Every year, there are nearly 37.4 million enrolments in higher educational institutions in the country. This reflects the student density in India and also the expanding horizons of the education sector, which has been growing at a rapid pace every year. However, the sudden “Covid shock” created a tremendous negative impact. As a result of the outbreak and the danger it posed to human lives, universities and colleges had to be shut down and their syllabus curtailed. That was until the sector decided to initiate a revolution instead. Making a conscious choice to grow even in the time of crisis, it reinvented its approach and pedagogy and decided to digitise several fundamental processes, which were core to its functioning. The education process reforms seen in India and globally, too, in the COVID-19 era are a perfect example of how necessity is indeed the mother of invention. However, getting back to “normal” is a long way off and in the current scenario, higher education institutions in India are facing two major challenges.
Operational challenges: Maintenance of staff, faculty and infrastructure is becoming difficult as fee payments have been pushed ahead. Expensive infrastructure and expert faculty members make up a substantial part of the expenses for most higher education institutions. Due to the impact of late payments and the unexpected changes in schedules, universities are struggling to cover costs. Across the nation, institutions are facing issues with cash flow as are families, faced with major salary cuts or job losses in a crumbling economy.
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Another challenge comes from the parents and students, who are unable to accept the ways and tools of online classes and find it difficult to adjust to the new methods of pedagogy. Besides, the fear surrounding classes in brick and mortar classrooms, even with social distancing norms in place, is widely prevalent and does not seem to be a viable solution for the moment.
Poor network in far-flung areas: Geography, too, becomes another hurdle as far as acceptance of the “new normal” is concerned. Numerous students residing in remote areas do not have a proper mobile network or alternative means for having a seamless digital experience. For example, a student who lives with his family near the suburbs of Kolkata faces regular network problems due to which his classes get disrupted and his learning gets compromised. Similarly, there is a lack of cyber connectivity even in cities like Jaipur. Students from tier-II and tier-III cities have to struggle a lot due to connectivity issues and often use dongles to be able to study online. That has its own challenges.
Earlier, students had to attend five or six classes a day but now this has been curtailed due to online education. Plus, given the lack of blackboards at home, which are used by most teachers to demonstrate practical models of application, the faculty finds it difficult to explain problems and share solutions. And even if teachers research and share findings with the students online, they cannot be assured of student participation as they cannot monitor them remotely.
Absence of peer to peer learning: Learning goes far beyond classroom education and also involves inter-personal engagement with fellow students. Extra-curricular learning has been known to provide a significant impetus to overall personality development. Peer to peer learning, which is a major source of new skills and knowledge in higher institutions, has been majorly compromised by distancing norms. Apart from this, there are tremendous problems being faced by design and engineering students as they can learn through simulations but are now sadly devoid of real experiences.
Limiting learning to theory and skipping practical applications hinder the learning process of students. The psychological and mental challenges that will result from prolonged isolation and lack of interaction for many students is another factor that needs to be addressed. Many institutions will need to create in-house expertise for the same.
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The way forward: What is the solution to the challenges that the education sector is facing? While institutes struggle to provide an integrated and holistic learning experience to students, they need a blueprint to bring back a certain level of “normalcy” in the sector.
There is a need for Government intervention at this point. Even though it is doing its best to bring the outbreak under control, it will be a while before the pandemic goes away. Even then, fear and doubts will exist for a long time to come. Which is why there is an urgent need to create a plan for students and higher education institutions in order to sustain and increase the pace of growth of the sector in the coming days. Additionally, the nature of teaching should be such that it does not compromise on learning outcomes, particularly in courses which require laboratory practicals, case studies or group activity. These, too, merit some portions of the courses to be conducted in normal ways as opposed to online.
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