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Friday, May 07, 2021

‘We have to relook and reimagine the way our schools run… so that children don’t get lost in cyberspace’

With educational institutions shut for over a year, how does the future of education look in a Covid-altered world? Is the idea of a university as a physical space under threat? A panel of experts weighs in

Written by Uma Vishnu |
Updated: April 17, 2021 7:26:13 am
online education in india, cyberspace in india, indian students, zoom classes, india online classes, india news, indian expressAs education emerges out of this churn, there has been an attempt to see what has changed. (Representational)

With schools and colleges shut for over a year in response to Covid-19, it has undoubtedly been a situation without parallel. As education emerges out of this churn, there has been an attempt to see what has changed. How different will institutions be in a post-Covid world? Is this the disruption education needed? And will it transform education in India for the better?

These are some of the questions that an expert panel — Dr Ameeta Wattal, Principal, Springdales School, Pusa Road, and CBSE governing body board member; Dr Sunder Ramaswamy, economist and Vice-Chancellor, Krea University; Dr V Ramgopal Rao, Director, IIT Delhi; and Saurabh Swami, Director-Education, Rajasthan — unpacked at IE Thinc, an initiative of The Indian Express, in association with the Hiranandani Group, NITIE Mumbai, MIT ADT University, SPJIMR, and live webcast partners 24 Frames Digital.

The session, ‘Covid, Education and The Big Change’, was moderated by Uma Vishnu, Senior Editor, The Indian Express.

Can I ask each one of you to talk about one way that you see education emerging out of this pandemic? One big change from the point of view of the different stakeholders here — students, universities, teachers, and the government.

V Ramgopal Rao: At IIT Delhi, within a year, almost 1,400 courses that we teach went online and are now available as digital content. During this period we also started certificate programmes. Typically, in the IIT system, you have these huge entry barriers because we conduct the world’s most difficult examinations, take a few people, give them high-quality education, and they all graduate. There is hardly any exit barrier. But what we did at IIT Delhi — which is also happening in many of our educational institutions of repute — is that we turned this model on its head.

We lowered the entry barrier for our online programmes, so we admit a large number of students, and then we provide them the same quality education online. There are many courses that can be taught effectively even in the online mode. Then we conduct a very difficult examination at the exit end, and that is where we know that those who qualify for the examination will get a certificate and they will become our alumni. I don’t think it would have happened easily in normal times… would have taken another seven to 10 years.

The second important thing that happened is the research on our campuses. At IIT Delhi, we have made the world’s most affordable RT-PCR kit that we launched for Rs 399… To me, all of this is nothing less than transformative. Education has gone through a sea change. That is one silver lining in all the troubles that we have gone through.

Dr Ramaswamy, what did this pandemic do to universities and their brand?

Sunder Ramaswamy: Initially when we went online, nobody had a clue of how long we were going to stay online. We took what we used to do in the classroom and put it on a platform like Zoom. When we realised that we were continuing to remain online, the faculty started to get more innovative in terms of how they taught, For example, how do you teach history differently from, say, physics or chemistry, and how do you do experiments online? After vaccinations are universal and so on, will we sort of go back? I doubt it. I think there will be lots of things that we have been using right now have transformed the way we conduct our business but also the way we teach, the way we do research. Then there is the question of empathy.

One of the things, especially in a country like India, is the digital divide… The pandemic has really made us dig deep within ourselves to be empathetic as teachers, as peers with our colleagues, with parents of students.

Dr Wattal, teachers have had to pick up new skills overnight. Where were they and where are they now, over a year into the pandemic?

Ameeta Wattal: School education was not in a very happy space to begin with; it was not designed to ever fulfill the needs of our children. Covid put a spotlight on our inequalities. All this while we were treating digital connections as private luxury, but it was not a luxury when COVID came… It was a great challenge for teachers to teach in this eventuality because not only were we looking at transforming the school where children would come in online at eight o’clock in the morning and be there till about 12 pm or so, the whole structure of school did not exist. There were no uniforms, they were no bells, there was no way of ensuring the children were there, the teachers themselves had never done a complete system online. But the teachers got on with it… and the way children sort of supported… I would say the parent community was absolutely amazing because now the teacher was not only teaching a child, he or she was teaching the entire community… So, say, you are an economics teacher teaching Grade 12, you had to block the fact that a leading economist was watching your class.

