Digital education is surely a valuable add-on, but education must primarily be face-to-face, encouraging collective peer learning, a sense of bonding and discipline, ensuring the mentors’ support and practical aspects being done productively. A pre-pandemic study in the US showed that students in online schools lose between 0.1 and 0.4 SDs (standard deviations) on standardised tests compared to students in traditional schools. Learning is a socio-human behaviour and engagement with peers is compulsory, aided by the mentors in a physical space, further amplified digitally.
Youngsters, on the other side of the spectrum with digital access are being pushed towards too much screen time without much thought for the repercussions this has on their health or the development of social skills. We are thus in a state of an education emergency.
Urgency to Restart Campuses
The Assam Education Minister, Ranoj Pegu, has announced the opening up of campuses on September 1. The West Bengal Chief Minister has called for reopening after Durga Puja by the end of October. The Telangana government has allowed schools to open with few restrictions. Delhi government has been collecting suggestions from students, teachers and parents on reopening, and shall take a decision suitably.
The most recent recommendation to open up schools comes from the Devi Shetty Committee Report, which uses international evidence and guidelines of the American and Indian Paediatric Associations to recommend the opening of schools and colleges wherever the positivity rate is low. Centralised decision-making won’t work here. Gram Panchayats and corporations must take localised decisions based on state government guidelines.
While it is indisputable that campuses must open now in the context of an education emergency, it needs to be done by maintaining physical distance.
New Education Policy Imperatives
The government of India, in the past, announced a New Education Policy, which focuses on transforming higher education institutions into large multi-disciplinary universities, colleges and HEI clusters/knowledge hubs.
The implementation of the policy has been tardy though, owing to non-availability of the promised 6 per cent of the union budget for education, lack of institutional incentives, absence of suitable regulatory changes as necessary, higher costs of executing the policy and thereby higher cost of learning for students, et al. Public policy exponent Bernardo Mueller argued that public policies are non-linear and emergent. Public policies do not settle in equilibria and are hard to predict.
Without establishing a New Education Policy Commission, without accountability of public officials in implementing the policy, without providing financial resources necessary for this task, and without further empowering of institutions of eminence and other institutions which have been granted some autonomy to function: it would be impossible to implement NEP.
Revamping of Programme Contents
New normal education must not focus on customary practices and traditional habits or routines, but purely on pre-determined learning objectives, learning outcomes, along with linkages with social utility and economic productivity. This would call for majoring in any subject or domain, but also minoring in some other related or unrelated domain paving way for higher education. It calls for self-learning and project-based learning.
Creating Learning Resources
A massive training and capacity building is needed today to nurture the new age mentors. For this, first, the mentor has to be a digital personality. Next, one has to learn how to create, deliver and engage in content across multiple online platforms. Third, one has to now learn to assess with open books through analysis and application, quiz, applied projects, phygital presentation and physical work in labs and studios after using virtual labs and studios.
With Artificial intelligence, robotics, automation, Machine Learning, and the internet of things being the other emerging realities, the skills for mass production or education to do the same work repeatedly, will be irrelevant when machines will replace more than three-fourth of all human work.
Evaluating & Assessing the Learners
Diversity in evaluation or assessment is the need of the hour. Assessment refers to learner performance, and evaluation refers to a systematic process of determining the merit value or worth of the instruction or programme.
Assessment and evaluation can be both formative (carried out during the course) and summative (carried out following the course).
When online, evaluation can be on the basis of proctored digital examination or open-book analytical and applied evaluation with non-google-able questions.
Bridging the Digital Divide
The most recent study by McKinsey states that learning loss is global and significant owing to technology haves and have-nots. Technology often exacerbates the divide, and not always bridging it, unless there is equity ensured. Data from the National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), 75th round, presents this divide starkly: less than 5 per cent of rural households have computers. The number barely touches 25 per cent in urban India. Hence, a majority of urban dwellers do not have access to computers. Leaving them with the only option of a mobile phone which does not ensure quality learning.
Bridging the digital divide is an urgent necessity. An economically divided society is bound to be digitally divided, more so when the digital divide becomes acute in the rural and tribal hinterlands of India irrespective of class positions.
The problem is so acute that one in every five students may have to go out of education if this situation continues for another six months.
What can be the way to tackle the divide? How can the #BridgeDigitalDivide movement start on the ground and who can and should take the lead?
What also needs to be understood is that the definition of literacy itself has to be changed from the ability to sign to the ability to read, write and connect digitally. So it is digital literacy, which is the literacy of the new normal.
It is pertinent to note that the last education policy during the rule of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister also had promised 6 per cent, but never crossed half of it. We all live on hope, and we shall expect the current government to fulfil its promise given in 2020.
The additional 3 per cent allocation should be budgeted as early as possible and allocated for the first one or two years largely not much for expanding physical infrastructure, but surely for bolstering the digital outreach.
The company law in India has been amended some time earlier to make 2 per cent of profits to be contributed to corporate social responsibility by every company (CSR Act). While compliance with this is in progress, the impact in real life in many cases is debatable.
Alongside, the telecom companies must come up with new reduced packages of internet connectivity for bona fide teachers and students at all levels, especially in rural India.
Companies, organisations, and civil society leaders across India must also unleash a movement to donate old but usable smartphones, laptops, desktops to students, who cannot afford them. Initiatives like #MillionMobileCampaign needs to be aggressively taken up by the voluntary sector.
This is the new freedom movement ahead – freedom to be digitally connected in learning, in healthcare, in the purchase of essentials, and in entertainment.
The author is an educationist and columnist, former Pro-Vice Chancellor of Adamas University (Kolkata) and former Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities