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Challenges and opportunities for the higher education system: Co-existing with COVID-19

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The sudden outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has had an unprecedented impact on every single entity across the globe. Not just trade, tourism and healthcare, the spread of the deadly pandemic has posed serious challenges for education mechanisms globally, and India is no exception. Various schools and educational institutions across the country were closed down in mid-march, much prior to the announcement of country-wide lockdown. While the first phase of lockdown saw complete halt to educational and academic activities, the second phase experienced significant growth in virtual learning. Online platforms such as Zoom, Team link, YouTube live, Skype, Google meets/hangout, Google classroom etc. which were merely restricted for professional use became household names in the country. Private universities across the nation, especially those offering technical and professional courses were swift to commence online classes. Key central universities like Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University also advised the faculty members to teach online.

Though the shift was rather smooth for the private universities given the fact that majority of students there come from economically sound backgrounds, the scenario was completely different in the government universities. For an institution like Jawaharlal Nehru University which caters largely to the deprived and remote populations, it was challenging for the students and faculty alike to ensure smooth conduction of online classes. The major chunk of students who had returned to their native places after the lockdown of the university, faced problems like unavailability of sound internet connection, economic burden and anxiety etc. 

Many were also devoid of technological assets like laptop or smartphone which are quintessential for virtual education. Although conventional courses such as International Relations, Social Sciences etc. were boosted by frequent ‘webinars’, for non-conventional courses such as language studies, online teaching failed to serve the purpose. A language as tricky to learn like Mandarin, which involves thorough rectification of tones and pronunciation to attain fluency, is difficult to be learnt online. It is for the very same reason that the majority of online classes had feeble attendance and received mixed responses from the students. 

However, it would be unfair to snub the efforts by university administrations and the government machineries to beef up the current online education structure and bring in gradual reforms. The Ministry of Human Resource Development launched a series of web-based programs to push e-learning. To name a few, SWAYAM which is a free online education venture, is aimed at bridging the digital divide between the developed and under-developed students of the country. It provides video lectures, specially designed study materials and self-assessment tests through state of the art technology; the National Digital Library of India (NDLI) which is a single window search facility contains educational materials ranging over plethora of subjects available in all major regional languages; another platform Shodhganga enables research scholars to deposit their Ph.D. theses and make it available to the entire scholarly community in open access. 

Pioneer educational institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Delhi University also made efforts to facilitate e-learning. Jawaharlal Nehru University provided a proxy access to its e-library and various other educational platforms subscribed by it to the students, enabling them to access research materials from anywhere. The Special Centre of E-Learning, which was founded two years back in the university, has organized various online workshops and faculty development programmes on themes such as “Design, Development & Delivery of Online Courses” and “COVID -19 New Age Teaching Pedagogy: Innovative Tools, Techniques and Research Methods for Efficient Business Management Teaching in Digital Era” in the past few months. The university also organized an online fitness training program to create awareness regarding physical and mental health amongst the students. Another peer institution, Delhi University, also undertook similar steps where remote access of the library resources was provided to the students. The university also launched a virtual learning environment (VLE) web portal to provide digital support to students and teachers. 

While one needs to applaud such efforts, we also need to brace and prepare for the upcoming future. Without the availability of any potential vaccine, COVID-19 is here to stay and might become a part of our daily life in the longer run. Study by Morgan Stanley projected India’s 670 million internet users to rise to 914 million by 2027. While this may seem as a boost for e-learning, ensuring penetration of proper internet connection in rural areas remains a big challenge. Also, Indian universities like Jawaharlal Nehru University, IITs and IIMs are known for their “free learning environment” where education doesn’t merely imply to lectures in the classroom, debates and discussion with peers and faculties and extra-curricular activities play a vital role in grooming the intellect of the students and filling this void in higher education will definitely be a herculean task. 

Collaboration with various ed-tech startups such as BYJU’S, Unacademy and Vedantu etc. can be a way ahead for the government to ensure quality, relevance and agility of e-education. Lessons can also be drawn from China where the central government collaborated with e-education platforms like iCourse, Mosoink and Neuedu etc. to provide online classes in more than 1400 universities. Creating a robust faculty training mechanism for e-teaching and creating a conducive environment to ensure learning is not stressful is also the way ahead for higher education.

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