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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

‘Best time for students to pick up new certifications & skills, most courses are available at very low cost’: Nitin Karmalkar

DR Nitin Karmalkar, vice-chancellor of Savitribai Phule Pune University, the biggest state university in Maharashtra with over 800 affiliated colleges, discusses with Alifiya Khan the challenges the university faced and what lies ahead.

Written by Alifiya Khan | Updated: December 27, 2020 8:56:28 am
SPPU campus

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges before educationists across the world. From change in teaching methodologies, integrating technology into learning, measuring learning outcomes with online examinations and now the impending campus placements, this year has brought many new challenges.

It’s December already and placement season approaches soon, especially for professional courses. Are there any apprehensions that students may not be able to find jobs during final placements since the job market is badly affected?

Let’s not deny that it will be affected. It is likely to be slower, even bleak in certain areas like engineering students maybe. And, their issues are compounded by the fact that they cannot even travel abroad for post-graduation. However, certain areas like biology, medicine, science courses students will have good prospects. What students need to understand is that they have to update themselves, get well versed with technology. There is going to be a digital bend everywhere, get acquainted. This is the best time to pick up skills and certifications, most courses are available at very low cost. I would advise students to work on themselves, learn job-oriented skills or even personality development ones. Essentially, they should bring something extra to the table during interviews.

What have been the challenges in teaching during various lockdown stages and how has it evolved?

For a big sized public university like ours, reaching out to students to teach them was a challenge, in fact it is one even today. Students come from far flung areas, remote tribal pockets and may have very low bandwidth, network connectivity and that too only for sometime in a day. So, for us, the challenge was education that was anytime, anywhere with any device. We had already asked our teachers to create e-content and it was continuously being added. Already a lot of online platforms like Zoom, Google classroom, Microsoft Teams were available but we decided to created a platform of our own. One that needed very minimum bandwidth, could be accessed in weak connectivity and had a whole lot of other features, so it took us time to restructure things. We created Moodle, a platform through which we not only teach but make it interactive and at the same time, seamlessly check learning outcomes. Rather than an hour-long monotonous learning videos, our modules are shorter like for around 15mins. At the end of the videos, certain questions are asked to the students based on what outcome was expected. Once a student answers, the AI (artificial intelligence) will advise, revisit the content or go to the next. We are moving focus from teaching to learning.

What is the long-term impact on teaching methods, will this model affect future practice?

Even today everything is an experiment, we are still learning. However, what I see in the future is a blended hybrid mode of education, moving away from mere classroom teaching. Also, we see a 60:40 ratio of teaching at university level and the rest 40 per cent credit can be earned from anywhere, be it online courses or internships, as long as proper certifications are taken.

A lot has been said and written about the non-proctored online mode of examinations conducted by the university. Tell us about the challenges you faced and the lessons learnt

When we were asked not to conduct examinations in person, the biggest issue we faced was security. During offline exams, there is proctoring. Because the students’ emotions were running high and we were working on a tight deadline, besides some pressure, we were forced to conduct non-proctored online examinations. I believe the entire sanctity of examinations was lost. If you look at the scores and passing percentage, it will show how seriously and fairly students have taken examinations. Besides that, technology was an issue. Our students are spread in a large geographical area, connectivity and servers are an issue. Nearly 10,000 results were revised and yet there were complaints. In terms of lessons learnt, we have decided not to go for an outside agency again. Our in-house EduTech wing is working on creating our own system where students would give online proctored exams, get results the same day and log in grievances immediately, if any.

The university also has a sizeable number of foreign students. What has been the impact on admissions this year and how are these students being taught?

The number has slightly come down, not too much though. The admissions coming through ICCR have taken place and what we promised them is that in first six months, everything is being offered online. The problem in admissions is for the European students who come for one semester as exchange students or through the Study in India programme. Those admissions are affected, but it is inevitable.

Overall, what are the lessons this unprecedented pandemic has taught the university? Have any gaps been identified and what is the roadmap going ahead?

I think the biggest lesson we learnt is that in partnership, we cannot work in silos. We have to get partnered with good institutions, no one knows everything by themselves. Also, we need partnerships in both academics and industry. I learnt a lot about technology, too. We were not practising enough of AI, machine learning and related stuff. I also strongly believe the syllabus needs to be revamped, both in content and delivery method. New concepts need to be brought in… We have to evolve a system to make regular revamps in the syllabus.

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