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As Higher Education Goes Online, Professors Struggle In Adapting To The Digital

As Higher Education Goes Online, Professors Struggle In Adapting To The Digital

Coronavirus outbreak has pushed professors and students to adopt online learning

But can online education replace the experience of physical classrooms?

We delve into the aftermath of this change in education style and involved challenges

Covid-19 brought in overwhelming uncertainties for each one of us. While office-goers adapt to the remote work culture, colleges are embracing the online learning modules and discussions. For many, the lockdown has resulted in an uncertain examination schedule, lost internship opportunities and pulling back of job offers. 

In March, colleges thought things would settle by June. In May, the ministry is expecting August to be that month of certainty. Till then, colleges are depending on video conferencing and other online learning tools to complete the ongoing semesters. And the biggest question at this juncture is the effectiveness of online classes and whether it can replace the experience of a physical classroom adequately? 

A lot has been said about the growth of edtech and online learning with the lockdown in effect, and while it’s undoubtedly making access to learning easier for school students, the challenges in higher education are far different. Faculty here need to keep their skills updated to cope with the changing real-world requirements, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. 

According to Pulak Ghosh, Professor at Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore, there is no alternative to physical classrooms when it comes to any level of education. He noted that discussion becomes tough in online environments and all the participants are not equally educated on how to make best use of online platforms. The digital divide is not completely erased with edtech. 

However, he agreed that this period of relying on online learning will bring some changes to the educational system in the long term.

“I think what will change is, we will go to a mixed classroom. Basic preparatory or some basic courses will be permanently offered online followed by physical class,” said Ghosh. 

Vivek Wadhwa, distinguished fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Engineering, Silicon Valley also noted that there will be a fundamental change in expectations now that students and faculty have experienced online education. 

How Are Learners Taking Up To The Higher Education Challenge?

A recent upGrad-FICCI research indicated that 92% of learners have adopted online learning as compared to 68% in the pre-corona period. Most of these learners are using the online platform for  building digital skills in the areas of data sciences, AI, ML, full-stack software engineering, digital marketing and MBA courses. 

In the last month, higher education-focussed upGrad reported having reached the 500K learners mark and had to double class and course capacity to meet the demand. Similarly, Unacademy claims to have witnessed more than 1Bn minutes watch time for its free live classes in the past one month and its daily active users rose to around 500K per day. Since March, there’s been a 110% increase in new subscribers on Unacademy platform resulting in over 1.5 Mn registered learners. 

This brings us back to the question about whether these online learning trends can be sustained in the post-lockdown market?

According to Arjun Mohan, the India CEO of upGrad, thanks to various universities and colleges adopting technology, online higher education has hit the fast track around the world. He estimated that the demand will sustain even after the Covid-19 boom for edtech, steered by the comfort, safety and flexibility offered by online education. 

Mohan was also optimistic about monetisation trends in online education and said, “With the proliferation of the edtech sector, people are realising the value and convenience it has to offer, at a price that is much affordable in comparison to the offline setup. So the benefits offered by edtech companies will continue to drive Indians to invest in online programmes without hesitation.”

The company’s metrics also indicate that this phase has led to higher uptake for paid online programmes and not just free courses. upGrad said it witnessed 72% growth in its booked revenue in April as compared to January 2020 along with a 54% growth in the learner base in the same period. 

“The definite shift in consumer perception is one of the major trends that is being observed currently. As schools and colleges are closed and social distancing has become imperative, the overall perception towards online education is changing globally,” said Karan Shroff, vice president of marketing, Unacademy. 

Are Educators Ready For The Big Shift?

Many universities and educators have been using traditional learning methods for decades for self-training as well as knowledge development, and moving to the digital world will require the professors to inculcate and implement newer techniques to retain engagement and ensure that students grasp the concept. The connection that one gets in the real world cannot be emulated via a screen. 

Carnegie Mellon’s Wadhwa also agreed. “Students have easily adjusted but the professors are the ones who have struggled — because they are not used to technology. Now they will have to learn and adapt.”

But there’s definitely a need to train the trainers through webinars to ease the shift. Further, India’s looming digital divide cannot be erased overnight, and the online delivery of entire curricula for professional courses like medical, architecture and engineering also remains a challenge in remote learning. IIMB’s Ghosh says online education needs a lot more interactive tools than just face-to-face calling and pre-recorded lessons. 

“What we need is a more interactive platform to make full use of online teaching”, — Pulak Ghosh, IIM-B

According to Niva Bhandari, assistant professor at Management Development Institute (MDI) Gurgaon, though the education industry is more or less forced to move on digital platforms, more than half the number of faculty members have never taught classes online before. “Universities and educators see the move to online platforms as a necessary evil. The outbreak is calling upon them to modify behaviour, culture, business and habits so as to embrace the new normal and survive for good.” 

Following the announcement of lockdown, MDI Gurgaon also followed the AICTE directions that ongoing semesters should be continued through online classes. MDI faculty were given laptops well-equipped for online teaching and additional training sessions were conducted for them to help them further in teaching online.

In addition to online classes, the professors also take real-time feedback of the engagement of the students during the lecture, by utilising functions such as cold-calling, raise hands, polling or questions. To enable more interaction with the peers, 5-10 minute short peer discussions – group or paired, are also arranged in the virtual break-out rooms.

She said many educators are leveraging online discussion forums, virtual guest faculty and the sharing of free educational resources from the best universities across the world. “Professors have been grappling to find newer ways to keep these technology-savvy learners engaged. It is time that the students learn more through the online platforms and then compliment that with their own independent learning. The question is not about the supremacy of online versus offline mode because good teachers will adapt their design, delivery and evaluation activity accordingly,” added Bhandari.  

Correction Note | 13:35, May 12, 2020

  • MDI Gurgaon’s internship schedule was taken down from the story, as the information is only a suggestion made by AICTE notification and not an announcement made by the institute. We apologise for the mistake.
  • Additional information about the institute’s online learning initiatives were added to the story.