Opinion

Promises and perils of virtual education in a post-pandemic world

TS Gopi Rethinaraj/Santanu Chakraborty | Updated on June 23, 2021

There are many areas where virtual education can be used effectively. But the virtual and hybrid models must be implemented with sensitivity and care, else they can exacerbate the prevalent inequalities, biases and privileges in society

The 2020 National Education Policy (NEP) has set out a roadmap to double the country’s educational capacity in 20 years. Education does not generally scale well, yet this must be accomplished in India to ensure equitable access and development. Virtual education could be a potential solution to this scaling puzzle. Although online education requires high upfront investment, its marginal cost is relatively low and has a tremendous potential to quickly expand access to quality education.

Years of inadequate government spending in education has deepened the divide between the haves and the have-nots, and between urban and rural students. The raging Covid-19 pandemic will exacerbate these inequities further, leaving virtual learning as the only option until it is safe enough to reopen schools and colleges. While virtual education is a poor substitute for the overall experience of studying in a physical campus, some of the technologies could remain useful even after a return to normalcy. Several opportunities have opened up for innovating teaching and learning through various online platforms.

Exemplary teaching

However, learning hasn’t changed much since the beginning of Gurukul system in India or the Academy in Athens or the modern universities in medieval Europe. Students have to be physically present in classrooms to learn from their teachers and peers. But what constitutes exemplary teaching varies and invokes different images.

It could be a gifted teacher delivering lectures in large classrooms to hundreds of students, or a professor teaching an advanced graduate course who keeps students spellbound with immaculate chalk-work on blackboard and scholarly exchange, or a lecturer who sustains a two or three-hour intense but lively discussion employing case method teaching, or a skilled instructor who keeps students excited and engaged in active learning, or a diligent research supervisor who trains and hand-holds students through the travails of successful doctoral thesis defence.

All these traditional models of teaching excellence require physical proximity and interaction. Can virtual education achieve comparable results and also replicate at scale? The share of students who want to be in a college campus for primarily intellectual pursuits is getting smaller. Most students pursuing higher education are driven by the need for professional accreditation, networking opportunities, and job placements. What students learn and how they are taught in universities are less aligned with the expectations of many employers who frequently complain about “unemployable” graduates and an inadequate talent pool.

New areas

Internet, search engines, opensource productivity and coding tools have already changed the way people learn and share content. There are many areas where virtual education can be used effectively. Providing access to the best teachers and other resources of high quality for learners in remote and rural locations, learning and teaching from home, and designing asynchronous curricula are some of the possibilities with potential to make a huge impact.

Not all universities can commit financial resources to have a large pool of exceptional teachers on their payrolls. It is possible to produce a great teaching programme for a large number of students with a modest number of dedicated and experienced teachers if institutions are open about sharing resources. Collaborating across institutions virtually may be easier because digital platforms can resolve many logistics difficulties.

Also, there are many inspiring teachers who prefer to remain practitioners and spend significant amounts of time in the field. Such accomplished people have busy professional schedules that may require frequent or occasional flexibility to teach online. Here an entirely digital or a hybrid model can get a large and diverse talent pool of excellent teachers.

Technology tools and development platforms for full-blown virtual education are already in place and integrated to varying degrees in universities. Except for specialised graduate courses and lab-intensive courses, most basic courses can be delivered effectively online or in a hybrid fashion to a large number of students.

The Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) initially attempted to showcase models of best teaching in top universities by sharing course outlines, lecture notes, and videos of lectures. Now there are many courses entirely available for certification through online platforms that mimic most of the functions of traditional classroom teaching, learning, and assessment.

Completely virtual platforms are inadequate for certain science and engineering courses, field studies, and art courses that involve hands. Nevertheless, a significant part of undergraduate and postgraduate teaching can effectively move online and reduce the burden of physical infrastructure support and allow institutions to invest in courses where practical skills are critical and cannot be taught in the virtual mode.

The present generation of learners are more comfortable and adept at technology to make the best use of virtual education. Experience also suggests that completing an online course fully with credits requires enormous self-motivation and discipline — skills important for becoming life-long learners.

Many universities hire faculty based primarily on their research output which has generally failed to incentivise good teaching. Those who are passionately and seriously committed to teaching are a minority in most institutions. Professors receive very little or no training in teaching and pedagogy, and are typically less inclined to devote time for an activity that doesn’t count much in promotion and tenure decisions. Virtual education and its growing popularity can be a game-changer and put pressure on institutions to improve their teaching quality.

No magic bullet

Still, virtual education is no magic bullet for resolving various problems in education. Social, psychological, emotional and other skills that will be missed by not attending a physical campus should still be provided for. The idea that teachers can be replaced by technology is also misplaced because mentorship and encouragement cannot be replicated by algorithms alone.

Human presence is essential and critical for achieving best outcomes in learning. Even for delivering a high-quality virtual education, experienced high-quality teachers will be needed to develop and curate content and instructors.

The danger of a few technology giants converting this opportunity to become educational monopolies will undermine the goals of diversity, which is at the core of liberal educational enterprise. Another impediment for realising the full potential of virtual education is the extreme inequality in access to digital resources.

Unless virtual and hybrid models of education are implemented with sensitivity and care, they can exacerbate the prevalent inequalities, biases and privileges in society as well as create new ones. The adverse health consequences of being static and looking at screens all day and a complete disengagement with the physical world where life may begin to unfold online even more that it already is should also be a source of concern.

We should remember that some of the greatest of 21st century challenges such as sustainability and climate change demand students engage with physical materials and the physical world.

The writers are program directors of energy sciences and life sciences respectively at Atria University in Bengaluru.

Published on June 23, 2021

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