23 Apr 2020 20:23 IST

Will Covid make tech the game-changer for higher education?

Digital must be central to an institution’s learning strategy, given its potential for wider reach

At some point in time, we shall definitely win the fight against Covid-19. As of today, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), there are 114 potential treatment drugs in consideration, 79 potential vaccines in development and hundreds of clinical trials are already reported to WHO. Notwithstanding the effort so far, it might take a year-and-a-half to bring things back to normal, ‘the new normal’ — the revised norm of behaviour and social organisation.

The situation in the higher education sphere is no different. The prospects of ‘the new normal’, characterised by a blend of digital and physical realms of learning, are brighter than ever. Reacting to the existing situation, higher education institutes (HEIs) around the globe are forced to shift the way they communicate and operate. Technology-enabled online education or simply, digital learning is becoming a strategic priority.

From this ‘glass is half-full’ perspective, as more and more HEIs adopt digital, can technology in education ultimately become a game changer? Can the online learning experience be at par or surpass the physical classroom? On the other hand, from a ‘glass is half-empty’ viewpoint, is investing time and resources in the development of quality digital learning worth the time and effort? In the fullness of time, the answers lie in the way HEIs and their technology supply chain undertake the technology adoption keeping the balance of ‘quality of content’ and ‘quality of learning experience’ intact for the learners.

The digital learning experience

It is important to understand how the learning experience is designed in a tech-enabled scenario. Learning experience is all about how, when, and where learning takes place. According to the cognitive load theory (Sweller et al. 1994), the effectiveness of learning experience depends on the interplay of three cognitive components: intrinsic load, characterised by the relationship of the topic with other topics; germane load characterised by the level of intellectual activity necessary for the achievement of learning outcomes; and extraneous load characterised by all that is not relevant for the topic at hand.

It is quite apparent that digital learning is effective if it minimises the extraneous load, optimises the germane load and constructively manages the intrinsic load. Further, when it comes to managing the intrinsic load, the learning designers go around it by carefully balancing the load on two channels of information processing — visual and auditory. Their careful integration is the key to maximising the human working memory. The bottomline is that a carefully drafted digital strategy is the need of this hour. It would ensure that HEIs do not invest so much of their time and energy on a transformation that they get distracted from their core business.

Drafting the right strategy

Irrespective of the current COVID-19 situation, digital must be central to an institution’s learning strategy, given its potential for enabling reach, and its increasing popularity with the learners of today. Yet very few HEIs invested time and energy into this pre-COVID-19. For these slow adopters, the need for a well-planned and return on investment (RoI) driven digital strategy meant for the unpredicted times can never be overemphasised.

In general, the right digital strategy must address both the course design and the course delivery. Setting the rules for digital course design or ensuring a smooth transition from instructor-led (classroom or face-to-face) components to learner-led (digital or self-paced) ones is critical.

Focus on enriched discussion

What is the key objectives of a course? Essentially, it is sharing knowledge and/or fostering group-based learning? For a course targeted on former, real-time feedback of learner’s interest is critical for their engagement. For instance, follow-up readings are one way to help strengthen the information shared. Similarly, for workshops or seminars designed to promote peer learning, framework of interaction and readings can be shared in advance to save productive time for interactions. This is a typical scenario of a flipped classroom, where reading is done by learners prior to the class and time in the classroom is spent mainly on enriched discussion.

Blended learning

Instead of going digital all guns-blazing, blending the digital, virtual and classroom experience might be more effective in the beginning to successfully achieve expected learning outcomes. In that direction, the first step would be to review the courses, in general and their components, in particular. This would help in selecting the right components to be digitized, while keeping the other components in their true live training form.

Learn from MOOCs

While designing the digital experience, there is a lot to learn from massive online open courses, MOOCs is already available aplenty. These online courses offer interesting ways of engaging learners and optimising the cognitive load. The right balance of textual and visual information on a slide is vital. Other strategies include infusing a lot of formative assessments, quizzes, fun contests, gamification and badges at the right points in the digital course also increases learner engagement and responsiveness.

Structuring the course delivery

Course delivery is equally critical for the success of digital. First and foremost, digital readiness of the instructor is an area mostly overlooked. This has been found to be the main reason for instructors’ reluctance to go digital. The instructor should be trained to be familiar with the contemporary educational tools and technologies. For instance, ability to maintain the right pace of online teaching is crucial — too slow a pace might seeing students dozing off, and too fast might go over the head.

Is this enough?

Not, exactly! While HEIs prepare themselves for the digital transformation, a lot also depends on how the technology suppliers facilitate this adoption. These tech suppliers must realise this fast and adopt their product roadmaps to address the issues of content security and network bandwidth on top priority. Adoption by leading HEIs is critical to inspire adoption among the followers. Leading institutions have their unique training methodology and pedagogical approaches, which make them the most sought-after destinations for HEIs around the globe.

For them, security of their content and delivery is of paramount importance. Additionally, with most HEIs going digital, there is going to be a heavy load on the network bandwidth. In such a scenario, providing tools that can run on lower bandwidth without compromising heavily on the quality is critical. Large media houses, such as Netflix, Disney Plus and Amazon Prime have already adapted to lower bandwidths.

In the end, it is the collective effort by the HEIs and their supply chain to facilitate technology adoption in a strategic way that can bring long-term benefits of this transformation. Ultimately, it won’t just be technology, but a well-planned, careful blend of technology with classrooms that can turn out to be a game-changer. As it happens in all crises, only the resilient and strategic would emerge as leaders.

(The author is Assistant Professor, Operations Management Area, MDI Gurgaon.)