Education in the Times of Corona

By Ritwik Balo

By the time you have reached this page, all schools, colleges and universities in India as in most parts of the world will already be under lockdown. This effectively means that all students are at home, teachers (except maybe those with administrative duties) have been excused from work and libraries are closed. Put in a different way, all formal educational/academic activities have come to a standstill. We, of course, do not know how long this lockdown will continue; we are absolutely clueless as to when a vaccine will be invented, people sick with Covid-19 will be cured and life will be back to normal, that is, if it ever will. For all we know, this may very well be our new normal for a very long time.

As world-leading virologist Peter Piot puts it, outbreaks such as this “… will happen again”. However, education cannot stop. Rather, it must not be allowed to continue to be in a halt. And, of course, we certainly need to be prepared for the next pandemic, the next 21-day lockdown. We cannot wait for the time when everything will be back to the way it was because that day, if it ever comes, is certainly not anytime soon. Therefore, the education sector must find ways to adapt to these hard times as most other industries have.

How can the education sector adapt?

As schools and universities put a halt to academia, it leads to a series of disruptions, the effect of some of which are being felt now, while yet others will surely be felt later. It’s a no-brainer that with classrooms closed, precious tax-payer money goes to waste, examinations get delayed, entrances and admissions have to be put on hold, the academic calendar is compromised and the entire education sector is jeopardized. When exams can’t be held and learning is under lockdown, new jobs are not created and old job posts cannot be filled since qualifying exams have been put on hold. Clearly, the ripple effect of a lockdown is enormous and, certainly, something needs to be done about this. So how do we compensate for this? How do we prevent our students from losing valuable semesters which, inevitably, sets them back in their academic journey? How do we ensure that prospective Bachelors and Masters of all disciplines continue learning and can appear for online interviews for Work-From-Home jobs in so many industries?

The short answer is quite simple: Do what private sector organizations have been doing for a long time and what some universities have recently begun – a step towards virtual education. While the sound of it may smack of something akin to luxury, make no mistake – this is now a necessity. It is high time that the Indian education sector wakes up and upskills itself to be more tech-savvy. Clearly, it’s students already have.

What are the existing Online Learning facilities?

The good news is that, even though they have not been put to large scale use, the foundations for Online education in India do exist and are quite strong. Currently, there are several platforms that offer MOOCs or Massive Open Online Courses. Many of these courses are free of cost, can be enrolled in at any time of the year and allow the student to learn at his/her own pace. Additionally, upon completion, many of these courses offer Certification for free while a few others charge a nominal price. Some popular platforms that offer online education throughout the world are Coursera, edX, Udacity, Udemy, FutureLearn, among others. One such initiative in India is the Swayam platform. All these platforms offer MOOCs in collaboration with leading universities across the world.

What are the limitations of Online Learning platforms?

The basic requirement for MOOCs is simple: a smartphone or a computer and an internet connection. However, in a country like India, a large number of people are still not able to meet these requirements. Also, existing MOOCs may be of help to students, but they are certainly no help to teachers.

How can teachers teach-from-home?

The basic requirement for teachers to TFH (Teach-From-Home) is the same as the requirement for enrolling in MOOCs: a smartphone and an internet connection. Once these requirements are met, the rest is dependent on a handful of apps and, more importantly, the willingness to adapt. Considering that pandemics and lockdowns are likely to go on for some time now and (god forbid) happen again, adapting to new teaching-learning tech is absolutely (and I cannot emphasize this enough) the need of the hour.

TFH is a novel concept in the Indian academia, since very few colleges and universities have formally implemented this method as a part of their curriculum, primarily because there has been no dire need to do so in the past. However, this unprecedented situation requires adapting. Therefore, I dedicate a full article on TFH, which can be accessed here.

Ritwik is an Assistant Professor of English in Kolkata and an organic farmer in his village in Raiganj. He hates smelly-feet and pesticides, and there’s nothing he likes in particular.

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