Pandemic paradigm

Even as campuses reopen, the online mode of learning will stay

1229651256 The new normal: Despite strict Covid-19 protocols, students long to return to campus | Getty Images

It was a common sight in college campuses—students streaming through the corridors from one lecture room to another. But as educational institutions reopen, this may no longer be the norm; at least until herd immunity to Covid-19 is achieved. For now, lecturers will go to students. This is one of the measures that colleges are implementing to ensure student safety.

St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, is planning to hire additional security; they would be authorised to check students’ timetables and usher out those who have finished their day’s classes. All co-curricular activities will be held online, and the canteen and library will not have seating facility. Moreover, furniture in common rooms will be reduced so that they are used only for essential activities and not as gathering spots.

IIT Kharagpur is tackling the new normal with innovations such as a digital pad to do board work online.

Rajendra D. Shinde, principal, St. Xavier’s College, said that learning will be blended, with 40 per cent of teaching remaining online. “[On campus], we have planned for open-door lecture rooms or auditoriums with the AC strictly switched-off,” he said. “If possible, lectures with a smaller number of students would be conducted in spaces with shade or even in the main hall or the main library.”

The new normal is here to stay. In college libraries digital infrastructure is being upgraded and administrative offices are using more online transactions. Shinde said this would save time and energy for applicants as they could submit documents or make payments round-the-clock. Colleges are also planning to implement staggered attendance and mandatory health screening.

Chocko Valliappa, vice chairman, The Sona Group of educational institutions, said there would be more project-based work. “I feel [the] classroom will become a place more to discuss doubts and the teacher will become less of a sage on the stage and more of a guide on the slide,” he said. The focus on online learning will continue for most institutes. Prof Madhu Veeraraghavan, director, TAPMI, Manipal, said that the b-school had introduced an “industry-guided course of independent study”. “The guidance will be via technology enabled platforms,” he said. “We are also introducing project-based courses which will leverage technology. However, online classes will be continued based on regulatory requirements and guidelines. We see critical processes like summer placements and final placements still being conducted online. We are working on processes to augment our online student admission process.”

There is no doubt that institutions will need to continuously benchmark and upgrade their systems, processes and structures. “We will embrace a hybrid teaching-learning model that combines the positive aspects of technology with in-person mentoring and hands-on experimentation,” said Rupamanjari Ghosh, vice chancellor, Shiv Nadar University. “We believe that 2021 needs to be a reset for higher education. University education should drive, and not just respond to, industry and technology.”

Online internships and placements are likely to continue in 2021. Deepon Das, a final year MBA student at TAPMI, did his internship online with Bosch. It involved market research, where he had to interact with car dealers and bike workshop owners virtually. “The internship began in April and ended in June,” he said. Das has been staying at his home in Chennai ever since he left the campus in March. He said that his final placement also happened online. “Links were sent to the candidates,” he said. “I was placed in an IT company after rounds of discussions and online interviews.”

The new normal: Despite strict Covid-19 protocols, students long to return to campus | Getty Images The new normal: Despite strict Covid-19 protocols, students long to return to campus | Getty Images

There was concern about the job prospects of students in tier-2 and tier-3 cities. But, Anchal Kamboj, from Seth Jai Parkash Mukand Lal Institute of Engineering and Technology, Yamunanagar, Haryana, said she got offers from three IT firms, including Infosys and TCS. However, she says that there is a drop of at least 50 per cent in the number of companies visiting campus and a majority of the students are yet to be placed. “The uncertainty for students continues,” she said.

Valliappa said that students at the Salem-based Sona College of Technology have been placed in companies such as Infosys, Virtusa and Hexaware with an “average salary of 05lakh per annum”. He said that students with specialisations in cloud computing, cyber security, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics process automation, data science and, especially, health care analytics, are getting better starting salaries.

Many institutes have also realised that placement opportunities are comparatively less and are going the extra mile to help the students. For example, TAPMI is carrying out extensive research on potential recruiters and is speaking to many sources and tapping into their alumni network to help the students. “The students should never let a crisis go waste and rather they should use this time to build skills through certification and online courses,” said Veeraraghavan. “While building new skills, they should always work to find a match between their preferences and market opportunities. In this new global environment where VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) reigns supreme, those who can best understand the complexity and develop expertise in decision making under these conditions will be the ones who can lead.”

IIT Kharagpur is tackling the new normal with innovations such as a digital pad to do board work online and evaluation through time-bound online tests. The institute will also conduct open-book exams where students have to email soft copies of their answers to the professors.

Syllabus completion is on track and as institutes reopen only practical classes are pending, in most cases. “Prior to the reopening we took feedback from parents, students and faculty members and then formed the guidelines,” said Prof V.A. Kothiwale, registrar, KLE Academy of Higher Education and Research, Belagavi. “We also conducted online sessions with parents to alleviate their concerns and queries. The students have been given the flexibility to work at their own speed.”

At the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), final year exams have been prioritised. Most of the final semesters ended with only a few days of delay. “There is no delay as far as the final semester exams are concerned,” said Prof M. Rizwan Khan, chairperson, department of English, and director, Internal Quality Assurance Cell, AMU. “The classes ended in the second week of December. For medical students, we are following the regulations of the medical council and likewise for engineering courses, the guidelines of the regulatory bodies are being followed.”

The new mode of learning also had its share of positives. As Ruhi Jain, a final year economics and statistics student at St. Xavier’s College, said: “Online classes saved me from daily commute in crowed Mumbai local trains.” But, she still misses the campus. “Being around friends and meeting them regularly and now being restricted to Zoom calls... it has been an altogether different experience,” she said. Despite the threat of the pandemic, there is a longing among students to go back to campuses. The young are restless and want to get on with life.