Break the traditional rhythms

Designing a core curriculum around student experience will remain the key to educational institutions emerging stronger.   | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

With COVID-19 having pushed colleges and universities to new delivery modes since March, many of us have realised how humane and important it is to have direct face-to-face teaching and learning. While there is a debate over when we can re-open the institutions, another question is whether our educational structures and delivery formats can be more agile, compared to the pre-pandemic period?

New scenarios

Inevitably, the priority of coming days will be the health and safety of students, professors and staff. We cannot completely digitise the educational, social, and psychological support available on-campus. Many experts also do not see a complete return to full-capacity campus soon. So, apart from mere reopening with a protocol, each institution needs a strategic plan.

In their recent work, education futurists Maloney and Kim propose that university leaders will need to bring a framework of density, not location, in their planning for coming academic terms. Campus density refers to how many individuals can occupy the campus safely at a time for work, study and living. Between the continuum of back-to-normal (full density) and fully remote (no density), they suggest different scenarios. One way is to alter institutional timings by shifting semesters or providing a gap year. Another is to revisit the curriculum and schedule. In India, this includes opting for block plan, or modularising curriculum or devising a split curriculum.

Under the block plan method, students stay in the campus for four or five weeks to learn a single course, which is considered as a block. The institution can plan how many blocks it can afford to offer and can add blocks in a phased manner. This plan can be adapted to emergencies.

Modular courses are short, topical, and experiential and are largely online. Because of flexibility in length, topics, links across concepts, access and sequencing, students find modular courses more constructive. This method requires re-designing individual components of the course and sequence to suit the local context and may also require training of faculty.

Under the split approach, courses are delivered both in-person and online at the same time by the same faculty. The students can choose whether to attend the physical class or join online. However, this may need more investment in classroom technology.

A broad alternative for residential campuses is low residency courses that have already been adopted by many IITs, IISc and national institutions in their programmes for working executives. Its compressed and focused nature makes it more effective than the traditional pattern at times.

Institutions can weigh the risk factors and resources for different scenarios and opt for the best strategy by combining them in myriad ways.

We need more hybrid and highly flexible modes of working. Agile academic structures and administration are the determinants in the game.

Digital equity

Education inequalities at the global level are accelerating, especially where these differences were high before the pandemic, points out a study by Vegas and Winthrop published by Brookings. In many places in India, communities have shown the potential to solve digital inequality. However, Despite the best efforts from governments, the last eight months have seen different levels of digital inequity at play. The disparity in income levels reinforces physical access to digital technologies. It further permeates to skill difference or the ability to use the technology.

The emergency remote teaching that we have been doing was unplanned. Therefore, many inefficiencies and gaps can be excused. However, while reopening institutions, we need to use strategic tools that are adaptable. To aid this, we suggest a template for a digitally-equitable institution based on 20 parameters grouped into five broad dimensions for each student:

Device: Availability, Quality, Usage, Power

Connectivity: Infrastructure, Reliability, Power

Affordability: Price, Choice, Payment terms, Financial assistance

Relevance: Content form, Content level, Context, Language, Universal design

Support: Educator support, Technical support, Maintenance load, Digital leadership

The learner data on these parameters will act as a baseline to develop strategies for digital equity in each institution. This can also guide the revamp of IT policies, develop course protocols, and ensure sustained digital leadership in the institution.

Future disruptions

As climate change and depleting resources are daily realities, ensuring that the learning process is not affected by emergencies requires a shift from the current institutional practices. We need to develop differentiated plans for probable uncertainties, plan and build for varying scenarios, and accommodate meaningful flexibility in institutional practices.

We will soon find ourselves implementing many changes in academic logistics such as dynamic timetables, alternate shifts, modular low-residency courses, hybrid and hyflex programmes along with the efforts to be more digitally equitable. Such efforts free us from the current black-and-white thinking of online versus offline.

Amid the changes, designing a core curriculum around student experience will remain the key to emerge stronger. To provide safe and reliable ways of retaining the best of the campus experience, many prevailing structures and hierarchies will have to take a back seat to ensure sensible and sustainable learning.

Disclaimer: The views expressed here are personal.

G. Srinivas is the Additional Secretary and Salil S. is the Education Officer with University Grants Commission.

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Printable version | Jan 17, 2021 12:43:20 PM |

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