Online learning in Pandemic Times

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No power on earth can stop learning. Life is about ceaseless learning. The curt refusal by  Dronacharya to teach archery to  Aiklavya  could not hinder him from becoming a great archer. The catastrophic dance of  COVID-19 impelled governments to close schools and institutions of learning for a hole academic session and beyond, and yet, despite life threatening odds, learning did not come to a halt. Thanks to India’s technological prowess, the earnest desire of our students and the wholehearted endeavour of teachers and back up of parents, India moved  to online learning in a big way. Online learning or pedagogy is expanding exponentially. In the 1960s, online education originated at the University of Illinois, US, and in the 1990s, India’s digital education ecosystem started with the setting up of the Indira Gandhi Open University. Educomp, a private Indian company set up in 1994, claimed to liberate students from the drudgery of classrooms and empowered teachers to become more productive. Around 2010, Education Technology or EduTech start-ups entered the education sector in India. A learning application, Byju’s, became one of the most valued EduTech companies in 2019. Now, many start-ups have sprouted to give tough competition to Byjus’s. In fact, online learning is the future and if there were no virus, digital education would have taken many years to fructify.

The task of imparting teaching without attending classes physically is a daunting one as India has more than 240 million students and 8.5 million teachers across primary, upper-primary, secondary and senior-secondary stages, apart from students and teachers in higher institutions of learning.  Education being a Concurrent subject in the Constitution,  the States / Union Territories and the Ministry of Education have been making concerted efforts to continue imparting education to children in their homes through alternate means of delivery such as distribution of textbooks, telephonic guidance by teachers, online and digital content through various media, online classes, activity based learning through the Alternate Academic Calendar released by NCERT, etc. It would be worth recalling that prior to the 42nd Constitution Amendment, Education was a State subject.  The amendment, then severely criticised being a product of Internal Emergency, has helped in a big way to promote education being a Concurrent subject.  A multi-pronged approach has been adopted by the government by leveraging technology to reach the students. Digital Infrastructure for Knowledge Sharing (DIKSHA), Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), SWAYAM PRABHA (34 TV channels), MANODARPAN for psycho-social support to students, teachers and families, etc., have been put in place. Guidelines on digital education, e-textbooks using e-pathshalas, web portals and mobile apps are being used by schools, colleges and universities to provide learning facilities.

In areas where internet facility is not available, SWAYAM PRABHA –one class, one TV channel – is being used to impart education. Besides, community radio stations and a podcast called Shiksha Vani by the CBSE are also being used where online classes are difficult. Hindrances and bottlenecks have been spotted during the last academic session and necessary measures are underway. However, the alternative modes, though praiseworthy, do not ensure universal access and equitable quality learning for all students due to various factors such as unequal distribution of time of teachers, students having differential access to technological devices, want of appropriate space at home and lack of domestic support for learning in many cases. There are reports and poignant visuals of children in remote areas climbing trees or going to roof tops for securing connectivity, and also of children of poor people unable get access to Internet for want of smart phones. Government replied in Parliament in response to a question that special interventions for differently-abled students and children of migrant labourers are being made to facilitate their online education.

While framing new learning models, measures have been instituted to build teacher capacity for continuing teaching through different modes; to deliver better learning outcomes; mapping of curriculum; physical health and sanitation; social distancing, etc. To tackle issues of anxiety, distress, depression and eye strain due to staring for long hours at digital devices, the NCERT has evolved guidelines for online classes prescribing different time duration for different standards. Online learning has changed the way of teaching. Technology enables to teach the students more efficiently and effectively through chat groups, video meetings, and also document sharing, especially during the pandemic. There is evidence that learning online can be more effective in a number of ways. Some research claims that on average, students retain 25-60% more material when learning this way compared to only 8-10% in a classroom. E-learning requires 40-60% less time to learn than in a traditional classroom setting because students can learn at their own pace, going back and re-reading, skipping, or accelerating through concepts as they choose.

Nevertheless, the effectiveness of online learning varies amongst age and socio-economic groups. The general consensus, especially about younger ones, is that a structured environment is required because kids are more easily distracted. To get the full benefit of online learning, we need a range of collaboration tools and engagement methods that promote inclusion and meet individual need. Joyful learning and fostering the capacities of each child aiming at holistic development are some of the key features of the National Education Policy 2020. Online pedagogy has certain advantages like, accessibility, affordability, flexibility and life-long learning. It is a relatively cheaper mode of education in terms of the lower cost of transportation, accommodation and the overall cost of institution-based learning. A learner can schedule or plan his time for completion of courses available online. Technology enables blended learning and flipped classrooms, which can increase the learning potential and students can learn anytime and anywhere.

Albeit, there are a number of difficulties that range from downloading errors, issues with installation, login, audio and video problems, slow net speed, interruptions, digital inaccessibility, lack of smart devices by the poor, and so on. Also, students find long online teaching monotonous and boring. The teachers too are overburdened. Students feel the lack of community and the very ethos of a school, which is more than a physical infrastructure. How to make online courses dynamic, accessible, interesting and interactive is a huge challenge. Till COVID-19 is eradicated or the entire population is vaccinated and immunised, digital education is the only way forward. During the first year of COVID-19, we have learnt to cope up with it, identified impediments and gradually adapted to digital learning. Hopefully, during the current academic year, with strong u measures in place, observance of COVID appropriate behaviour and fast-paced vaccination, our schools and institutions of learning will throb with students once again. Traditional offline learning and e-learning can go hand by hand.

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