Managing Higher Education Post COVID: An Approach Note

Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury. Dated: 2/24/2021 1:25:54 AM

This article is expected to contribute to the building of institutional resilience for academic planning and continuity post pandemic as we go ahead with the academic year of 2021-22. It is also important to ensure that the WHO advisories, ICMR guidelines, the Central and State Government regulations, the Ministry of Education, Government of India guidelines/regulations, and the guidelines/regulations of the UGC and other regulatory bodies are duly adhered to at all times in full compliance and that they supersede any other recommendation made here or elsewhere.
Challenges of Pandemic in Higher Education
Recent figures released by the UNESCO indicate that the COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost 1.37 billion students across the world – this comprises 90% of all enrolled students in around 138 countries, and almost 300 million of these are Indian students, of whom close to 52% could not be reached through any digital learning means due to lack of connectivity or digital access of these unfortunate learners.
Apart from half the students not being in digital education in 2020, in the Indian higher education institutions (HEIs), the crisis has impacted new admissions, examinations, student internships, placements and student mobility. An effective strategy is necessary to minimise the adverse impact of the pandemic, going further.
Towards this goal, the Association of Indian Universities (AIU) has undertaken several initiatives to support Member Universities to minimise the impact of COVID-19 – these include online faculty development training for online teaching, national and international webinars, leadership talks and online workshops on themes such as assessment and evaluation, and fostering social responsibility among others. An online survey of HEIs is also being conducted to gauge the preparedness of Indian HEIs for online teaching.
India has over 51,000 HEIs (993 universities, 39,931 colleges, 10,725 stand-alone institutes), many of whom were already constrained with the large student population, low pupil teacher ratio, diverse demographics, and distinct rural-urban divide. The pandemic related challenges add additional layers of complexity. There are approximately 394 universities located in rural areas in India. Several million students hail from remote, rural areas with minimal access to electronic devices, reliable internet connectivity, or stable electricity supply resulting in a digital divide. This means that Indian institutions need to go one step beyond online classrooms to build strong institutional capacity to maximize outreach.
A large proportion of the HEIs are privately managed. The financial implications of the pandemic may be severe for them as they are self-funded and depend on student tuition fees which in turn may be constrained in itself. Therefore, the government and the regulators may consider extending their support to private HEIs as well. We will need to build Academic Continuity Plans (ACPs) to suit the breadth of diversity
Unfortunately, the GER across Indian HEIs currently stands at 26.3%. Distance enrolment is about 10.62% of the total enrolment. Moving ahead, distance enrolment has to be considered a viable and widely accepted mode of learning too. Even while dealing with the consequences of this pandemic on the ongoing education of the current students, HEIs still need to consider the challenges of resources associated with expanding Indian Higher Education to increase the GER in medium to long run.
Also, HEIs statistics show that more than 50% of the total students enrolled are from scheduled caste/tribe, OBC and minority communities, and thus a large number of students represented by these communities may potentially be more vulnerable to additional disadvantages in continuing their education during these pressing times. Given that 394 Universities and 60.53% of colleges are located in rural areas, there may not be sufficient infrastructure in terms of technology (hardware and software), connectivity, continued power and other resources required to effectively implement online classrooms. In addition to this, their homes (especially in non-metro, non-tier-1 cities) may not be well-equipped to conduct synchronous, online classes.
Pedagogical Challenges and Possibilities
A lot of the classroom teaching is dependent on various formats and pedagogies such as: Laboratories for STEM courses, Workshops for Language Studies, Legal clinics and field visits for Law subjects, Studio based work for Media, Arts, Architecture, and Field visits for Social Sciences, Arts and Humanities. These may not be effectively implemented in online formats and will require innovation in teaching and learning methodologies, as well as, investment in technology based platforms.
Not having students face-to-face within the confinement of a physical classroom may hinder the interaction between students and teachers. Even within the online format, students usually are required to keep the cameras off due to bandwidth constraints, making it challenging for the faculty to understand the receptiveness of students.
Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat are among the states with most number of COVID-19 cases as on date. This implies that a large number of HEIs, by the virtue of their geography, have high risk of exposure and therefore may not be able to reopen campuses even partially. Additionally, even in other locations, an HEI may be limited by being in a red or containment zone, or may enter that zone after reopening.
Resuming physical operations will require additional setup, infrastructure and protocols for managing the norms of social distancing and sanitization. This would require additional classes to be conducted with lesser students, high-frequency sanitization of all areas, additional staff to manage housekeeping, implementation of hands-free infrastructure such as sanitizer machines etc. It will also need additional protocols to be followed, the monitoring of which may not be feasible at all times.
