As soon as her Bachelors (triple major in Humanities) ended, Ishika (name changed) applied for a Masters programme in business in the same college (Christ University, Bengaluru). A native of Kerala, Ishika wanted to complete her studies and work in Bengaluru, a city which had become her favourite, thanks to the presence of top industry brands where she could work after her MBA in marketing.

When the course was about to commence, Covid struck and turned her plans upside down. The university switched to an online course, and just before the lockdown started, Ishika had to pack her stuff and rush back to her family in Kerala. "I felt let down and the course wasn't appealing anymore. All my dreams crumbled," recalls Ishika. Every day she would sign in, stare at her lecturer and classmates' faces on her laptop, and log out, with neither registration of the learning nor recall.

"Online learning initially looked exciting. But with time, it only turned us lazy," says Dhruv Gala, a student of Jamnalal Bajaj Institute of Management Studies, Mumbai. But slowly, with the pandemic showing no signs of going away, Dhruv realised the need to accommodate. After all, online classes were not going to go away, at least not immediately. "After a point in time, Zoom classes got disciplined. Raising hands became the norm for speaking up or asking questions and unwanted intrusions stopped," adds Hariram Rajagopalan, a student of Great Lakes Institute of Management.

Once classes became more interactive and assessments began, students started putting in their best. Malavika Narula Del had enrolled in a one-year management programme in Indian School of Business (ISB), Mohali. When Covid interrupted the commencement of classes in 2020, she took a break and rejoined a year later. As colleges reopened after three months of online classes the third wave hit, forcing students to go back to online learning again. In the final year, as Malavika's batch was preparing for campus placements the institution reached out to students and made sure they stayed calm. As the world was grappling with the pandemic and peer-to-peer interaction and learning went missing, the institute helped them cope.

"The college provided us with good meals and timely tests. The sick were isolated. The interactions were very reassuring and helped us stay afloat. There was a lot of mentoring and support to get us out of the crisis. Some of us had to take individual psychological sessions to handle the uncertainty and anxiety associated with the time ahead. In fact, the care and support the institution gave could not have been possible even if we had been with our families," says Malavika.

Post vaccination when fears started to subside, offline classes were reintroduced. But getting back to the new normal was not easy for students as well as colleges.

"There was still a lot of apprehension. We took time to stay back in the campus after classes, talk and eat together. Catching up with lost time and lessons was lingering at the back of our minds," says Hariram. "The institution did its best to complete our learning, clarify doubts — they even provided video lectures as a top-up for online classes to improve students' understanding of the subject," he adds. But students did not feel like going back. "What we learnt during the online class was it. We were looking forward to moving ahead," says Hariram.

The Covid Impact

Indeed, Covid had left a lasting impact on students, says Mona Kamani, a consultant psychologist in Bengaluru. "From procrastination, to lack of accountability, it set the beginning of certain personality disorders. This was also the time a lot of anger issues came to the fore. I had one student who had trouble leaving her mom back in the city to go back and continue her course offline. She had lost her dad to Covid and was anxious that once she left, she would lose her mom too. In the end, she decided to give up her course and stay back."

Resilience building had completely come off. Many students got stuck and didn't know how to move ahead. "In fact, it is time for institutions to focus on rebuilding resilience and crisis management skills among students," says Kamani.

"The mentor-mentee arrangement helped us immensely to come out of the gloom and get a sense of direction," says Ishika, who found a job as soon as she left college.

It also made students more responsive to societal obligations. After graduation, Malavika and her fellow B-schoolers forged a pact to support Covid-grads. "The sense of community stayed with us," says Malavika.

Making students go back to offline was not easy at all, says K. Sathyanarayanan, dean, commerce, research and management, Annai Velankanni College for Women, Chennai, especially since online already had its side effects. Online was never as seamless as it was expected to be, and most students were taking classes on their phones since they did not have laptops. Internet connectivity was also bad at times. Teachers, too, had no way of assessing their learning.

"They came back lacking in self-motivation and time management skills. With no proper feedback from e-learning, students felt frustrated. Initially, we didn’t know how to plan things ahead. We later decided to conduct an open book exam and move forward," adds Sathyanarayanan.

Besides, the Covid cohort missed interacting, networking and gaining industry insights from visiting professionals and speakers. The job market wasn't upbeat either. Companies were cutting back on new recruits owing to the recession.

"We conducted games and tours, made students read biographies of stalwarts to motivate them. The toughest challenge was to make them focus on the learning in hand. Many were addicted to their phones and technology," says Sumiya S., assistant professor, MEASI Institute of Management, Chennai.

As the world comes out of Covid blues, things have started looking up for B-School students as well. According to The Enrolled Students Survey – 2022 Summary Report by the Graduate Management Admission Council (GMAC), a global association of leading graduate business schools, 86% got employed as soon as they graduated. The hiring percentage reportedly fell in the middle of 2020, but picked up in 2021. Also, the post-Covid cohort now prefers full-term MBA in place of the short-term programmes, the survey adds.

"It is a different time now and we need to recalibrate our techniques and approaches to move ahead," says Sathyanarayanan.

"A sustainable combination of teaching and evaluation methods, especially with technological applications is necessary to combat challenges. Teachers must be trained adequately to handle and trouble-shoot with these new methods," he adds.

Switching completely online again is not a possibility. But one thing is certain. The future of education will include a mix of both.

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