COVID has exposed potholes in the road to equity in HE
Damayantee, a second-year student, was caught up in the transition. It was the first time that the importance of classroom teaching was realised by students across the world, a mode of teaching that they had taken for granted before colleges shut down. Governments struggled to keep the learning process afloat and it was no different in India.
The pandemic has had its share of positives when it comes to the education sector. Courses have become more accessible to a global audience. With wider accessibility comes a focus on how to tailor courses better to participants.
For instance, with their fair share of games and interactive exercises, language courses were easily translatable to the digital space. More universities have started exploring MOOCs (massive open online courses) and distance education as an alternative mode of study, including designing their regular education courses for online use.
“The ease of accessibility to a particular course or programme is a boon to a large part of the student community. The freedom on the part of the instructor to include innovative forms of teaching and assessment in online courses may also add value and creativity to the entire classroom learning experience,” says Pranjali Kirloskar, lecturer and international coordinator of Manipal Centre for European Studies (MCES) at Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
Due to education shifting to a platform that does away with physical boundaries, collaborations between universities have also increased. Conferences that were supposed to be done face-to-face have become virtual, opening the contents up to a wider range of participants.
Manipal conducted various webinars across its institutions with Welcomgroup Graduate School of Hotel Administration going as far as to conduct a webinar every week. Alumni meetings, as well as lectures held by alumni, also took place online for students.
Symbiosis International, Pune came up with an E-Academy for Educators to enhance engagement and build the multicultural skills of teaching staff during COVID. MCES launched the ‘Center for Education Research’ which acts as a database for articles, book chapters and books related to education before and after COVID.
Universities and schools kept in touch with their stakeholders using social media, keeping online dissemination of information flowing during the pandemic.
While the benefits were many, the challenges were far greater. COVID-19 had exposed vital flaws in the Indian education system. For students who had just started their course in the middle of COVID, it was very difficult to get to grips with the online platform, one where they could not interact with their peers as much as they would have liked to.
“As a new student to join a new institution, it was difficult for me to adjust to the online platform. I had not yet met my fellow classmates and few people were inclined to connect outside of classes and the bounds of formal interaction,” says Vivek from the University of Calcutta. “Even through Zoom calls with my peers, there was always some or other technical glitch from somebody’s end disrupting the connection.”
For schoolchildren who had barely been introduced to technology, it was more challenging since the information flowed from schools to parents but not vice-versa. Children did not get to connect with their peers for a long time, depriving them of any other contact but their immediate family and affecting their overall cognitive development.
And this information flow differed between private and public schools, with private schools being more organised than their public counterparts.
Teachers, on the other hand, were struggling with using the designated platforms.
“The biggest challenge for us was probably getting used to the very idea of delivering classes online. How do we suddenly become comfortable with this digital mode that we have barely had any training in?” says Priya Vijaykumar Poojary, a lecturer at MCES, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
“During COVID, when we had to abruptly shift to online teaching, we were completely clueless about the online interface, of how the various learning management systems work. Having a clear understanding of the functioning of the technology enables instructors to curate their pedagogical skills accordingly.”
Technical glitches made it difficult for classes to be continuous. Platforms like Zoom with a fixed time of 40 minutes, unless you use Zoom Pro, made it hard for the teaching staff to hold meetings or organise regular classes.
Indian living arrangements are such that in rural areas, a family of eight lives in one small room, barely managing to make ends meet. Even in urban areas, apartments do not have enough space to allow complete privacy for students without any background noise.
Interruptions make it difficult for students to hear the other side of conversations if they do not have particularly good headphones which again limits the number of students getting a quality online education.
When students keep their microphone muted so as not to let background noises disturb the class, the teacher feels like he or she is talking to names on a screen rather than students, making the teaching experience an alien one.
COVID has also brought a change in the skillsets employers are looking for from graduates since digital literacy has become the most sought-after skill.
Dropout rates at schools have risen due to the unavailability of resources in rural parts of India, with children no longer treating education as essential. Sitting at home means helping their parents with housework or even with their jobs, thus complicating their relationship with education.
As mentioned before, language courses have lent themselves to innovative approaches that make them fun for the student.
“Personally, home and studying do not go hand in hand for me. Especially learning something that requires regular communication as well as commitment,” says Drishika, a third-year undergraduate from the department of languages and intercultural studies, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.
“At the start, like most others, I was completely lost. I didn’t have a structured routine and neither was I comfortable with the idea of ‘online classes’. Being disconnected from the French language, I felt like I needed to start right from scratch.
“However, gradually, over time, and during the course of our semester, I realised that I had abundant time to discover other aspects of the language through dimensions such as Netflix and YouTube.
“It gave me a sense of control over how I wanted to interact with the language, although it did reduce the amount I spent practising it with my friends and other language learners,” Drishika says.
However, not all courses are the same. Courses that revolve more around theory in the form of lectures and interactive discussion are much harder to redesign for digital spaces.
The National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, introduced by the Indian government during the pandemic, documented the country’s response to the shift to online education. The NEP addresses the importance of digital literacy and how to incorporate it through the education process. The NEP also focuses on teacher training.
However, this does not mean that flaws don’t remain. There is still a big gap that needs to be bridged to reach the goal of equitable education for all students in India by 2040, the NEP’s aim.
First, the urban-rural divide in India is too significant to ignore. While urban students can easily acquire a laptop and get an internet connection, children in the rural areas struggle with the practicalities of learning online. Internet connectivity in India is not great or widely distributed enough for classes to be free of technical glitches. Some places in India still work on 2G or 3G internet – how can they afford online education?
Second, gender inequality also contributes to the widening equity issues in Indian education. While boys are relatively free to pursue their education in most households, girls are expected to help their parents with household chores as well as balance their studies, leaving not a moment free for themselves. How is a teenage girl expected to cope with these situations?
This goes on, on the other side of the screen as well. Women teachers have had more to juggle than their male counterparts as they are supposed to work in their household as well as in their workplace.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed certain flaws in the Indian education system, forcing these to be addressed in official documents when they were barely noticed before. While there are still many gaps to be worked on, the NEP 2020 leaves hope that the process has already started, making the goal of a more equitable education system distant but not impossible.
Sushmita Roy is a research scholar at the Manipal Centre for European Studies (MCES), Manipal Academy of Higher Education, where she is pursuing her PhD on “Towards Global Citizenship Education: Unearthing quest for internationalisation of higher education among higher education institutions and students”. Her research interest lies in the areas of internationalisation of higher education, the Sustainable Development Goals, global citizenship education, economics, intercultural studies and the European Higher Education Area. She has also authored a book chapter on “Uncovering Consular Constraints in International Student Mobility: A perspective in internationalisation of higher education: The dynamics of educational ecology”. Damayantee Das is a masters student from MCES, Manipal Academy of Higher Education and is also working as an intern at Manipal Universal Press. Previously, she used to work at an e-commerce start-up, Xerve Innovations Pvt Ltd, as a content writer. She is also currently authoring a book chapter related to her field, culture and literary studies.