Understanding and interpreting change is a tricky business at the best of times. Sometimes experts can anticipate its arrival and clearly call out its implications. More frequently, change comes upon us unexpectedly, and we react to it as best as we can.
The novel coronavirus pandemic, however, is a change-making phenomenon that belongs in a class of its own. It has reduced the use of the word ‘unprecedented’ to a cliché, brought the ever-moving wheels of industry to a standstill, upended how human beings live and work, and remains immune to social, economic and even scientific analysis, with leaders grappling with its fall-out in the present, and struggling to imagine its future consequences.
At the DDB Mudra Group, we’ve been trying to work our way around the abstract enormity of Covid-19 by examining how certain specifics are evolving — gender dynamics, relationships, content consumption, education, even fashion. All these are the building blocks of everyday life, now being forced to take on new shape and form.
Take education, for instance, long subject to time-honoured traditions in Indian institutions. Covid-19 first made its impact felt by sweeping away exam dates that were set in stone — SSC and ICSE‘ board’ exams and even the hallowed IIT-JEE.
But that was only the beginning. Within the past eight weeks, teachers from primary school to college level have had to pivot to new ways of teaching, and students are adjusting to new ways of learning.
Teachers as content creators
The classroom itself is under siege. It has always been a space that teachers and professors were expected to control, where they could ‘dabble’ with technology, and where interactions could be structured to adjust for a level of debate and interactivity that they found appropriate.
Today, the classroom environment lives online and has been completely fragmented. Teachers find themselves in the unlikely role of content creators. They have to distil concepts and ideas into handy capsules, find ways to ‘engage’ students who can switch back and forth between Zoom and other tabs, and still make sure individuals are understanding what is being taught.
Some aspects of this change are positive — educators find themselves learning how to deliver subjects more impactfully, virtual tools and aids can be genuinely interesting; there is an opportunity to assign pre-work and focus instead on meaningful discussions. Enterprising students can roam the web freely, and bring back the fruit of their educational explorations to class. There is an opportunity to collaborate with e-learning apps to digitise syllabi. More ambitious Indian institutions see an opportunity to go down the path of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), pioneered by Western universities.
But we go to class not just to learn but to be in the company of peers and friends. An art teacher we interviewed spoke about the loss of the intangibles-learning — how to share not just ideas, but also crayons; the importance of tactility and movement for young children; the loss of the collective intelligence of a group of students talking to each other and their teacher, all at the same time.
And while the democratisation of classrooms seems like a promise whose time has come, Indian education — already subject to class divides — is now increasingly subject to digital divides. The longer the lockdown lasts, the deeper the cracks will go. How will the students, without reliable data connections, without smartphones and without the social and linguistic capital to take e-learning courses, keep up?
The pandemic points to a double-edged, contradictory view of the future of classrooms. Parents will have a renewed appreciation for holistic learning, for the multi-dimensional influence of teachers, for all the extra curricular and interactions that can easily be dismissed as a ‘waste of time.’ Technology will become integral to content dissemination and syllabi will be designed to take advantage of everything it has to offer. Vanilla e-learning apps (promising ‘extra’ marks) and the textbook as we know it may very well disappear.
Learning could become more modular for older students — they could increasingly pick and choose courses, exercise more control over when and how they study, and rely on teachers as sounding boards and not instructors. The need for well-taught, affordable programmes across Indian languages will be immense, but whether this need will be fulfilled is an open question.
Less polarising is another game-changing shift in learning. Thanks to Covid-19, old hierarchies of what counts as a skill and who counts as a role model are falling apart. Indians under lockdown are developing a new appreciation of what it takes to make it through the day and are keen to acquire their own Swiss army knife-equivalent of survival skills.
Everything is a lesson-in-the-making — designing your own cloth mask, single-pan cooking, kitchen gardening, soap-making, home workouts. Experts are still well regarded and respected, but there is an acknowledgement that almost everyone has something of value to teach — the mom on TikTok, the fitness instructor piloting his first Zoom class, the hobbyist who’s earnestly posting recipes/hacks/tip and tricks on her IG Stories. This is peer-to-peer learning at its best — grounded in real life, not pretending to mastery or deep expertise, fun and non-intimidating.
It turns out that not just influencers and celebrities, but all of us had a potential side hustle all along. Only that hustling is besides the point, and sharing is key. Retaining this interest in self-reliance and self-skilling might leave us with a much richer sense of the possibilities of decentralised, peer-to-peer knowledge sharing and skill-building.
This mix of big and small, macro and micro, better and worse, is perhaps the ultimate puzzle of the pandemic. It is changing everything as we know it. Will all of these shifts stand up to the test of time or will we revert to baseline? Will schools disappear? Unlikely. Will more adults learn flexibly? Undoubtedly. Will knowledge become democratised? In some ways yes, and in others, definitely not. Perhaps the best we can do at this time is to take an interest in and pay attention to what is happening, and to commit to making the changes that seem meaningful.
(This bi-weekly column is part of DDB Mudra Group’s Covid Chronicles project, which explores changes in culture and consumers during the pandemic. Led by Toru Jhaveri, VP and Head of strategy for DDB Mudra-West and authored by a team of strategists (Aditya, Ellina, Nandan & Somdatta), Covid Chronicles draws on a mix of proprietary tools and is updated every week. For updates check @ddbearshot on Instagram )