As the pandemic rages, all systems that have been painstakingly put in place are being sorely tested. Often, the trials faced by the people who steer these systems are going undocumented. Under these circumstances, Higher Education Going Online: The Challenges in India , an e-book edited by Sujin Babu and Ram Ramaswamy, brings in perspectives of various stakeholders participating in the higher-education network. It registers multiple voices by including six articles from educators in Social Sciences and the Humanities and the Science and Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) disciplines; four written by students; one each on Medical and Agricultural education and two articles by experts well-versed with the Indian and American education systems.
In the words of Sudakshina Gupta, whose article is the first in the series, “Online classes are no substitute for classroom teaching.” The reasons range over many issues including shortage of facilities, the digital divide, linguistic differences and more. As Ambili Thomas puts it, “It came as an eye-opener for me that out of 110 students in the class, less than 50% had a smartphone.” Her college has students from both the rural and urban parts of Kozhikode and also a sizeable number of tribal students from neighbouring Wayanad.
With online classes, the crucial feedback the teacher gets from each student is missing; how then can the teacher tune herself, or himself, to the needs of the class? How does one motivate poor learners? While there is a positive aspect in that online courses by faculty from premier institutions are available to the students in the form of MOOCs, webinars and NPTEL-SWAYAM courses, can this be the mainstream rather than just supplementary?
Jyotsna Jha also draws the reader to this aspect of the National Educational Policy 2020. She points out that research on open and distance learning (ODL) has not accounted for the structural bottlenecks marked by “issues of gender, caste, location, illiteracy, linguistic diversity, income levels and consequent powerlessness.” She points out that the NEP “lays disproportionate emphasis on the use of online for various purposes… with reference to an imagined global quality and standard… without reference to relevant research.”
From her position as faculty in the Department of Communication, University of Hyderabad, Usha Raman describes the challenges in grooming young people to be independent learners. V. Madhurima speaks of how COVID-19 has exacerbated an already existing precarious state of newly formed universities. A physicist, now based in the Central University of Tamil Nadu at Thiruvarur who has also spent considerable time at Mizoram University, she has witnessed a steady decline of infrastructural support to newer universities. Riddhi Shah, from Department of Mathematics at Jawaharlal Nehru University, speaks of teaching mathematics online and discussing with her Ph.D students. “They also need advice about their synopses, the layout of chapters…” she writes, outlining the paucity of online meetings.
The article on teaching and learning experimental science, by Vikrant Yadav and Asya Darbinyan, gives valuable insights on conducting virtual labs.
With nuggets of hope embedded in a stream of despair, the book discusses the role of online education in a post-COVID period and in the light of the National Education Policy 2020.
It must be read by anyone who hopes to understand the impact of the pandemic on the Indian educational system and is interested in developing solutions for higher education. In this, it serves as a valuable document.
Higher Education Going Online: The Challenges in India, edited by Sujin Babu and Ram Ramaswamy, available for free download at https://www.ias.ac.in/Publications/e-Books/Higher_Education_Going_Online