02 Sep 2020 19:43 IST

Digital divide can scupper online learning

Covid-19 has brought into focus the gaps that currently exist in the digitisation of education

In the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is necessary to evaluate and understand the disruption caused by it in the field of education. According to a UNESCO report, more than 32 crore students in India are affected by the closure of schools and colleges, caused by Covid. Moreover, students belonging to the marginalised sections of society are at a greater loss.

The challenges posed by the crisis forces higher education institutions to adjust to the new modes of learning and trends to ensure a seamless delivery of the course curriculum. The only possible solution in the current scenario is tech-mediated online classes.

The pandemic has brought into sharp focus the gaps that currently exist in the digitisation of education in India. Some of the major issues regarding online classes, both for students and teachers, are access to the internet, lack of proper laptops, smart phone or computer and electricity. According to a survey by the Ministry of Rural Development in 2017-18, 33 per cent of India’s households received only 9-12 hours of electricity daily. Though a solar chargeable smart phone can be used to watch educational videos, writing lengthy assignments with it is not feasible. Another shortcoming is the internet facility, which is limited to only 24 per cent of Indian households, as per National Statistical Office report.

Teachers lacking digital skills

The teachers who are not accustomed to e-learning platforms often find it difficult to communicate with the students due to their technical vulnerability, thereby being unable to conduct online classes properly. This has an adverse effect on the entire learning process. To address this situation, educational institutions need to introduce digital training programmes for their teachers and the Government needs to support the institutions in this process.

Also, the expense of online classes can be overwhelming for the faculty. Educational institutions and the Government should tackle this by subsidising and reimbursing the expenses incurred by the teachers for conducting online classes from their homes. Provision of requisite equipment such as computers, mobile phones and internet connection should also be made.

One of the important findings that emerged from this entire situation is that a digital friendly faculty is the biggest asset for any institution. So, it is of paramount importance to train educators to conduct online classes effectively. Repeated training of trainers will help the faculty gain the ability to make lesson plans and deliver practical training to the students. It will also help educators understand the effectiveness of the training delivery plan and come up with ways of assessing the learners' progression, basis which they can adjust their teaching methodology.

Moreover, faculty development programmes that provide financial assistance to facilitate upgradation of skills, knowledge and opportunities can be another key to success. Also, Deans and heads of departments of educational institutions should take charge of making the transition to online teaching seamless for both students and faculty.

Accessibility through technology

Since education is a human right, our country needs to implement all necessary measures to ensure its continuity. Technology is a strong tool which, along with proper digital infrastructure, has the potential to secure quality education and an improved learning outcome. It is essential to overcome the inaccessibility of digital services and education, which is still luxury for many. Education 4.0 can be a solution to reduce the digital divide as this initiative can act as an aid for students for a greater use of online learning, e-Labs and more. Other than that, using a robust, customised and scalable digital infrastructure is very important for effective teaching and learning.

Currently, various online platforms offer multiple programmes with different levels of assessment parameters. Thus, it is important for the Government and educational institutions to establish a quality assurance mechanism for online learning programmes. Also, higher education institutions must invest in upgrading or setting up a studio for lecture recording and lecture delivery. Continuous feedback from learners is also required to upgrade and improve on the teaching process.

Better digital access

Effective usage of freely available digital resources by the Government as well as through open sources such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) should be leveraged. The Ministry of Human Resource Development and University Grants Commission have initiated various virtual platforms with e-books and other online learning materials such as the Diksha portal, Swayam, Shodhganga, e-PG Pathshala, e-Yantra and more.

Apart from that, educational institutions should strengthen their resources for better virtual educational activities, including television and other web-based education. New approaches need to be initiated by educational institutes for academic assessment. These assessments of students can be done either through online mode or small projects and quizzes. The Government and educational institutes should also start planning ahead as the World Health Organisation recently mentioned that Covid-19 may never be eradicated and people have to live with it. There is a possibility that distance education and virtual mode of learning will be the most sought after in the near future.

To overcome problems of bandwidth and low connectivity, asynchronous ways of teaching and delivering e-learning material should be encouraged. This will help students choose their own time frame to connect to the training platform rather than a simultaneous participation of students and teachers. New technologies such as artificial intelligence and other deep learning models need adequate attention for customised learning plans and methods. Higher education institutions across India need to adopt these in order to overcome the present gaps in digital higher education.

An integration of web technologies and teaching skills in the course curriculum will enhance better delivery of educational programmes. Just as people are in dire need to keep themselves skilled to remain relevant, the service platforms too need upgradation to meet the required educational demands of the students. There is a possibility that in the post-Covid era virtual education will act as a parallel system of education.

(The writer is Founder and Chairman, AISECT Group.)