Compulsions of online learning in higher education

The COVID-19 pandemic is set to change the world sooner than we expected. The way our governments, institutions, organizations, and people think and function, will radically change. On account of the pandemic, the higher education sector is undergoing a tectonic shift right now. What several futurists and education technologists have been forecasting for long, is now happening. From earlier the edutech enthusiasts have been predicting that technology will become the biggest intermediary of teaching-learning processes. In the wake of Covid-19 pandemic, millions of students across the globe have been driven out of their university spaces, and professors are confined to their homes. Higher education stands disaggregated, and faculty and students are grappling with the sudden new norm of completely tech-mediated teaching and learning. Over the past 20 years, this crossover to online learning was happening in fits and starts, in islands across different theatres – colleges, universities, skill development companies, corporate learning centres. Most policy level changes remained half-hearted attempts stemming from old mindsets. But now institutions and students alike are under pressure to not lose academic time and re-invent their teaching-learning in the only possible way – go completely online. What does this mean for the institutions and academic leaders, administrators and students, in the long run, is getting clearer.

Background of technology in education

The new, total technology-mediated education can be termed as Education 4.0, after the first three waves of education systems that evolved over 2000 years of civilization – the Gurukula system (one master to a few pupils), the traditional university system (one to many learners) and distance learning (one to very many learners across the spectrum). The good news is – the mainstream institutions are willing to move to online, and there’s a possibility of habits changing to enable Education 4.0.  Online higher education has been around for more than a decade now but it did not take over the conventional education system in the Pre-COVID periods, while massive businesses have already moved from offline to online. While inertia and ‘fiefdom’ attitude of existing educators are partially to blame, the truth is, every industry that has become digital has had its own inertia and fiefdom hurdles. It is just that ‘digital’ brought in a massive wave of efficiency and effectiveness in these industries, and the pure economics and convenience of it washed away the inertia and fiefdom hurdles. In digital higher education, there has not been such a wave. While the land is fertile for habits to change, the new digital landscape has its unsolved problems, and hence it is where it is. The long term and sustainable triumph of this tectonic shift will depend on major elements of online learning. Under the new scheme subject matter covered in the classroom is to be delivered online, but with technology as the intermediary. Blind replication of the same is a bad idea; it requires a great deal of understanding & application of learning science and digital pedagogy. Every teaching faculty needs to be enabled with this knowledge, or else collaboration with experts is the way forward.

Difference between classical and online learning

 In classical pedagogy, the best of teachers and subject matter experts derive a content-context cluster as a mean of the class’ collective ability and prior knowledge. Then the teaching-learning transaction is crafted according to that constructed mean. This will not and cannot work in online learning. Institutions need to spend as much time on the context for the diverse learner profiles, as on the content and weave it into the program design. New technologies including the emerging sciences of artificial intelligence and deep learning models can help us create customized learning plans and methods. Higher education institutions must embrace these quickly to overcome the ills of current digital higher education. Online learning is not about any specific pedagogical model but an aggregation of various models. And it is indeed a specialized learning science that combines learning psychology, behavioural analytics, content delivery, and assessments to gauge and measure individual learner’s journey and progress. Working with specialists and ‘hand-stitching’ a delivery mechanism is a key.

In addition, learning is the theme of and not technology. Very many models being created today to use technology and tools as a panacea and equate online ‘delivery’ with online ‘learning’. The former is teacher-centric, and the latter is learner-centric. ‘Learning’ is about gradually inducing changes in learner’s actions and behaviour. The learning process, in incremental steps, induces a change in thinking and mental models of the learner through deep understanding and conceptual strengthening. After each learning episode, the learner will be able to apply the acquired knowledge in practical situations in life, profession, or workplace. Each teaching faculty needs to be massively re-trained and oriented for online teaching-learning mode. While they could be content experts or great classroom teachers, they need to place equal importance to ‘learning sciences in digital media’.

Image source: Stockphotos

The educational scenario in the post- COVID -19

Of course, even in the post-COVID-19 era, offline or conventional education models will not become obsolete. They will survive. However, blended learning (a combination of classroom and online modes) will be the norm. Institutions and teachers will blend the two judiciously according to the context and the content. Faculty to let go off their existing practices of transposing classroom to online medium without applying the ‘science of digital learning’. Universities to let go off their academic know-all stance and become willing to collaborate with digital learning specialists to train their teachers and re-design higher education for the newest online education world. The next frontier to be faced is research – also monopolized by large, well-funded systems or organizations. How online learning will change the face of research will be an interesting crystal ball gazing exercise to do. In sum, the newly realized need for establishing mature online education models can be successfully met by making these measures a reality.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Kootneeti Team

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Dr Rajkumar Singh

Dr. Rajkumar Singh is presently Professor and Head, Department of Political Science and Dean of Social Sciences at B.N. Mandal University, Madhepura (Bihar), India. His 19 books published in addition to 900 articles in national and international journals and daily newspapers from 25 foreign countries.

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