classes, HTU has recently implemented Microsoft Teams. Telling more Dr Isaac said, “MS Teams is a handy tool to start delivering education. We conducted trial classes on the platform from April first week. By April 15th, we moved fully on the platform on a regular timetable with 22-25 sessions per day. It is only for theoretical classes and internal assessments except for the practicals.”

According to Dr Isaac, in his belief, virtual practical does not seem to be a viable option for engineering students. Thus, management is sought after completing the theory curriculum online, while practicals would be resumed once the environment is fit for re-opening. 

“Though we are using Cloud solutions for Computer practicals. For other subjects, virtual labs do not seem a viable option. On the other hand, University is completing the theory portion before practical sessions. We want to re-open to conduct next semester by June 22nd, but it depends on the situation.” 

Dr Isaac is also of the opinion that along with the online classes, 30 per cent campus life is mandatory for students to maintain the balance and ethnicity of college life.  

“It’s a sudden change. We didn’t expect it will be going to last long. Campuses look alive when students are there; without them, campuses are looking eerie.” Mohan Kumar CM, Assistant Director—System at VIT University expresses himself. 

He also advocates that the way forward for education business if of a mixture of online-offline learning. On the preparedness, Kumar informs that they were already on digital infra for online learning. Thus, going entirely virtual was not an issue. “Students were already using online platforms for classes and virtual labs for practicals. Also keeping freedom of learning anywhere anytime, we have deployed VDI VMWare solutions.”

Through this solution, students can work anywhere anytime. Also, students don’t need to go to labs to access tools. Till now, they have tested 35 engineering applications on the platform. VIT also follows a fully flexible study system—students are independent to select the subject, teacher and timings at their convenience. They are also into virtualised graphical applications running on a virtual environment through a grid, now 3D applications are also available on mobile. 

Considering digital fate, VIT has also started using prediction based analytics tools for improving services.

On the other hand, few Universities such as Apeejay Stya & Svran Group and Lovely Professional University were fully virtualised on-premises. They were well-equipped way before the pandemic situation caught us all. 

Apeejay’s Co-promoter Aditya Berlia shared, “Our IT infra was fully virtual on VMWare solutions by 2004 and by 2010 we were on cloud 100 per cent. Also, we are on Zoom Conferencing since the past four years, and our faculty is well trained on the LMS system.”

However, the unprecedented transition from campus to home caught them suddenly, and their tech team worked day and night to get back on track. “Scaling up the infrastructure for 40,000 students was an issue. It took them a few days to sort out the issue. We were able to get back on running full timetable seamlessly with online LMS, video conferencing and other online facilities, thanks to our tech team. Online learning solutions from home, recreating classroom environment is working well for us.” He added.

Similarly, Aman Mittal, Director at Lovely Professional University speaking in the webinar says that LPU is already invested in IT infrastructure. Their data centres are running with VMWare software. “LPU being a technologically advanced university, was prepared to tackle the lockdown situation. All the IT solutions were in place; for instance, we set up LMS in 2007-08 and have our messaging app connected to LMS. Through this platform, content sharing is done.”

Mittal further adds that BYOD is practised in the University and students conduct their practicals online. Thus, the transition went smoothly for them when the crisis occurred. “Faculty members have also played a huge role in the successful transition of going full virtual. The first week was tense in terms of going fully virtual operations from home. While internet bandwidth and connectivity is still a challenge.” 

Key Takeaways from the Crisis

According to the education leaders, it’s a wakeup call for education regulators to redefine the education sector, keeping in mind the digital learning in place and pandemic situations. Most of the experts advocate the re-drafting of the education policy on these grounds, as the policy is still on the blueprint. 

Also, the paradigm shift in the sector has led students and teachers to bond ionically. According to Sri Sri’s Kulkarni, virtual classes have forced students to become more attentive, resulting in improved attendance and timely assignment completion.

Virtual lectures and webinars are also capturing student interest, and there is a surge in demand for educational videos and industry lectures. Dr Isaac of HTU says that they are conducting numerous lectures daily. It’s easy to reach the spokesperson and students virtually while saving cost and money. Also, mentoring activities have improved considerably through digital platforms. 

According to Apeejay’s Berlia, replicating classroom command presence virtually is difficult. Teachers innovated while working virtually, for instance, taking family members to help to explain the concepts. On the other hand, internet connectivity, bandwidth and access are challenges in digital education. It’s a fundamental assumption that everyone has a reasonable internet connection which is not valid. Moreover, shared devices; shared spaces and other distractions are also roadblocks in the way of digital education. 


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