Comment | Higher Education post-COVID-19

Photo used for representation purpose only.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

The COVID-19 pandemic is set to change the world sooner than we know. The way our governments, institutions, organizations, and people think and function, will radically change – perhaps for the long term.

Among many economic sectors, the higher education sector is undergoing a tectonic shift right now. What several futurists and education technologists have been forecasting for long, is now happening.

At least for two decades now, edutech (short for Education Technologies) enthusiasts have been predicting that technology will become the biggest intermediary of teaching–learning processes. In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, millions of students across the globe have been driven out of their university spaces, and professors are confined to their homes. Higher education stands disaggregated, and faculty and students are grappling with the sudden new norm of completely tech-mediated teaching and learning.

Over the past 20 years, this crossover to online learning was happening in fits and starts, in islands across different theatres – colleges, universities, skill development companies, corporate learning centers. Most policy level changes remained half-hearted attempts stemming from old mindsets. At best, old processes were replicated with some modern technology tools for a few courses as an ‘experiment’, or part of their existing classroom courses as ‘blended learning’.

No more.

About 60 million students across the globe, are limited to home during the crucial months of February to April - which generally see a flurry of curricular and assessment activities. Institutions and students alike are under pressure to not lose academic time and re-invent their teaching-learning in the only possible way – go completely online. What does this mean for the institutions and academic leaders, administrators and students in the long run is getting clearer.

The new, total technology-mediated education can be termed as Education 4.0, after the first three waves of education systems that evolved over 2000 years of civilization - the Gurukula system (one master to a few pupils), the traditional university system (one to many learners) and distance learning (one to very many learners across the spectrum).

The good news is – the mainstream institutions are willing to move to online, and there’s a possibility of habits changing to enable Education 4.0. Or are we just being optimistic? Let us ask some sobering questions -

  • Online higher education has been around for more than a decade now. Why did it not take over the conventional education system in the Pre-Covid era?
  • Why is it not a norm already?
  • When massive businesses have already moved from offline to online in the Pre-Covid era, why hasn’t higher education not moved to online?

While inertia and ‘fiefdom’ attitude of existing educators are partially to blame, the truth is, every industry that has become digital has had its own inertia and fiefdom hurdles. It is just that ‘digital’ brought in a massive wave of efficiency and effectiveness in these industries, and the pure economics and convenience of it washed away the inertia and fiefdom hurdles. In digital higher education, there has not been such a wave yet; it’s important to understand this.

Several efficiency and effectiveness reasons have impeded this wave, such as:

  • Abysmal completion rates in the digital higher education system;
  • Non-existent rigor of assessment;
  • Non-establishment or non-transparency about improvement in knowledge, application and competency in learners;
  • Non-contextual delivery (context is a key success factor in higher education; it influences the learning outcomes. Faculty in a classroom setup can size-up and deliver the class);
  • One-size-fits-all delivery;
  • Practitioners trying to just ‘transpose’ classroom to the digital medium, which is causing many problems;
  • Doing “live” classes may not bring in efficiency or effectiveness;
  • Taking a concept all the way to application or higher-order thinking is missing;

and many more reasons.

While the land is fertile for habits to change, the new digital landscape has its unsolved problems, and hence it is where it is.

The long term and sustainable triumph of this tectonic shift will depend on seven major elements of online learning.

1. Online learning is NOT a library of video lectures and e-books that converts class-notes into PDFs. Creating high quality digitized learning content must be contextualized and ‘byte-sized’ to make learning interesting and engaging. Doing this takes a rare skill set which few organizations in the world can boast of. Universities need to collaborate with such organizations for their digital pivots to be successful.

2. Subject matter covered in classroom is to be delivered online, but with technology as the intermediary. Blind replication of the same is a bad idea; it requires a great deal of understanding & application of learning science and digital pedagogy. Every teaching faculty needs to be enabled with this knowledge, or else collaboration with experts is the way forward.

3. Classrooms have typically diverse learner groups. In classical pedagogy, the best of teachers and subject matter experts derive a content-context cluster as a mean of the class’ collective ability and prior knowledge. Then the teaching–learning transaction is crafted according to that constructed mean. This will not and cannot work in online learning. Institutions need to spend as much time on the context for the diverse learner profiles, as on the content, and weave it into the program design.

4. New technologies including the emerging sciences of artificial intelligence and deep learning models can help us create customized learning plans and methods. Higher education institutions must embrace these quickly to overcome the ills of current digital higher education.

5. Online learning is not about ONE pedagogical model but an aggregation of various models. And it is indeed a specialized learning science that combines learning psychology, behavioral analytics, content delivery, and assessments to gauge and measure individual learner’s journey and progress. Working with specialists and ‘hand-stitching’ a delivery mechanism is the key.

6. Put learning science, and not technology, in the forefront. Very many models being created today seek to use technology and tools as a panacea and equate online ‘delivery’ with online ‘learning’. The former is teacher-centric, and the latter is learner-centric. ‘Learning’ is about gradually inducing changes in learner’s actions and behaviour. The learning process, in incremental steps, induces change in thinking and mental models of the learner through deep understanding and conceptual strengthening. After each learning episode, the learner will be able to apply the acquired knowledge in practical situations in life, profession, or workplace. Each teaching faculty needs to be massively re-trained and oriented for online teaching-learning mode. While they could be content experts or great classroom teachers, they need to place equal importance to ‘learning sciences in digital media’.

7. Of course, even in the post COVID-19 era, offline or conventional education models will not become obsolete. They will survive. However, blended learning (a combination of classroom and online modes) will be the norm. Institutions and teachers will blend the two judiciously according to the context and the content.

In sum, the newly realized need for establishing mature online education models, can be successfully met by making these “Queen sacrifices”!

  • Faculty to let go off their existing practices of transposing classroom to online medium without applying the ‘science of digital learning’
  • Universities to let go off their academic know-all stance and become willing to collaborate with digital learning specialists to train their teachers and re-design higher education for the newest online education world.

The next frontier to be faced is research – also monopolized by large, well-funded systems or organizations. How online learning will change the face of research will be an interesting crystal ball gazing exercise to do.

The authors are co-founders of  Threesixtyone Degree Minds, an edutech company.

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Printable version | Jun 15, 2021 12:04:42 AM |

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