18 Jun 2021 21:28 IST

Coping with Covid and online learning

How Great Lakes rose to the challenge of the pandemic and ensured students’ value proposition

Towards the end of the 20th century, Information Technology as it is, started having an impact on the way teachers taught and students learned. Schools and colleges started including Teaching and Learning (TAL) tools into their pedagogy — and rightly so since there is probably no other way to get a high-school kid excited about, say, Niels Bohr’s atomic model or to explain the nuances of Shakespearean sonnets without lulling most of the class to sleep.

Fast forward to 2021, we find ourselves in a very demanding VUCA world. Jobs require incumbents to be highly skilled, super-efficient and on top of their game; Companies expect personnel to be aware of the latest advancements in their fields; learning seldom ends with graduation from a premier school; it is a continuous process and knowledge-updation, which is mandatory for career advancements and landing choice assignments. Educational institutions are now viewed as ‘partners’, helping their alumni with knowledge and skill upgradation long after their physical graduation, using sophisticated virtual technologies. It is to facilitate this that schools like Great Lakes Institute of Management have designed niche-management courses, introduced blended-learning formats and invested in developing their own indigenous online-learning platforms.

Universities and professors have also recently started making available cutting-edge content created in a brick and mortar set-up on online platforms for the benefit of students worldwide. Companies such as Coursera, GLOW (Great Lakes Online Worldwide) have brought Ivy League education to the doorstep of any student and offer certifications from world-renowned schools too. In the blink of an eye, borders were crossed, barriers were shed and universal access to education became a norm.

The coming of Covid

And then Covid-19 made its grand entrance and life as we knew it ceased to exist. The ‘new normal’ saw even kindergartners attending ‘online’ school. With the new academic year commencing in virtual mode owing to the pandemic, Great Lakes too rose to the challenge.

What we could not provide through the in-person, on-campus experience had to be delivered to the student online, since compromising student value proposition was not an option for us. Our ‘term zero’ received rave reviews due to some of our unconventional initiatives. We were able to invite luminaries from academic, business and social spheres to interact with our students through Zoom; these lectures from the world’s greats like Indra Nooyi, NR Narayanamurthy, Rahul Dravid, Srikant Datar, Vijay Govindarajan and so on were testament to the fact that even crippling obstacles can be converted into brilliant opportunities. Under normal circumstances, such an interaction would mean an investment of at least 12 hours with travel to Chennai, but due to Covid, this took only one-and-a-half hours – what I like to call ‘Money Value of Time’.

Another unique initiative was our city-centric mapping of students along with a mentor which ensured constant two-way communication between the school and students, forged a relationship and created a sense of community among them; we were also able to organise a record number of conferences and symposia including TEDx, our flagship annual B-school intercollegiate competition L’Attitude, cultural interludes and even placement processes virtually.

Life in a bio-bubble

In the brief period when we were able to open up our campus we created a bio-bubble for the students adhering to the highest standards of safety while ensuring they enjoyed their campus life to the fullest. It was not easy and each day was an exercise in learning but we persevered and were able to deliver good off-campus and on-campus experiences possible — as evidenced from the exit survey of the students. It was only because of the pandemic that we undertook many such activities that we had hitherto not even thought possible!

This academic year too, as India reels under the grip of the second wave of Covid, schools and colleges will remain closed for some more time. Till we open up, we will continue to enhance our student engagement experience. In fact some, of our virtual initiatives have been so successful that they are now a permanent part of the Great Lakes offering.

However, there is still a case to be made in favour of face-to-face classes. There is an enormous amount of intangible learning that comes with the territory — right from knowledge assimilation to sensitivity training that one internalises due to social contact that no virtual classroom can match. Lengthy online sessions are tiresome, do not facilitate peer interaction, promote introversion and severely undermine the understanding of non-verbal forms of communications. Teachers too find it challenging and unrewarding since they speak into an abyss, with barely any feedback and are unable to engage with the students and hold their attention for prolonged periods of time. More importantly, in developing countries like ours, where the digital divide is a harsh reality, even these sessions remain out of reach for those at the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum.

A paradigm shift

The Covid-19 pandemic has certainly caused a paradigm shift in the way we make decisions. Adaptation is key, with agility and innovation marking every step of the way. I relate this situation to the construction of the Waterloo Bridge. Due to shortage of labour (as men folk had enlisted to fight in the World War II) for the very first time, women were drafted to construction and engineering jobs. Women in such jobs were unheard of at that time. They did a phenomenal job, completed the project ahead of time and well within the budget.

The lesson here too is the same. It is possible to do the seemingly impossible. No doubt, the pandemic has devastated families and economies and the future is as unpredictable as it is grim, globally. But, it has opened up opportunities in areas that were hitherto unexplored and prompted us to think and do in radically different ways. Organisations too have to stay distinct or become extinct. An organisation must be able to compete from anywhere, with any one, for any resource in the world to achieve ‘Globality’. Staying relevant, providing value for money whatever the circumstance with passion and compassion is the mantra for institutions today — this is just as applicable to education as it is to industry.





(The writer is Founder, Chairman and Dean (emeritus) of Great Lakes Institute of Management.)