Education

Lessons from a pandemic

The whole world is witnessing a paradoxical situation where carnage in some areas is complemented by improvement in others. Most governments across the world resorted to the desperate measure of lockdown to protect lives and buy time to respond to the invisible threat. However, factors such as the time-to-market for a vaccine, and the economic and social costs of lockdown are forcing them to nudge institutions and individuals to learn to live with the virus. A key concern is whether students have learnt from this once-in-a-lifetime experience?

Many students in their final year find themselves in a state of high uncertainty, especially when their admissions or job offers have been cancelled, and the idea of a gap year is not viewed positively. The anxiety of class XII students is also understandable. What about those in between? I have been exchanging notes with over 300 engineering students about their experience during the lockdown. As expected, one of the top priorities was academic work, i.e. completing assignments/projects and preparing for exams. Others, in the order of importance, included reading books, coding, online courses and contests, social media and entertainment, household chores and spending time with family.

Not many seemed to realise that they were missing out on an opportunity to gain some invaluable experience in life skills. Even if they did, their conditioning that learning, innovating and working (LIWing) are isolated activities that happen in different institutions would have affected the quality of their experience. Let me illustrate this by reflecting on my own experience.

Integral nature of LIWing

In the initial stages of the lockdown, I focused on completing my coursework using online tools and trying to hold together the nascent incubation ecosystem. Luckily, the course that I was handling — Sociology of Design — was a useful vehicle to explore the situation. In the process of encouraging students to practice ethnography in the context of their homes, we coined words like Coronage and Covidya to make sense of the new situation. On the home front, I started taking ownership of household activities that were outdoor and not in conflict with my work schedule like cleaning the car, watering the plants, preparing tea in the morning, and sprucing up the garden in the evening. I felt I was doing my bit, but this did not seem to help. The increased workload inside the house resulted in frequent flare ups, threatening the social order.

It took a couple of weeks for me to realise the changing context inside the house and that there were tasks where scalability was an issue. For instance, cutting vegetables, kneading dough, and the frequency of mopping the floor. Once I started taking up these activities, the situation started to ease and the social order was restored. I realised that my household workload had now increased to three hours a day and that it affected some other priorities, but I was able to repeat the process every day without feeling it as a chore.

As I continued the conversations with students to make sense of the Coronage and my new responsibilities, I noticed that I had to quickly figure out the social (people, relationships and requirements) and physical contexts (where different objects were), translate the requirements into functions like cutting vegetables, understand expectations (cleanliness, quality), discover nuances in the cutting process (depending on the form of the vegetable, the type of knife, cutting board) and deliver the outcomes (size, shape, sequence). I had to improve skills and efficiency in accomplishing some tasks and improvise in a few areas.

In other words, I was learning, innovating and working simultaneously. It is this integral nature of LIWing that was helping me immerse in the context and get a glimpse of household work. It also reinforced the idea that experiencing means LIWing in the context and transferring this ability across domains, which is the essence of design, innovation and leadership.

Once-in-a-lifetime experience

It is important for us to realise that the Coronage is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. It can change interactions in every sphere of human activity — home, work, education, health, time, travel, eating/drinking, shopping — and trigger micro-trends. For instance, it has brought fresh focus on personal health and healthcare systems. It has blurred the boundaries between work and home, weekday and weekend. It has given new benchmarks for a cleaner environment. It has challenged the power imbalance between experts and commons; and messed up predictions of AI/ML models.

Above all, I think it has given us a mirror to reflect and a window of opportunity to explore the unique characteristic of everyday household work, where the integrality of learning, innovating and working still thrives, unlike in the academia and industry. It is time for students and institutions to acknowledge the value of this LIWing environment. Academic institutions must seriously consider encouraging students to learn by doing in their contexts as they shift towards online course delivery. It is only through a deeper appreciation of their local contexts that students can contribute to atmanirbharata. This is the new challenge that institutions must gear up to prepare students for LIWing in the Coronage.

The writer is Dean (Design, Innovation & Incubation), Indian Institute of Information Technology, Design and Manufacturing, Kancheepuram.

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Printable version | Nov 26, 2020 1:37:51 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/education/lessons-from-a-pandemic/article31989151.ece

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