Education institutions have been among the hardest hit by the current COVID-19 lockdown. Overnight, they were forced to consider a new medium, which had been supposedly only an experimental endeavour till then. In the typical higher education model, classes are held in a physical environment, usually through case studies, lectures or group work.
The lecture mode is usually used in highly technical subjects where the professor explains detailed concepts or theory. This is augmented by a Q&A as part of the session, where students can get their queries clarified.
Lecture vs Study
On the other hand, most business schools use the case method, pioneered at the Harvard Business School, as a teaching method. The richness of a case discussion comes from participants’ contributions, and the professor’s ability to evoke responses and have discussions guided into the intended areas, to bring about learning for participants. The basic assumption is that by learning how decisions were made in the past, one can train one’s self to evaluate between multiple choices in the given context, usually with limited information. This will help train the thinking process more than the pursuit of what is the “right” answer.
Now lecture-based sessions have gradually moved online, with some fairly good results. There are a number of courses available online, on various platforms such as Coursera, Udemy, Edx, and so on. But I found a higher focus on IT-related courses.
The online teaching method is not supposed to be conducive for teaching cases. The typical objections were that there is no personal contact and there cannot be a classroom discussion. This may have been true earlier, but the current tools available largely serve this purpose. Breakout rooms in Zoom allow small-sized groups to be formed, with the instructor being able to visit each of these rooms. Newer tools are being designed by which the instructor can cold call, even on video conferences, or participants can be invited to contribute. The most important part is to realise that this is a new medium and we are now in the early stages.
Experiments vs learning
The lockdown has forced institutions to go online, without any warning or preparation, and consequently, learn fast. There is a lot of experimenting going on as there is scarce experience in this area. The faculty have had to learn the medium and then understand how to use it effectively in class. Juggling between various controls, chat windows, allowing people electronically into the class, watching online videos, or switching between various windows, or drawing on a separate digital pad or on-screen, could become overwhelming for most faculty. But there is really no choice but to learn. Many faculty have stepped up to the task, for this is the medium of tomorrow.
On the other hand, students are in a familiar and comfortable home environment, but perhaps face challenges that anyone running a home office would face — that of balancing home responsibilities with the rigours of being in a classroom. However, the online world has the advantage of flexibility, along with reduced commuting time. Additionally, societies and business are moving to a largely online presence. The basic objection that there is less interaction in an online space, is redundant, if one considers the constant attention to WhatsApp chats. These have now been augmented by Zoom, Google or Skype calls for socialising. Once this becomes the accepted norm, online education will become more acceptable.
Institutions will realise that this method allows them to retain their best faculty, offering them better control over their schedules. Faculty will soon get over the learning curve and begin to appreciate the enhanced capabilities of the digital medium. They will be able to reach out to a wider range of students who need not come to campus all the time, and students who were earlier sitting in classes will prefer operating from homes or internet cafes.
In short, things are not going to be the same again. The question is, how prepared are we?
The writer is Professor, Strategy and Family Business, at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan’s S.P.Jain Institute of Management & Research