Education reforms: Virtual classrooms, e-learning are the future

However, the government has moved slowly in encouraging virtual classrooms

e-learning Students are being offered various tools to access e-learning content amid the lockdown | Salil Bera

One of the biggest legacies of the lockdown will be the push that online and virtual education gets. The irony was that even though the target user—the student community—was very comfortable in the virtual medium, in fact even more so than the educators, policy makers were hesitant in moving towards this future.

But within hours of the prime minister announcing the first lockdown, schools and colleges had already reached out to their students. Teachers had made WhatsApp groups, at least those who weren’t in groups with their students. In most urban schools, teachers have groups either with students or their parents. These groups, and apps such as Zoom, were put into use, and the process of education continued, if not seamlessly, then at least without stopping completely. It wasn’t only the formal system that went online. Private tuitions as well as hobby courses went online, too. What this proved was there is already an infrastructure present, it just hasn’t been tapped yet.

Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcements on Sunday, introducing the changes in the education system, therefore, has come a moment too late. As educators have been pointing out, the measures they have taken so far are piecemeal, and crafted largely to suit the immediate requirement. At best, they have thought out online curricula till July end, awaiting the developments to plan further.

The biggest takeaway from Sitharaman’s announcement is that the 100 top universities in the country have been automatically given permission to start online courses from May 30. This will be a huge boost to higher learning, given the cut-throat competition for a college admission at present. M.P. Poonia, vice chairperson of the All India Council for Technical Education, had earlier told THE WEEK that under the proposed new education policy, the target is a 50 per cent higher gross enrolment rate than the present. Given the available hard infrastructure of classrooms, the target is pretty difficult to achieve quickly in the traditional manner. However, with online and distance education, the goal is within reach.

The government has moved slowly in encouraging virtual classrooms, perhaps because the older generation is still not totally versed with the new medium. Last year, the University Grants Commission had announced that universities who wanted could start registering their online courses with the umbrella body—that oversees curriculum as well as funding. Only around seven universities actually registered. Sitharaman’s announcement could therefore leapfrog virtual education. She had mentioned online courses in her budget speech, too. However, had it not been for the lockdown, the progress might not have been that quick.

Her announcement, and the timeline she has given—May 30 for new courses—could also accelerate some decision making at college and university levels, where officials have not yet been able to announce dates for this year’s examinations. Delhi University has said that final year exams might go online from July 1, and that first and second year might follow suit. However, there is still resistance from several fronts, mainly the Delhi University Teachers’ Association. The main argument is that many students might get dropped off because of no access or poor access to internet. The argument is no doubt valid, as are the other arguments such as that the paper has to be made cheating proof and several glitches need to be ironed out before adopting the new exam method. However, unless the first step is made, this journey cannot ever start. Sitharaman has given that push for the first step.

Her other announcement, that of using television, Direct to Home platforms, community radio and radio to take education to the farthest reaches of the country, too, is a delayed measure. It could have happened a long time ago. In fact, in the good old days when there was only Doordarshan, with its limited hours of programming, there was more education content on television than there is now, with hundreds of channels. The minister said that private providers such as Airtel and Tata Sky have been approached for this purpose. The government will roll out 12 new channels for education, with one channel for every school standard. Under the One India outlook, this is being dubbed as the One Class, One Channel initiative. She said special e-content is also being developed for visually and hearing impaired students. Another positive move is ‘Manodarpan’, an online initiative to provide psychological counselling to students and families who have been overwhelmed with the developments around them that the pandemic and lockdown has triggered. Adding another 200 hundred books to the e-repository Diksha is another initiative.

Of course, a lot depends on the quality of the programming on the channels, and podcasts for the minister’s vision to be a successful alternative to classroom learning. A lot also depends on regular access to internet and television channels. However, these are issues that can be worked upon as the system takes off. Also, these changes should not just be seen as stop gap arrangements for the present, but as larger policy changes.

This is the future. Not only for reaching out to larger student bases, but also for catering to the hiccups in the regular classroom teaching that are wrought because of riots and natural disasters. Teachers point out teaching days are lost because of hartals as well as heat and cold waves and heavy rains. North India is losing several school days every winter now because of the smog, and some private schools had already started working on online lesson plans for these events.