About six months ago, when the lethal Coronavirus had not yet emerged, nobody had the slightest idea that technology was about to witness a massive transformation—from a convenient option to a draconian mandate. Consequently, the screen time of students across age groups has drastically boomed, and this time no one is complaining. But now, the over-burdened supply side has been found wanting as most digital tools for interactive learning and videoconferencing are being examined under the microscope, like never before.

If digital education is to be accessible to all (or most) students, we may need to seriously think of changing the way online teaching, learning, and evaluation is designed, and being currently delivered. We may need to probe deep into how the student’s physical presence in the academic institution can be minimised to the extent possible, even after the lockdown is lifted, and without compromising on pedagogical progress and experiential learning. Augmented and virtual reality will play a crucial role in facilitating the exercises that were hitherto performed in physical laboratories. Already, dedicated chat sessions, webinars, video lectures, podcasts, and document shares have become more popular than ever before.

The forced reality certainly presents a rare opportunity to weed out the shortcomings of conventional teaching methods and models, which have been unabashedly stressing on rote learning, despite widespread condemnation. Clearly, this mammoth innovation cannot happen in isolation. We need a collaborative effort involving stakeholders from the government, academia, industry, and, of course, technology vendors. Finally, and not the least important, the huge challenge of scale confronts us. When we talk of India, we must talk less about the privileged metros and more about the deprived rural populace and tier 2 and 3 towns, where Internet connectivity is still suspect.

While technology is a critical component of the digital solution—in fact, its very carrier—a few misconceptions merit a change for the better. We may seriously think of moving towards a partial home-schooling approach as the value of the personal touch and eye contact can never be overemphasised in the learning voyage. Online learning is obviously lacking in this crucial area, but teachers and parents can help bridge the gap by partnering with their children in their digital learning tryst. Overdependence on apps to simulate engagement through quizzes, exercises, and recorded applause are not the answer. We may need to increase interaction with our children to help expand their horizon and encourage lateral and logical thinking through discussions and debates.

Students in schools and colleges are today extremely perplexed, what with adjourned exams, abandoned classes, deferred internships and placements, and postponed academic calendars. Reportedly, over 1.2 billion students worldwide have been denied access to a classroom. Most students of higher classes are clueless about the likely scenario post the lockdown reversal. They have a recurring fear that lower grades or failures could push them out of the game forever.

Students everywhere need the support of their parents and teachers in coming to terms with the new reality. Extra effort to show them the silver lining, to enthuse them about a brighter future in the making, and about the undeniable benefits of hybrid learning that has come to stay need to be on our agenda.

The teaching fraternity is equally clueless and they too stare at an uncertain future. Many teachers dread that online learning, if made the de facto standard, may deprive them of their jobs if they are uncomfortable with the new media. They fear that new centres of learning may reduce conventional academic institutions to clockwork bodies conducting examinations and issuing certificates in supplementary fashion. The Massive Open Online Course wave, they feel, may stake ownership on the methods and mode of teaching mainstream subjects, STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in particular. Meaningful, reassuring conversations with teachers across all levels are vital to reassure them that they are not being taken for granted in the new emergent order.

The need of the hour is to deliberate and design new models of learning. There is no one-size-fit-all approach. We may need innovative legal structures, including a franchising model, which allow collaborations for different subjects with global educational institutions; break down classes into focus groups; and inculcate the self-study habit among students. Merely mailing learning material and conducting exams online is inadequate. We may need to work closely with NGOs, activists, influencers, and change makers, and also technical teams to design and distribute curated content to be accessed on subsidised phones. Concerted efforts must begin to create a new sustainable, inclusive, and lawful ecosystem which includes overseas boards and universities for online education to students and also for teachers to equip them with the knowledge, skills, and experience to lock horns with the distant challenges of employment and entrepreneurship.

Views are personal. The author is M&A partner at J. Sagar Associates.

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