Higher Education Manifesto For Post Pandemic India

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The last two years have clearly shown that technology-aided remote schooling is neither fully possible nor completely desirable. 

  1. Education Emergency: Why? How?

The last two years have clearly shown that technology-aided remote schooling is neither fully possible nor completely desirable. Digital education is surely a valuable add-on, but education must primarily be face-to-face, encouraging collective peer learning, a sense of bonding and discipline, and ensuring the mentors’ support and practical aspects are being done productively. A pre-pandemic study in the US showed that students in online schools lose between 0.1 and 0.4 SDs (standard deviations) on standardized tests compared to students in traditional schools. Higher education has a better use of digital learning, but in tandem with the physical, not exclusively. Learning is a socio-human behaviour, and peer engagement is compulsory, aided by the mentors in a physical space, further amplified digitally. Also, education includes social and emotional development and learning various interlinked concepts across subjects, which are difficult remotely.

Youngsters on the other side of the spectrum with good digital access are being pushed towards too much screen time without much thought for the repercussions this has on their health or the development of social skills. We are thus in a state of education emergency.

  1. Urgency to Restart Campuses: Points of Caution & Preparedness

In a webinar recently moderated by this author, the Assam Education Minister, Dr Ranoj Pegu, announced that campuses will open on September 1. The West Bengal Chief Minister has called for reopening after Durga Puja by the end of October. The Telangana government has allowed schools to open with some restrictions. The Delhi government has been collecting suggestions from students, teachers and parents on reopening and will take a decision suitably.

The most recent recommendation to open schools comes from the Dr Devi Shetty Committee Report, which uses international evidence and guidelines of the American and Indian Paediatric Associations to recommend opening schools and colleges wherever the positivity rate is low. Centralized decision-making won’t work here. Gram Panchayats and Corporations must make localized decisions based on state government guidelines.

While it is indisputable that campuses must open now in the context of an education emergency, with evaluation and assessment of learning becoming almost a mockery of sorts, it needs to be done with physical distancing maintained, necessitating only one-third or half the total number of students coming to campus each day; thus each student attending classes physically two or maximum three days a week, other days studying online. Further, mask-wearing is compulsory; all campuses need sanitization at entry, before meals, and avoid physical contact sports and activities for some time. Compulsory health check-ups and safe home centres on campuses, especially those with hostels, are also essential today. Practical work in crowded labs and studios needs to be avoided. Blended education is surely the way to go.

  1. New Education Policy Imperatives: Tech-focus, Blended, Flexibility, Longer Graduation, Higher Costs

Earlier the government of India announced the New Education Policy, which is expected “to overhaul and re-energize the higher education system to overcome current challenges and thereby deliver high-quality higher education, with equity and inclusion.” The focus is transforming higher education institutions into large multi-disciplinary universities, colleges and HEI clusters/Knowledge Hubs. The policy has a prominent technology focus for transforming campuses, talks about flexibility in education, blending the physical and the digital in the delivery of education, doing away with water-tight compartmentalization of arts, sciences and commerce, bringing in four years long graduation and one-year-long professional post-graduation or two-year long academic post-graduation, abolition of MPhil, an Academic Bank of Credits with entry and exit flexibility for learners to join anytime and leave to rejoin with earlier credits secure.

The implementation of the policy has been tardy, though, owing to the non-availability of the promised 6% of the union budget for education (it is actually less than half and lower than the 2020 education budget this year), lack of institutional incentives, absence of suitable regulatory changes as necessary, higher costs of executing the policy and thereby the higher cost of learning for students et al.

Public policy exponent Bernardo Mueller argued that public policies are non-linear and emergent. Public policies do not settle in equilibria and are hard to predict. They evolve and co-evolve. Public policies are subject to pre-existing cognitive biases. They are subject to reactivity. It is important to address the above challenges for implementing the NEP. Indeed, Indian education, being on the concurrent list (both Union and State governments can legislate on it) and being run by the government, the private and the people sectors alike, has layers of complexity, which makes it tough to deal with linear uniformity unless structural changes are brought in.

Without establishing a New Education Policy Commission, without the accountability of public officials in implementing the policy, without providing financial resources necessary for this task, and without further empowering institutions of eminence and other institutions which have been granted some autonomy to function, it would be well near impossible to implement NEP. Surely, above all, is the affordability of education for the larger masses of learners in India.

  1. Mentors & Mentoring in the New Normal

The role of the teacher of the past is changing, and more so post-pandemic.

The teacher was a sage on the stage, introducing every new topic, speaking the last word on it, sticking to a structured syllabus as prescribed, interpreting it as s/he deems right, finishing the syllabus and focusing on examination and evaluation to complete the cycle of delivery of education. S/he often demands respect, and relies on the power to punish to set things right (not always, though). The teacher teaches and often sermonizes.

Each premise noted above is changing now.

