Published: 02nd June 2021
Are you eager to adopt blended learning outside and inside classrooms? Not so fast!
Though it is expected that blended learning will benefit the whole educational system which has been badly affected during this pandemic, it has challenges for both universities/colleges and students
Economic growth in its potential output rides on four wheels. These are human resources, natural resources, capital and technology. Educated people are more productive workers because they can use capital more effectively, adopt new technologies and learn from their mistakes. Thus, education is imperative for boosting the economic growth of a country. The Indian higher education system is the third-largest system after China and the USA. At present, as per the latest statistics of All India Survey of Higher Education (AISHE), 2019, there are 993 universities, 39,931 colleges and 10,725 standalone institutions across India. Yet, there are a lot of students for whom access to higher education is still a dream. As per the latest economic survey, in 2018-19, the gross enrollment in higher education is 26.3 % with males at 26.3% and females at 26.4%.
Thus, as a country to develop, we need more emphasis on our educational system. Moreover, the ongoing pandemic COVID-19 has multiplied the worries. It has affected all the sectors and the educational sector is definitely not an exception. The fatal disease has enabled a paradigm shift in the educational system. Suddenly, an interest in the role and utility of online learning emerged across the world. Emphasis has been on adopting accessible and affordable technologies in education and by integrating in-person and online activities so that the learning process does not come to a halt. And, when our society faces a crisis like a pandemic, war or any kind of natural disaster, such ideas of education might significantly help. Platforms such as WebEx, Zoom, Google Meet, Say Namaste, as well as learning management systems (LMS) like Moodle, Blackboard and so on have been encouraged to support students’ learning in all possible ways during the lockdown. The Indian Government has launched the initiative 'Bharat Padhe Online' to encourage teachers to create digital educational content, share ideas and innovations on public platforms by creating educational blogs, wikis and creating more and more OERs with the focus to provide unceasing learning support services to learners at all levels.
From the last year, almost all higher educational institutions in India have started virtual classrooms. Some of the universities, particularly private universities, have also gone for conducting online examinations through different platforms. University Grant Commission (UGC) has recently proposed blended learning for higher education and prepared draft guidelines for blended teaching. The draft will be open till June 6 for suggestions. Blended learning is a combination of both online and offline teaching. Under blended learning, colleges and universities can go for 40% of any course through online mode and the rest 60% can be taught offline. The New Educational Policy (2020) also emphasises different modes of learning including online teaching. UGC has also suggested changing the pattern of assessment and evaluation. The draft suggested a continuous and comprehensive pattern of examination. Along with online teaching, online examinations can also be conducted. This is a welcome step as the present era of education calls for collaborative teaching-learning experiences that are expected to renovate the entire education system from traditional face-to-face mode or chalk-black board mode to tech-based independent mode where the focus will be laid on developing the potential and creativity of learners in the best possible ways.
Dr Madhumita Das and Dr Bibhunandini Das | (Pic: CUTM)
Though it is expected that blended learning will benefit the whole educational system which has been badly affected during this pandemic, it has several challenges for both universities/colleges and students. Tougher challenges for the university will be undoubtedly technology-oriented like developing required infrastructure for the blended teaching-learning environment which the draft also recognises. Supply-side challenges for universities are to handle the traditional mindset of students, monitoring students and providing tech-savvy course facilitators. Students and their parents still think that the classroom environment, face-to-face interaction is better than any other mode of learning. Hence, making them comfortable with the online mode will be a major challenge for the universities. Another challenge for the universities and teachers will be to monitor the students. Further, the course facilitator should be tech-savvy to handle the online platform. They should be confident enough to handle the digital mode of teaching. During the nation-wide lockdown, many teachers resorted to Facebook Live classes, Google Meet, uploading content on YouTube, teaching through WhatsApp and other apps. But like a blessing in disguise, the pandemic and live online classes helped them develop ICT-based knowledge and skills during the lockdown. However, for transforming the entire Indian educational system from the pedagogical point of view, teachers' and facilitators' capabilities need to be strengthened. From the educational institutions' point of view, it has to develop infrastructure that is required for online teaching like hardware, internet, bandwidth and other required infrastructure for blended learning. Even if universities manage to handle the supply side issues, there has to be coordination between the course facilitator and learners. Facilitators need to address all the concerns of learners and help them beyond the virtual classroom. At the same time, learners need to self-direct towards virtual classrooms.
On the other hand, the demand-side problem will be mostly due to the existence of the digital divide. As per the 2019 record available on statista.com, India is the second-largest online market in the world, after China, with over 560 million internet users and by 2023, there would be over 650 million internet users across the country. However, against the large base of internet users in India, the internet penetration rate in the country was at around 50% in 2020 and has surprisingly reduced to 45% in 2021. The 75th round of National Sample Survey Organisation shows that around 11% of households have access to computers and around 24% have access to the internet. The rural-urban scenario is more acute compared to the overall scenario. In rural areas, only 4.4% of households have access to a computer and around 15% have access to the internet. Other than access, the ability to use both computers and the internet is also limited. At an all-India level, only 16.5% of people of age five and above have the ability to use a computer and 20.1% have the ability to use the internet. The tele-density in rural areas is only 57.45% compared to 155.50% in urban areas. Including access and ability, shifting to online education also needs to address the concerns of affordability. Attending online or virtual learning needs continuous internet connectivity and a high-value data pack. Students from low economic backgrounds will definitely face the problem of using high-value data packs. Besides, poor electricity in many areas is also a problem.
Unless these problems are addressed, it would be difficult to go for an online or virtual mode of learning adopting by blended-learning in India. Thus, steps need to be taken carefully so as to provide equal access to education, ensuring timely delivery of educational content and engaging with the learners effectively. The pandemic has provided myriad learning opportunities to the learners by helping them gain need-based training and skills. This should be a learning experience for us. Thus, systematic integration of technology in higher education institutions through policy implementation, infrastructure development, capacity building of teachers and learners and the use of appropriate low-cost technologies can only become the harbinger of change.
(Dr Bibhunandini Das is an Associate Professor [Economics] and Dr Madhumita Das is an Assistant Professor [Economics] at School of Management, Centurion University of Technology & Management[CUTM])