But I think what really happened was that a communication and bond developed because parents really realised the value of the teaching community. Because without them, we would have been in the dark. Where would the children have been for one year? But I’m again talking about a very small group. There were entire groups who didn’t have that kind of privilege. So there’s been a huge learning gap.

The biggest concern is, there’s never going to be a post-Covid. There’s going to be a post, post-Covid. When we say things have changed, they’ve changed at a very deep level. They’ve changed lives and habits. There are children in nursery and prep who hide their faces, who don’t know how to make connections with children of the same age group. So communication, collaboration, connection, understanding learning basic skills, looking at how we speak, group discussions, conversations, have taken a big hit and these are very important aspects of what learning has to be. I think we have to really relook and reimagine the way our schools should run. And I think we have to start looking at personalised breakout rooms, in a cluster. And that’s what we were trying to do during Covid, so children would not get lost in this cyberspace.

Speaking of digital divide, Mr Swami, how did the Rajasthan government deal with this?

Saurabh Swami: We had around 40-45 lakh students who were connected through our WhatsApp groups. But what to do about the rest? Our first challenge was to create digital content that would be understood by children in the cities as well as the villages. So more of it had to be in the vernacular language. We made our own videos and named our programme e-kaksha. All those videos are available on YouTube and the app and were circulated on WhatsApp. So around 45 lakh students were seeing these; for the rest, we started a campaign, ‘Aao Ghar se Seekhe Abhiyaan’. All the teachers took it upon themselves and went to the mohalla setup, collected students in an open space, like under a banyan tree or in a village in a big home, and taught. It helped in bridging the digital divide. Here were government school teachers connecting with parents and showing that, yes we are concerned about your children. That bond showed up later when the schools reopened. While private schools saw an attendance of 40-50 per cent, in the government schools, it was more than 90 per cent. It happened because our teachers were doing that extra bit. Covid is here to stay. In future, if we face any such circumstances, our students should be familiar with how to educate themselves with the help of digital videos, and to be able to establish a connection in live classes as well as in a two-way medium.

Dr Rao mentioned the innovation around digital content at IIT. So, if a student in India can take an MIT or IIT course online, won’t it change the idea of the university itself? Dr Ramaswamy, do you think the idea of the university as a physical space is under threat?
Ramaswamy: It could be. Pre-pandemic, I was doing some research on the global spread of liberal arts and I came across an interesting factoid. There are only about 85 institutions that have lasted 500 years or more. But what was absolutely stunning for me as an educator was to learn that 71 of these institutions that survived were universities. My point is, universities, as a centre of knowledge production, dissemination, research and teaching, have somehow found a way to last through some cataclysmic changes. So I wouldn’t write off the university just yet. Of course many universities will go bankrupt. It will be interesting to see if the idea of the university can withstand Covid the way it did the Spanish flu or any of these other changes. Universities are never static…

The universities that have money, resources, and access may come out of the divide much better than the others. It’s worse when you get down into the space between schools that are very well endowed and schools that are dependent on public funds. So I do think, as an economist, inequality is on the rise, globally, and I worry about what inequality will do within a country like India, but also across countries.

So universities have to study it, and also be the conveyors of change so that we don’t widen the gap. Because the last thing we want in a country like India are islands of excellence and opulence and opportunity, surrounded by a sea of deprivation and lack of opportunity because that is just a disaster for a democracy like ours.

Do you think the power of universities to decide who is going to walk in through their doors — the power to exclude — would have diminished in some sense with this pandemic?

Ramaswamy: I hope universities do pay attention to who all they’re reaching out to, because the one thing about scale is that instead of reaching 100 students, I can now teach 1,000 students. I think the pandemic may make universities a lot more humbler about who we admit and who we don’t. I do think we have a social good, all universities should think about the purpose of that equal opportunity. I’m not saying we will throw the doors open and everyone walks in… but in terms of access, I do think digital has opened the doors for really excellent teaching to be reaching out to a much larger population; and maybe not just limited to 18- to 22-year-olds or private students, but lifelong learning, different kinds of modularised learning. It’s high time universities become these and reach out to mid-career people.

Do you think Covid is prompting an even bigger push for science subjects?