Today's Mentor is a co-learner, which may be the first stimulus for a topic but never the last word; starts from a structured syllabus but is expected to move towards organic learning depending upon the variegated interest areas of groups of learners. The Mentor aggregates learning resources from multiple sources and shares them with the learners. It is more of a guide, second parent and agony shelter for the learners. The examination is also changing to a more learner-friendly model of evaluation, which is just one more function and not the ultimate yardstick of learning and the brilliance of the learner. Mentors may often be less informed about an issue but with a better perspective to guide. Mentor engages and inspires.

  1. Learners & Learning in the Changed Situation

With mentors replacing teachers, the students cannot be the pre-COVID typical students going ahead.

Students study in the classroom, are taught by teachers, are limited to a given syllabus, and study for marks, grades, and degrees. Students give exams in writing and based on suggestions or set patterns of evaluation.

Learners study within and beyond the classroom. They learn through projects and assignments from mentors, peers, personal experience, books, and digitally aggregated content. Learners learn for lifetime application, and hence learn to learn further as things learnt today are obsolete soon. Self-learning or learning to learn is, hence, a major cultivated skill for present-day learners, especially in higher education, as techniques and technologies are changing in the workplace in less than five years. Learners also learn organically. While a structured syllabus must be completed for foundation and assessment, organic learning is self-driven learning in a few chosen areas out of interest, assisted by mentors.

  1. Revamping of Program Contents Focused on Outcomes

New normal education must not focus on customary practices and traditional habits or routines but purely on pre-determined learning objectives and learning outcomes, along with linkages with social utility and economic productivity. This would call for majoring in any subject or domain, but also minoring in some other related or unrelated domain so that there is a bigger scope of higher education received. It calls for self-learning, learning to learn as most skills and technologies lose relevance fast. It also calls for project-based learning, where a concept is learnt along with its skills and applied in a live real-life project so that the learning is internalized well. Even liberal arts subjects can be connected with social realities and projects, as much as technological or medical subjects are. Financial literacy, legal literacy, media literacy, emotional intelligence, teamwork and leadership, creative thinking, problem-solving and innovative attitude are basics of any and every domain of higher learning today. These elevate the outcome of the hard skills unique to the domain. Unfortunately, larger masses and most institutes are not focused on the same.

  1. Creating Learning Resources: Proprietary & Aggregated

A massive training trainer and capacity building is needed today to nurture the new age mentors. For this, first, the mentor has to be a digital personality with a smartphone and net connection and with a laptop and wifi connection. Next, one has to learn how to create, deliver and engage in content across multiple online platforms. To productively guide the learners, the mentors must also know how to take matters learnt online to skills practised offline face to face. Third, one has to now learn to assess with the open book through analysis and application, quizzes, applied projects, 'phygital' presentation and physical work in labs and studios after using virtual labs and studios.

Creating the learning resources was quite easy earlier. There were the books, often called text and reference books, then the PowerPoint presentation of the teacher, and then chalk and talk. The topic was first introduced in a class, after which notes were given, books were mentioned, and later, an examination was conducted to check memory and a bit of understanding.

The game has changed now.

There are three types of learning resources that mentors have to put together and use: (a) proprietary content (the mentor’s own videos, audio or podcast content, power-points, cases, info-graphics etc), (b) aggregated content (available books, monographs, videos, podcasts, URLs, pdfs, cases, etc taken from the internet, YouTube and Vimeo, etc), and also (c) massive open/closed online learning resources (free ones like Swayam or NAPTEL, paid ones like those of Coursera or LinkedIn, and the university’s own online courses).

The mentor is expected to make a mix of proprietary, aggregated and online learning resources, suitably arranging them from the easiest one to the toughest one and offer them to the learners digitally (using Google Class, emails, or through a Learning Management System like Canvas or TCSion, Blackboard or Collaborate, etc.) at least a week or more before they meet the learners digitally or physically to discuss the content. This is called Flipped Classroom, where the learners get learning content much in advance, read, watch or listen to the same asynchronously at their own time, place or pace, and note down questions & clarifications. Only then should they come to the digital/physical classroom synchronously to clarify doubts, discuss cases, debate on conclusions drawn and participate in quizzes or analytical or applied assignments. Delivery of the online session can be on any platform: MS Teams, Zoom, Webex, Google Meet and can move from the synchronous digital classroom to asynchronous digital chatroom debates and discussions for further clarification.

This makes the task of Content Creation and Content Delivery for the mentors much more diverse, tech-savvy, and tougher than the traditional teacher’s job, going ahead.

  1. Delivering the Learning Resources & Engaging the Learners, Even Practically

Further, education will move from a system-imposed disciplined endeavour to a voluntarily participated and internalized process. It will be truly a learner-centric education now in the new normal and shall be far more participative than in the past. While voluntary learning will throw many non-interested or apathetic learners out of the learning circle, it will also make many focused learners internalize education better and apply it in a more focused manner at his or her individual level.

Also, with Artificial Intelligence, robotics, automation, Machine Learning and the internet of things being the other emerging realities, the skills for mass production or education to do the same work repeatedly will be totally irrelevant ahead when machines take over almost all such work (more than three-fourths of all human work today). Hence, new-age skills, apart from technology use, have to be in areas like creativity, innovation, incubation, problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, design thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence and risk management.