Academic Continuity Planning
Given the physical restrictions posed by COVID-19, especially when lockdown is imposed in various regions, using technology and the internet to ensure continuity of classes has been a widely utilized mode of operation for various HEIs. It not only allows the continuity of classes, but also minimizes risk of exposure given the high rate of transmission of the coronavirus.
Academic continuity planning hence needs theoretical courses (only course readings and classroom lectures with no associated field or lab work) to be done online, through asynchronous learning and synchronous virtual sessions. Same can be for Courses run in Seminar mode (mostly in Ph.D.). Rest all can be encouraged to be done offline, on campus, face to face, with precautions: Practicums, hands-on workshops, and Internships (internal and external), Courses including laboratory experiments (primarily in Sciences, Engineering, Medicine), Moot Courts (for Law schools), Courses involving field work, Studio Courses (e.g. in Architecture, Design, Media, Films, etc), and Clinical courses (like legal air or psychological clinics). This may also require course customization to the mode of delivery, and some courses may require alternative planning needing deferment of a course or getting a suitable technology to deliver it.
Furthermore, instead of delivering a lecture, the course instructors need to focus on using flipped classrooms. In this approach the faculty can assign the theoretical component as pre-reads for the class and utilize the classroom time for practical applications including discussions on real-life case-studies, solving numerical problems, or any other practical component associated with the course. He should aggregate learning resources from his own proprietary content and also from open source digital content. There can be nuanced approaches for different categories of students: Category 1 - Self-motivated students who can remain highly engaged, and have the desired infrastructure. Category 2 - Self-motivated students who can remain highly engaged, however, do not have the desired infrastructure 3. Category 3 - Students with average interest in regular classes due to their inhibitions, however motivated to engage in online classes due to lesser social anxiety and more engaging multimedia content. Category 4 – Students with low interest in general. Based on this analysis, the faculty may now choose the way to customize the content, use creative means to engage students, and most importantly decide the delivery methodology required to deliver the content.
And all forms of engagement are to be blended now: asynchronous self-learning based on learning to learn techniques, synchronous digitally and physically, hybrid, social media, discussion boards, et al. The faculty can utilize Social Media platforms including WhatsApp or Facebook to create course specific groups and use these for engaging students in asynchronous discussions related to the course.
Also, course customization can continue in many ways. Use of short length pre-reading material, and more engaging digital content (including videos, podcasts, audio books etc.) that students can consume under constrained conditions will prove useful. Faculty can utilize the highlight feature of PDF readers or mobile applications (like Pocket) to highlight the most relevant text to help students with pre-class readings. Sections of videos or podcasts can be time stamped for relevance to the course.
Teacher-Student to Mentor-Learner Approach
The present crisis presents an opportunity to reconsider the role of student and teacher in the teaching-learning process and move away from teacher-centric to student-centric pedagogies. e student needs to be considered as an active partner in the process who bears greater responsibility for driving own learning using the diversity of content that is accessible through the internet. e role of the teacher needs to change from active disseminator of content to a facilitator of learning – a person responsible for guiding students to valuable resources, for helping students ask the right questions, clear doubts, and design assessments to help students identify the gaps in their knowledge and understanding. The teacher as sage of the stage, last word on syllabus and evaluations, focusing only on completion of course is a gone paradigm. The new age mentor is an aggregator of knowledge, a facilitator, who introduces structured syllabus but moves on to organic learning based on each learner’s inclination. The student as someone who studies from teachers, in the classroom, within the structured syllabus, and works towards getting marks and grades: is also an old concept today. The learner of today learns within and beyond the classroom; learns physically, digitally and experientially; learns from mentors, professionals, peers and through his own experiences; begins with a structured syllabus but moves on to an organic one based on his interest; and learns for life with exams and grades being part of the journey and not its end.
Part 2 of the Approach Note:
We may also look at newer approaches to evaluation & assessment, to social bonding on campus, to internship and placements initiatives, to cultural and sports activities, but all that in second part of this piece, later.
The writer has drawn upon several sources like UGC guidelines, published articles of himself and others in Indian media, Jindal Global University document on post COVID educational tool-kit and his interaction with many leading educationists during recent webinars to develop the content for this article, and thanks them all.

 

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