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In Focus

Higher Education in the Times of COVID-19

Anup K Singh, PhD
Director General
Nirma University

A pandemic like COVID-19 occurs only once in several centuries. Unfortunately, when it happens, it disrupts the human life drastically. It stuns and stupefies people at large and leaves them helpless and hopeless. In addition, it changes economic, social, political, and developmental paradigms prevalent in the different parts of the world. Today the humanity is caught unaware and scrambling for finding effective survival and growth strategies. What are the answers to long-term challenges posed by this pandemic?

The future of the human race depends largely on high quality education and health. Education is the spirit of the mind, whereas health provides the elixir to the body. In the past, these two sectors have received scant attention from the governments of the world. One surprising positive aspect of the current crisis is that the governments would be forced to rethink their approach to reinventing and revitalising education and health.

Higher education – like several economic and social activities – has suffered severely from COVID-19. Teaching and examination activities have been hampered. There is no telling when regular academic activities will ensue. Admission processes are delayed. Most unfortunately, placements of students have either slowed down or revoked, creating despair and dismay for the youth. Governments across India have stopped recruiting, while the private sector corporations have adopted a wait and watch tactic. Consequently, many students will either become unemployed or will be forced to elongate their studies.

Peter Drucker – the foremost management thinker – is attributed to have said that the modern university is a relic and will disappear soon. His prediction did not prove true for many decades. Nevertheless, the modern university is poised to get its new Avtar. Higher education has been affected by the corona pandemic in three ways. Firstly, higher education professionals have realised the inevitability of online education. Previously, classroom learning and online learning were like water and oil, and they hardly mixed. Online learning has now been found a valuable tool that is going to stay in higher education forever. On-campus teaching and online teaching are meeting and merging like never before. Of course, many efforts are required to make this conflating more effective. Better communication and information technologies are needed; teachers need to be trained to optimise the online teaching-learning process; students have to be more efficient self-learners; and, governments are required to change the regulations to facilitate higher education institutions (HEIs) in enhancing their impact.

Secondly, the HEIs have to develop innovative strategies to distribute students into small groups (say 30 and below) and engage them in various academic processes. Thus, we are heading towards a paradoxical situation. While students will attend online lectures in large groups (say 100 to 500), they would also do other academic activities (tutorials, lab work, simulation, career development, etc) in numerous small groups. It implies that the HEIs have to invest massively in equipment, facilities and production of digital learning materials. In the future, learning would not be counted in terms of class credits – the clock hours that students spend in the classroom – but in terms of learning credits – the hours the students engage in learning units. It has several imperatives for the teaching-learning methods. Several new methods have to be evolved and experimented. New realities command new responses.

Thirdly, examinations and assessments have to be redefined and be treated as learning. There will be a greater need for more assessments, so that learning is assured. At the same time, it cannot be – and should not be – a source of stress. It has to be as natural and smooth as learning. Technologies will help academics in fast and seamless implementation of assessment. The moot point is that students should be given feedback about at each and every step of their learning process.

As the HEIs are currently undergoing unpredictable, unforeseeable transformations, we are limited in our ability to visualise the future of higher education. Nevertheless, we can safely state that the old paradigm of higher education cannot sustain itself. A new paradigm will emerge – slowly and steadily. Sensemaking and agility will assist academics in developing the new paradigm of higher education. It also implicates that various HEIs must collaborate together and design new teaching methods, redefine and rework assessment techniques, and plan and develop new modes of learning. Long back, Lord Buddha presciently observed: Only change is permanent.