To deliver such learning, the learners’ engagement techniques have to be more tech-savvy in the digital class (Google forms, polls, surveys, quizzes, virtual lab and studio, AI tools, etc.) and also have a higher emotional quotient (use of humour, videos, infographics, empathy in the physical class, allowing diversity of opinion, wellness conscious, etc).

  1. Evaluating & Assessing the Learners

Even the evaluation or assessment has to be diverse. Assessment refers to learner performance; it helps us decide if students are learning and where improvement in that learning is needed. Evaluation is a systematic process of determining the merit value or worth of the instruction or programme.

Assessment and evaluation can be formative (carried out during the course) and summative (carried out following the course). There can be many ways for the same. Mentors can inform learners of expectations in advance (e.g. one week for feedback from the deadline) and keep them posted. For example, one can create tests that are multiple-choice, true/false, or short-answer essays, and one can set the assessments to automatically provide feedback.

When online, evaluation can be based on proctored digital examination or open-book analytical and applied evaluation with non-googleable questions. This is surely not an easy task for the mentors, as teachers of the past were used to repeating past questions and had set patterns of questions. Examinations were ‘suggestions’ and memory-based and not application-based in general. Online quizzes and telephonic interviews have also been the usual ways of digital assessment and evaluation of learning.

There will also be an offline evaluation. Here, the assessment can be based on offline written examinations, field-survey-based presentations or report writing, debates, lab or studio-based practical, peer-group work, or submission of a long-term real-life or live project.

  1. Bridging the Digital Divide

The most recent study by McKinsey states that learning loss is global and significant owing to technology haves & have-nots. Technology often exacerbates the divide and does not always bridge it unless equity is ensured. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), 75th round, presents this divide starkly: less than 5% of rural households have computers. This number barely touches 25% in urban India. Hence, even among urban dwellers, most do not have a computer, which means the only digital access is the mobile phone, which does not ensure quality learning.

In November 2020, UNESCO noted that 52% of 283 million registered full-time students of India did not have one ounce of education during the pandemic starting from March 2020, while the remaining 48% had differing levels of digital learning owing to erratic connectivity and absence of computers in most cases. The UNICEF notes as recently as in June 2021 that due to COVID, even now, 1560 million children are not going to schools and colleges worldwide, of which nearly 250 million will never be able to return to schools due to worsening economic situation and other issues. Needless to say, a large number of these children are from India.

Bridging the digital divide is an urgent necessity today. An economically divided society is bound to be digitally divided, more so when the digital divide becomes acute in India's rural and tribal hinterlands, regardless of class position.

The problem is so acute that one in every five students may have to leave education if this situation continues for another six months. The axe will fall much more on the female students in a nation obsessed with the boy child. In the case of meagre competing resources like smartphones, laptops, or tablets, the boys are expected to be taken care of first before the girls in most poor rural homes and even many poor urban homes.

In this context, what can be the way to tackle the divide? How can #BridgeDigitalDivide movement start on ground and who can and should take the lead?

What also needs to be understood is that the definition of literacy itself has to be changed from the ability to sign to the ability to read, write and connect digitally. So, it is digital literacy, which is the literacy of the new normal. Along with food, shelter, clothes, basic health and basic education, digital access is the new human right for a dignified life. This has to be recognized and accepted in policy, in thought and public life. From this, our responsibilities will flow as a nation.

First is the government's onus. It is heartening to see that the New Education Policy promises 6 per cent of GDP for public education, while the current figures for the same are below 3 per cent. It is pertinent to note that the last education policy during Rajiv Gandhi's rule as Prime Minister also promised 6 per cent but never crossed half of it. We all live on hope, and we shall expect the current government to fulfil its promise given in 2020.

The additional 3 per cent allocation should be budgeted as early as possible and allocated for the first one or two years largely not much for expanding physical infrastructure, but surely for bolstering the digital outreach and connectivity across the length and breadth of the country, which has to be a public policy and a government initiative.

Company law in India was amended earlier to require 2 per cent of profits to be contributed to corporate social responsibility by every company (CSR Act). While compliance with this is in progress, the impact in real life is debatable in many cases. However, the corporate world's CSR needs to be focused on extending digital connectivity and providing digital tools to the digital have-nots for at least two years.

Alongside, telecom companies must offer new reduced internet connectivity packages for bona fide teachers and students at all levels, especially in rural India. This can be similar to students’ concessions in buses and trains during travel (Delhi has free travel for students and women in public transport).

Companies, organizations and civil society leaders across India must also unleash a movement to donate old but usable smartphones, laptops, desktops and tabs to students who cannot afford to get them. The voluntary sector must aggressively take up initiatives like #MillionMobileCampaign. Several NGOs have started similar initiatives, and educational institutes with resources have started training young children on digital learning and teachers in online teaching coming from schools and colleges, which cannot easily afford these.

This is the new freedom movement ahead—freedom to be digitally connected in learning, healthcare, purchase of essentials, and entertainment. 


Prof. Ujjwal Anu Chowdhury

The author is Vice President, Washington University of Science and Technology and Editorial Mentor, edInbox.com