20 Apr 2020 19:26 IST

Seamless shift to online teaching and learning: The NMIMS experience

With teams working together, just 3 days into lockdown, disruption was transformed into opportunity

The academic community has traditionally been staid in its approach to teaching methods, in which area there have been but few innovative developments for decades. The face-to-face (F2F) teaching-learning process still dominates despite the advent of online learning. Educators and faculty prefer the F2F mode from the viewpoint of convenience in responding to questions from a mass of students, carrying out interactive discussions and explanations/derivation/solving problems on the white board.

Further, in regard to executive education, in India, most participants emphatically state their preference for the F2F mode of learning, especially as they return to academics after a break and would like to leverage F2F faculty inputs. Around five years ago, during our Strategy Retreat, we had identified ‘blended learning’ as the future and had exhorted faculty to incorporate ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs), or modules from MOOCs, in their curriculum. However, this did really not take off, largely on account of the human psychology of comfort with the status quo and resistance to change.

However, the recent COVID-19 crisis has brought about a paradigm change in the outlook of educators and students.

Our response to completion of class schedules

The Government of Karnataka’s notification of March 13, 2020 announcing the closure of schools and colleges, followed by similar announcements from other States made it evident that it would not be possible for us to complete the academic curriculum in the normal F2F mode. Immediately, the university leadership decided to complete the balance portion of the syllabi through the online mode of learning. Faculty meetings discussed the challenges and it was decided to hold demo online classes using the WebEx and Zoom platforms from March 17.

Since then, we have been conducting 75 to 85 online classes per day across our post graduate and undergraduate programmes. By April 11, we had completed 1,720+ online sessions. This mammoth task would not have been possible without the judicious use of technology, and the combined efforts/cooperation amongst faculty, students, academic coordinators and IT administrators.

The term Business Continuity Plan (BCP) is commonly used in regard to the operations of the IT industry but scarcely mentioned in the academic world. Nonetheless, without so much as a formal BCP, we were able to commence online delivery of classes within 3 days of the Government’s notification. This is a tribute to proactive decision-making and the human response during times of crisis/adversity.

Despite the havoc wrought by the COVID-19 crisis, it did provide us a perfect opportunity to radically transform ourselves into agents of change to meet our academic deadlines. One of the acknowledged principles of ‘change management’ is that organisational change requires one or two champions to lead the effort. At NMIMS Bangalore, all the faculty — core and visiting — put their best foot forward to champion the new teaching-learning (T-L) process.

As a result, our academic schedules are being maintained, except for a delay of two weeks in regard to the PGDM program where, despite the academic delivery having been completed and examinations scheduled from March 24, students could not be asked to present themselves for exams as the lockdown began on March 24. The calendar of all undergraduate programmes is being scrupulously adhered to.

Quality of the T-L process

The online distance learning (ODC) platform, equipped with Word and Excel sheets and white smart board, apart from chat box, facility for raising hands, is versatile. Use of shared Excel worksheets online and whiteboards provided by the ODC software make delivery of concepts and problem-solving almost equivalent to the F2F mode. The chat box in the software enables interaction and raising of questions by students. Thus, some of the faculty opine that engagement and class participation is better in the ODC mode.

In regard to the case method of teaching, which is one of the pillars of pedagogy in most B-schools, the less personalised mode of the T-L process demands that the faculty are more structured and assign beforehand specific sections of the case or questions for pre-class preparation to be addressed by students. There’s also the facility of polling for specific questions by using websites such as StrawPoll.com and Kahoot.com. This has facilitated greater engagement in the class. As a result, whereas earlier, the considered view of faculty was that ODC is not amenable for the case method of teaching, our recent experience seems to suggest otherwise.

Pathway to blended learning?

Quality of teachers: The success of the ODC mode has, so to say, bridged the gap between the very good and average teachers. In ODC, the very good teacher does not have a stage to exhibit his/her skills as the online platform is somewhat indifferent to stage presence of the teacher, who cannot be as much of a performing artist as in the F2F mode. This is encouraging for the education sector where there is a dearth of high quality F2F teachers.

Differential pace of student learning: If every course has an online module which students can complete at their own pace, solve problems/exercises and get tested at every stage, their fundamental concepts would be strengthened. This facility, reinforced by making available recordings of lectures, would reduce the gap between slow learners and fast learners.

All this shows up an entirely different dimension to the online T-L process, making it clear that blended learning with F2F and ODC in equal measure might be superior to the conventional F2F and could be the answer to constraints such as shortage of quality faculty, prior class preparation of students, hands-on practice for numerical exercises, and so on.

Innovative response to conduct of end-term examination

Once the task of putting in place the T-L process was dealt with the next challenge was conducting the end term examination. The option of online exams with proctoring by an IT service provider, was examined. This had an inherent demerit in that students were spread across the length and breadth of the country and those who were from non metro/ semi-urban areas would have to contend with power outages and bandwidth issues that would render the time-bound online exam not entirely fair to everyone.

As a departure from the time-bound examination, the university leadership team opted for Take Home Exams (THE), that are open book and not time-bound but may require data collection and collation, analysis, evaluation of options and are aimed at testing critical thinking and creativity skills.

The backdrop to this decision was research conducted by Lars Bengtsson (2019), which concluded that “THE may be the preferred choice of assessment method for higher-order taxonomy levels because they promote higher-order thinking skills and allow time for reflection”. Accordingly, faculty were advised to design THE in a manner that, apart from application of concepts and analysis, it was possible to assess students’ critical thinking skills and creativity. Now that all THE have been designed, the consensus among faculty is that this is superior to the traditional time-bound exams and would stand students in good stead in their corporate careers.

Important learnings

If we were to assess our experience during the past few weeks and its impact on education/academia and society it would be thus:

1. The online teaching-learning process in higher education is certainly effective. In some ways, such as making T-L more structured; promoting self-learning and prior class preparation among students, and thereby reducing spoon feeding; it is perhaps more effective than the F2F mode.

2. Examinations need not be in situ on campus or even online; open-book take home exams designed to assess higher-order thinking skills or online exams are more effective, at least at the post-graduate level.

3. Blended learning as a pedagogy appears superior to the conventional F2F process both from the faculty perspective, where there is a shortage of high-quality teaching talent, and from the student perspective, to equitably cater to fast and slow learners.

4. Blended learning with a fair share of pre-recorded lectures could also allow faculty more time to pursue research.

5. On the societal front, life is not normal yet. Yet, the teaching-learning process has gone on without loss of productivity and with no interpersonal issues in the day-to-day working. These are pointers to a larger debate on “how the workforce can be made more productive”.

6. The larger dimensions relate to substantially lower energy consumption and minimal pollution. This raises questions on the way we have been conducting our lives so far and what is a more appropriate solution from environmental and social cost perspectives.

We believe that the Covid-19 crisis, in general, and the response mechanisms put in place by NMIMS and other leading institutions will bring about a paradigm change in the way higher education is conducted in the future and that these new teaching-learning processes will, in fact, be more effective.

(The writer is Director, NMIMS, Bangalore.)