07 May 2020 20:40 IST

Why the viral surge for online education is no real panacea

Higher education is meant to achieve broader objectives; virtual delivery alone may not meet them

Never, in the first two decades of the new millennium, did the world anticipate a ‘Vision 2020’ as dismal as has unravelled from the beginning of this year. The pandemic caused by the coronavirus has locked down countries, while their economies have come to a rumbling halt with little hope of revival in the conceivable future.

Social and economic exchanges are getting redefined as I write this piece. “Social distancing” is prescribed as the only defence against this viral onslaught. This will be the “new normal” for human interactions around the world.

Changing standards of social interaction have also influenced other facets of our lives. The digital revolution,which has been around for the past 15-20 years, has become more relevant than ever before in today’s tumultuous times. Of the many advantages, digital transaction also facilitates “social distancing”. E-transactions (like e-commerce) will be part of this new normal in the future. With some limitations, of course.

Goods can’t be ‘beamed up’

Some readers may remember the popular television serial “Star Trek”, that depicted the fictional concept of “beaming up” Captain Kirk from a planet to his spaceship, in a jiffy. Many e-commerce players must be wishing this fiction had by now become reality. Delivery of goods is not immediate and transporting them to end consumers requires an extensive network of workforce on the ground. If goods and services could be “beamed up electronically”, we could eliminate delays in delivery and not worry about transfer of viruses due to human contact.

Not all e-transactions suffer from such disadvantages, though. Many service offerings, like education, have seen rapid digitisation and do not suffer from the risk of “social mingling”. Distance learning options are providing attractive alternatives to many who would have little opportunity to go back to school.

With traditional classrooms in the university and school systems being paralysed, teachers have been working to find alternatives to ensure that the academic year is saved. The succour for them are the numerous online education platforms with their clear benefit of facilitating “social distance”. Will the spread of the Covid19 pandemic, then, provide the impetus for a significant adoption of online education in higher education? Many people would like to think so.

Purely online a hasty decision

At an internal administrative meeting of a well-known university, a member of the faculty expressed the opinion that if degree programmes were stalled due to the Covid-19 viral infection, the university should quickly modernise its technology infrastructure to carry over a large part of its delivery to the online mode, and perhaps keep it that way forever. This statement resonated with many of his colleagues who felt that this problem could be used as an opportunity to find a sustainable substitute for virtual programme delivery. However, many others felt it could be a hasty decision to jump into this without a proper assessment of the consequences.

Universities around the world are adopting digital means to circumvent the current crisis. This trend is not new. Many have developed canned courseware over the years which are available for their students and the general audience. Yet, there are murmurs of protest among various stakeholders in the society (especially students) about the validity of the assumptions made in this changeover. They remain unconvinced that the quality of degree programmes remains unscathed irrespective of the delivery platforms used. In some instances, students have been asking for a fee reversal from universities because of their making this change. So maybe this is not as simple as it is made out to be.

Why are some students protesting the use of online classes by universities? The answer may lie in the definition of reputation, something that these universities enjoy. The “quality” of online delivery has been criticised, and for some good reasons.

Broader objectives

Online training programmes are largely informational modules or sets of instruction that are received by students without much interaction with the instructor. They are well-organised and therefore easy to comprehend from a remote location. Technology enablement has progressed to facilitate such largely unidirectional transactions satisfactorily. However, these transactional modules can be used for limited purposes, mainly for skill development (programming, specific hard science concepts, technical skills, gaining information). Higher education was purported to achieve much broader objectives.

Good quality education is a bi-directional exchange process between the student and the instructor. Great institutions insist that such exchange of ideas induces the co-creation of knowledge. A healthy conversation in a classroom, with the instructor acting as a facilitator, and debate among peers provides the opportunity to create the best of knowledge. Such interaction may happen both in in-class and out-of-class settings. Not surprisingly, many of the best-in-class academic institutes in India have been residential campuses.

John Dewey, a psychologist, philosopher and education reformer of the twentieth century, stated education to be, “... to give the young the things they need in order to develop in an orderly, sequential way into good members of society”. More recently, advocates of higher education reforms have recommended that the focus of higher education should be in “creating prepared minds”. In India, the National Policy of Higher Education (1986) viewed the role of higher education in India as the following: “Higher education provides people with an opportunity to reflect on the critical, social, economic, cultural, moral and spiritual issues facing humanity. It contributes to national development through dissemination of specialised knowledge and skill…”

Intellectual wellness of individuals

Much in line with these historical perspectives, we believe that education has much to do with intellectual wellness of individuals; like a nutritional supplement for the mind. Just as a healthy diet is supposed to improve the general wellness of the human body, good education uplifts the mental health and intellect of human beings. The role of skill development to solve specific problems is, at best, a secondary objective of education.

Vocational courses are important for the general economic wellness of society, but the objective of university education ought not be limited to developing only commercial competency. Quality education input goes far beyond. It serves as an important preparation for individuals to make valuable contributions for overall societal well-being.

We are certain that current conditions will make online delivery a requirement in the near term. But while we are forced to change in the immediate horizon, we must not forget to review its sustainability in times of normalcy. The use of online platforms in an emergency should not necessarily pave the way for new standards of delivery in the higher education sector. At least, for the sake of sustaining quality higher education, the proposition appears unconvincing.

(The author is Associate Professor, Area Chair, Operations and Information Systems School of Petroleum Management, Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University, Gandhinagar, Gujarat.)