Rao: There was always a push for engineering, which is basically an extension of science. We have never looked at research beyond paper publication. That is going to go through a major change now. Research and Development will now be in terms of relevance and delivery. For example, what is the relevance of your research to solving some of these problems, and if you solved the problem, how effective are you in delivering your solution to the people? I want to solve, for example, the air quality problem in Delhi. It requires at least six or seven departments to come together, understand so many aspects of air quality to develop engineering solutions, sensors and systems. If you put the problem first, then all these disciplines will vanish and that is what we have seen even during Covid. To develop a vaccine… a biology department could have done that, but if you wanted to develop anything beyond vaccines, for example, the treatment involved, and the prevention part of it, we needed a lot of technologies to come together. Ventilators are also one example where multiple departments needed to interact with each other.

Do you also see a role for students of humanities and other disciplines here?

Rao: I look at the humanities department as our window for society. Otherwise people go into the labs, work with machines and often forget that they’re actually human. They don’t know what is happening outside, they don’t even empathise with the problems that the society has… that is why humanities departments have a major role to play. For example, the agriculture problem. Unless someone tells us that this is why the farmers are struggling, these are the technologies they require and these are the policies that we make, that is when engineering becomes more interesting. We at IIT Delhi started a Grand Challenge initiative, where unless a humanities faculty member is present, you wouldn’t even receive any funding from the institute… The basic understanding starts from the sociologists and the economists and what they bring to the table. Engineers alone will not be effective unless they join hands with people with very diverse disciplinary training.

Coming to online assessment, Dr Wattal, what has your experience been with these tests?

Wattal: In this online testing business, there’s no way that I would like to put cameras up or keep those nannies watching them because you know very well that students can be absolutely fantastic at finding ways and means of navigating those. So I said that if there are teachers who find that suddenly overnight from a 50-percenter you become a 90-percenter, then we will just write “done very well with the support of parents and friends” on the report cards. After a while, I had phone calls from the parents.

Mr Swami, did you notice a heightened parent involvement in Rajasthan during this pandemic?

Swami: Yes, there was a lot of parent engagement because the mobile phone is still a luxury. So, a class four or five child may not have a mobile phone. So, for that you need parents synchronising their work cycles, so that the child could actually see the videos to do quizzes, respond to a teacher, etc. So, for that we needed parents and they have responded beautifully. The government of Rajasthan introduced some spoken-language courses like French, German and courses and workshops dealing with coding, robotics, vocational skills, and how to develop them for class eight onwards. So, different skill sets developed. We also started some digital training courses for teachers.

Dr Rao, do you think post pandemic, schools and colleges will be more flexible to the needs of students, instead of a one-size-fits-all approach?

Rao: That will take some more time. One thing which will definitely happen is, now, we will have a major presence in cyberspace. There will be a lot of programmes available. Our education on the campuses will be more hybrid. Lectures will be available to students, a lot of material is already available online, the flipped classroom kind of a model, probably, will pick up. The third thing is the research that we do will be judged as good research only if it becomes visible to society.

To end on a more positive note, what is your most exciting prediction for education?

Ramaswamy: I think the premium will be on innovation and how we connect. Because the one thing we have lost because of digital is the ability to connect and human beings love to connect. And once the pandemic eventually becomes endemic, I think the premium will be on who can innovate in a meaningful way. A lot of what we all spoke of pertains to various innovations, some of this fall under the concept of jugaad, but also the real innovation that moves the needle. So, I think innovation is something that should come through and will actually be transformative and disruptive.

Rao: Scale and quality, these two things will go hand in hand. I’m saying that because quality education has never been done on scale. And even on the innovation side, I can tell you that in the 60-year history of IIT Delhi, the highest number of patents we filed during the Covid-19 year… In 2020, IIT Delhi filed 153 patents, and that was because there was an urgency, there was a need, there was a problem which was very well-defined, the entire institute was working on just one problem, which is Covid. So no wonder the innovation potential also became so high during that year. That is a message, probably, that we can take from Covid.

Wattal: We all need a new culture for staff, students and family engagement to cater to different needs and abilities, and yet stay focused and create a system of collaboration for a new learning community. Learning will happen with or without us, but compassion, justice, environmental sensitivity, sustainable development goals, gender sensitivity — aspects that make us human are all embedded in our emotional compass. So it is essential that the socio-emotional learning compass gets into play.

Swami: The basic thing that our students and parents are going to learn from this pandemic is self-awareness, an awareness of opportunity. There is an awareness about news, about what is going on… like the farmer problem or environmental issues, but when we were going to school, we were simply going to school for learning and coming back. Not anymore.

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