This morning I was relishing some instant rava idlis from MTR Foods. This reminded me of an incident during the 1975 emergency imposed by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. A Food Control Act was introduced at that time prescribing a price at which an idli could be sold. MTR had to shut the Mavalli Tiffin Rooms – the popular vegetarian restaurant it ran in Bengaluru - as it could not match the government determined price and maintain the quality it was known for.
The company was forced to rethink its strategy and came up with packaged food products. Today, though the restaurant business has revived and expanded, instant pre-packaged food products have become MTR’s mainstay.
In a world disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic, educational services need a similar pivot and a new packaged product.
The field of education faces a tough crisis. Nearly 40 crore students, their parents and millions of teachers are wondering what the future holds for them? Will schools, colleges open anytime soon? Will there be online classes? Will there be exams? The Covid-19 pandemic is expected to last nearly a year. Given an uncertain situation will they lose a full academic year? Meanwhile, teachers are worried whether they would get salaries if the students don’t pay fees.
The online paradigm
The world moved online almost three decades ago. I was fortunate to be nominated by Thiagarajar Polytechnic College, Salem, in 1996 to lead a team to Canada to sign an e-learning joint venture with New Brunswick Community College (NBCC). We formed SonaVarsity, a computer-based learning centre. In 2000, my first venture was to represent virtual learning management system Blackboard in India. We helped IIM Bangalore launch its e-learning programme through this system.
India has come a long way in digital learning with the setting up of the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) coordinated by top IITs and Ministry of Human Resource Development’s own Massive Open Online Courses portal, Swayam (an acronym for Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds). Set up in 2017 with a significant investment, Swayam has the bandwidth to handle over 2,000 courses.
These investments are the right step. We need to expand these to take most classroom courses online. This move will work as a huge catalyst for poor students in rural India.
The need of the hour is to create Wi-Fi beehives in the 13.77 lakh operational anganwadis in the country and convert these Wi-Fi hubs as learning destinations for all students in the rural areas. A broadband connection equipped with a Wi-Fi is all that it will take to convert anganwadis across India into learning labs.
No curriculum schools
For the practical component of learning we need to invest and create widgets. We need to create a thinking environment so as to re-imagine education. Can we educate students with a problem-solving mindset? Give students projects, let them apply their mind to solve the problem and create solutions. NuVu High School near Boston in the US does not have any curriculum. The learners only solve problems for two weeks at a time to learn the concept. In India schools are educating students who have knowledge but not the ability to solve real-world problems.
There is hesitancy about shifting wholly to the online medium due to challenges in testing. Malpractice in examinations has been and will continue to be there. But in today’s world online exams are more secure in many ways than the old-world paper and pen exams. The proctoring ratio (number of invigilators per student) is between 1:15 to 1:20 in an offline examination centre. However, online proctored assessments like the ones built by HireMee, a CSR initiative of Vee Technologies, is as good as 1:1.
A powerful AI engine can monitor the eyeball movement of the person taking the exam, making sure he or she is not getting outside help like looking at different screens or getting coached by someone else. No two students get the same question paper. And the answers are also mixed up. TOFEL, SAT, GMAT, GRE have all had online exams for many years.
Changing the way we learn
During Covid-19 pandemic the way we work has changed completely as many are forced to work from home. So, the way we learn needs to change as well. The gig economy is all about working remotely. So we can learn remotely too.
Remote learning will also help institutions double the intake of students and offer students education at half the cost. This would benefit poor students. If states of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka can give free laptops to college students the Government should come forward and give free smartphones to all students from below poverty line families.
Extraordinary situations force us to think in radically different ways and come up with breakthrough ideas. Perhaps in the coming years the Covid pandemic crisis will throw up many different ideas like my favourite idli this morning.
(Chocko Valliappa is Vice Chairman, Sona Group of Institutions and managing director of HireMee and Vee Technologies)