03 Sep 2020 21:26 IST

Immersive tech can bring online learning almost face-to-face

So life-like that professors can actually make eye contact with even a class of 60 students

The year 2020 started like any other, with celebrations, expectations and plans for the New Year. Final Year school students were making grand plans for their University admissions. This would certainly be a great step in their lives and every student had dreams of getting into the right colleges and universities pursuing their dream options. And then came the pandemic, putting a question mark to all these dreams.

Perplexed and confused they had more questions than answers and the way the pandemic spread across different countries posed even more challenges. This sudden and unexpected turn of events put all their plans in disarray and gave many of the students anxious moments. Uncertain and anxious about their future course of action they were left with very few and limited options. When governments clamped down on mobility and forced schools and colleges to close down for safety and health concerns the problems became even more challenging.

Endless speculation

At the beginning of this year, students had got their admission offers and were all set to go abroad to study. However, the onset of the pandemic and consecutively the lockdown, drove students into an endless speculation of how it would impact their education plans. In the current context, students now essentially have three choices; take a gap year, study online with an international university, or consider studying on a campus closer to home. There is no easy answer as each choice comes with trade-offs and payoffs with some benefits and some sacrifices.

As an immediate alternative to conventional learning and to keep up with the ramifications of the pandemic, most universities from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and Canada have already shifted their classes online until December. However, as a policy these universities and colleges made students pay the same fees they would have to pay for regular classes on campus and attend online classes at international timings which are at different time zones when compared to India. Ironically, this is not an ideal situation for most students and this predicament has forced many students to consider other options.

Students are now inclined towards studying at colleges with campuses close to their homes, especially if the college has tie-ups with international universities or is internationally accredited. These international tie-ups and accreditations can certainly benefit the students as they get a higher quality of education, which is globally accepted and recognised, while cutting down on the otherwise huge costs of education abroad. In many Indian cities, campuses will reopen soon, and through a combination of technology and strict health and safety protocols, students can study in a safe environment. Some colleges are also providing students with the option of transferable credits, which enables them to pursue their education in an international college of their choice when the situation recedes, without losing a year.

Ill-equipped universities

In these trying and uncertain times, online education is the only answer amidst this pandemic and has led to universities offering online classes. However, most universities are ill-equipped for offering high quality online learning experiences and still use conventional technologies developed primarily for office meetings and small gatherings. This means that they may not be suitable or adequate to conduct a class with a capacity of more than 20 to 30 students. In almost all cases they also don’t come close to replicating the learning experience of a live classroom.

However, there are outstanding exceptions amidst this squall of gloom and doom. There are cutting edge technologies like the Engaged Learning Online also known as ELO that gives an almost immersive and engaging classroom-like experience to students. This innovative technology is so life-like that professors can actually make eye contact with even a class of 60 students! Through interactive polls, quizzes and uniquely designed digital breakout rooms students get to experience an almost face-to-face experience and all this in the safety and comfort of their homes! This may not be what students had originally planned for but it comes pretty close to the real experience when compared to other conventional options.

While we can all look at the pandemic through a pair of bleak and black glasses, let’s ponder over the silver lining for a moment. Adversity and setbacks are a part of life. Students need to learn this important lesson of life that most universities do not cover. Yes, their study abroad dream gets delayed by 6–12 months. But certainly it is not the end of the world! The history of humanity is a history of fighting back, becoming resilient and becoming better. We strongly believe that students will become stronger, more courageous and be more prepared for a future of increasing uncertainty!

(The writer is President, SP Jain School of Global Management.)