Reimagining online education to fit the Indian scenario

Najooka Javier
Thursday, 30 July 2020

Though the concept of online classes is anything but new, the sudden shut down of the world owing to the pandemic, put the onus of education on the shoulders on virtual classes. Schools, colleges and universities which had previously focused all their efforts on bettering the traditional form of education, had to suddenly shift their efforts on reaching out to the students remotely.  

 

India's education has been on focus this week. The new National Education Policy (NEP) has seen the breaking of the existing 10+2 structure and the introduction of 5+3+3+4 structure of School Education to emphasise on a more inclusive foundational to secondary stage transition. 

Interactivity and digital learning will be at the centre of focus for learning at all stages.  

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At first, the arrival of online courses seemed like an educational game-changer. Massive open online courses, famously known as MOOCs, seemed to be the next big thing in the field of education. But, over time, the traditional form of education continued to hold precedence over this virtual form, and students continued to enrol into traditional institutions.  

Then entered the scene, the catalyst - the novel coronavirus. 

Though the concept of online classes is anything but new, the sudden shut down of the world owing to the pandemic, put the onus of education on the shoulders on virtual classes. Schools, colleges and universities which had previously focused all their efforts on bettering the traditional form of education, had to suddenly shift their efforts on reaching out to the students remotely.  

Though some universities had already made virtual training a part of their curriculum, in India, especially, the predominant face-to-face training remained to be the preferred mode of training. The dominance of the traditional form of training in the country could be attributed to various logistical factors that interrupted online training. Despite a massive base of internet users, the vast population and varied demographics show an internet penetration close to 50 per cent. Issues such as high-speed internet connection and unavailability of smartphones come in the way for these classes. It could also be attributed to the language barriers, as finding a common language that is understood by most, may not always be easy. Another reason sighted by the students is the credibility of certificate courses.  

Even though online courses cost lesser than most university courses, the prevalence of the courses is much higher than that of virtual ones.  

Perspective on pursuing online classes  

To understand the barriers faced by students while pursuing online courses, Sakal Times spoke to a few university students currently attending online courses.  

Chaitanya Saini (name changed on request) has been attending online classes with a prestigious advertising institute in India. Owing to the lockdown, Chaitanya, currently in his second year had to leave college and has been at home. After spending two months, trying to deal with the uncertainty, his online classes finally began in June.  

Talking about his experience with online classes, he shares, "Our college has been conducting all our classes through online medium. It is like having regular lectures but from home. Though it was good at first to break the monotony of having nothing to do in a lockdown. Soon classes became a little mundane."  

He expressed that it was difficult to stay focused through the classes and missed the interaction between students and teachers.  

"Virtual classes are useful, especially in times like these. But when it comes to continuing to pursue an education in this form, the formats need to be better structured," he added. 

Ever since the lockdown, online courses have taken the front seat in the country. Sharing her experience on various forms of online courses, through various platforms Kanupriya P, a student from Bengaluru, says, "Some of the online courses I've joined are NPTEL (Design Thinking, data analytics using python course), LetsUpgrade (Python Programming), Cognitive AI- IBM (python for data science), Futurelearn- Accenture and Google Digital Garage. While the Futurelearn- Accenture course is not great, the course by Google has no prerequisites and can be done by anyone." 

"These online courses are effective as I am learning at my own pace, and they don't have time limits so that I can take it easy. While all the courses are in video formats, LetsUpgrade was on YouTube live session. The assignments given were practical and tended to assess one's learning, so I learnt the concepts well," she says, sharing her view on online classes. 

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"They (teachers) are like theatre actors who suddenly have become movie actors." - Prof. Siddharth Deshmukh.  

Perspective on delivering online training  

"It is strenuous, especially in higher education, as most classes are interactive in nature. But here, it is difficult to follow chats and sustain attention. A kind of stilted interactivity," says Professor Siddharth Deshmukh. 

Prefer to be known as the Travelling Professor, he is an industry expert in the field of communication and works as a senior advisor and adjunct professor across tier-1 Business Schools in India. 

"Also, most teachers don't know how to be in front of a camera. They are like theatre actors who suddenly have become movie actors," he added. 

Talking about the challenges faces by various institutes, Deshmukh said that the number of students is an essential factor when deciding formats for class. "Offline formats don't translate well into online, so the classes are differentiated into sections," he said. 

He also addresses that, "There is also no relief for a student in this (online) form and peers to peer interaction don't happen that well." 

Reimagining the virtual learning space 

The initial form of virtual classes which are still followed by various online training sites follows the traditional form of video followed by a short test and online forum discussions. This is further followed by a module test, typically conducted online. Some courses require research paper submission at the end of the course. But the issue with this form of learning is the lack of interaction with the teacher and fellow students. 

In the year 2014, Harvard Business School first entered the universe of digital learning platforms. While most institutes now resort to Zoom or Google Meet, the design created by the Harvard online classroom was exceptional. 

Considered to be a futuristic model back in the day, the classroom consisted of no benches or chairs but much like a giant video conferencing room. With the professor placed in the middle of the classroom, video cubes surrounded the classroom where students could jump in to answer questions and hold discussions with their fellow students. The professor could also halt the lecture to quiz students individually or take polls in the class. 

Another example cited by Professor Siddharth Deshmukh was for conducting online lectures in breakout rooms. These rooms allow for peer interaction and can foster a more in-class like feeling for students. 

Talking about the structure of the online classes, the professor suggested some examples of universities that have been experimenting with their virtual class format. 

"The format of classes differs for different institutes. It is different for different places. Then some institutes deliver half-hour of pre-recorded content followed by a 45-minute question and answer session. While some institutes conduct one and a half-hour of a live session followed by a 15-minute question and answer session," he added. 

Adding to the concept of various forms of online classes, he explained that "breakout rooms are an effective way to engage students in peer interaction." 

He elaborated that in a breakout room, students have the space to form separate groups that can hold group discussions in separate rooms, which can be visited by the professor so a more detailed discussion. The other most commonly found format he explained is the one where all the students join the same classroom. 

A feature made available by the video calling app Zoom, a breakout room allows the user to split the video call into separate sessions. The host also has the option to split participants within these sessions and can also visit the sessions at any time. 

Though the country is still in a kind of a beta stage when it comes to online education, the system is most likely here to stay for a long time. With continuous innovation and technological support, we could soon look at adapting to a more comprehensive style of virtual classes, where students and teachers are both able to deliver more effectively.  

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