The sudden disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic worldwide has affected the functioning of educational institutions and universities to a great extent. The abrupt disruption of regular pedagogy, as well as standard techniques in imparting knowledge and other skill training requires an immediate response to deal with multiple stakeholders – students in particular. Universities which have prior experience in handling online education, are the ones to quickly shift gear and turn to online teaching with the help of their fully functioning IT infrastructure and its established norms and culture. The administrators of such institutions have introduced necessary changes to their system of governance, bringing innovative solutions to adapt to the urgent need as an emergent response. They were well-equipped to revamp the system quickly in the interest of their students, with special attention to international students who are the first major casualty in higher education domain, facing evacuation or relocation.
In a sharp contrast to such examples, India has been slow to adapt to the changing scenario. However, it is quite early to predict Indian higher education scenario in post or during COVID-19, and the way forward is still being debated. The International Association of Universities (IAU), independent global NGO, affiliated with UNESCO, closely monitors the impact of COVID-19 on higher education around the world. As per IAU and UNESCO, more than 1.5 billion students and youth across the planet are affected by school and university closures due to the COVID-19 outbreak. The UNESCO has further stated elsewhere that, as of 16 April 2020, school closures in many countries worldwide during the spread of COVID-19 have led to 1,575,270,054 learners being excluded from the normal learning process. Several countries have initiated strategies to contain this virus spread, including school closures. A recent World Bank report has said that universities and other tertiary education institutions are closed in 175 countries and communities, and over 220 million post-secondary students (13% of the total number of students affected globally) have had their studies significantly disrupted due to the pandemic. Moreover, this transformation and transition is not going to remain a temporary measure as crisis response; the academia expects it to become a regular practice and rather strongly embedded with contact learning when things are normalised, post pandemic period. The report states that the road to resumption is tenuous, and that changes in the patterns of tertiary education systems around the world will be long lasting. It is anticipated that in India, elite institutions, falling in top 100 categories in ranking by NIRF and other agencies, will take speedy measures to cope.
Higher education scenario post Covid-19 worldwide:
The University of Michigan is a good example for understanding the pedagogical shifts. They began creating online learning content over a decade ago. Since then, over six million students have enrolled for these courses, a tenth from India. Coursera, the US-based Edtech platform that Michigan University partners with, has nearly 5 million users in India. Many top-rated universities had professional development courses on line and thus could also align with the new demands. European Association for International Education (EAIE) had recently published a survey report covering 38 countries titled, “Coping with COVID-19: International higher education in Europe”, By Laura E. Rumbley, MARCH 2020, to understand and shape collective understanding as to how these dynamics are playing out at European HEIs and how the international education enterprises in Europe are being affected by these developments. The report states, nearly 58 % of survey respondents report that their institutions are currently implementing a COVID-19 response plan, thereby indicating that a majority of 42% are still not prepared to face such a situation.
According to the data from MOE of China, 1454 universities adopted online platforms to deliver undisrupted instruction, with the deployment of 7133 thousand online courses accessed by 1.18 billion university students. Tsinghua University, China, like many top universities in the world responded to pandemic in a significant way, addressing major issues of online teaching-learning, assessments and feedback, replicating entire offline academic activities online, in a fully synchronised manner – a historical step that none could ever had anticipated. It also claimed that even with such prior knowledge and expertise, Tsinghua University could only involve 20 percent of total faculty members in its internet-based teaching mechanism. This clearly indicates that prior faculty training is a must for such online delivery, meeting quality aspects. University World News published an article, “Lessons for International Higher Education Post COVID-19” by Nadine Burquel and Anja Busch, which states that the pandemic has “accelerated new forms of pedagogy, and tremendous initiatives from individual academics and institutions have emerged”. The writers have, however, expressed concern and doubt over how online teaching is still in its nascent stage.
Indian Higher Education Scenario post Covid-19 pandemic:
In India, as is being reported in various media platform, the immediate response against the need to close the physical campuses was to make an attempt to go online. This has resulted in unplanned online delivery without any prior preparedness for many institutions, leaving issues like equitable access to internet, availability of devices, IT infrastructure, broadband capacity etc. in both urban and rural spaces, unattended and unaddressed. Indeed, it is a new challenge for Indian HEIs to move ahead with minimum or no demonstrated capacity providing remote learning facilities; not a plug-and-play situation for any institution in the country. Indian HEIs are faced with the challenge of ensuring synchronous learning which essentially demands identifying technology platform provider, preparing faculty and staff.
Further, creation of LMS, ERP and creating additional IT infrastructure, among others, are to be ensured and tested before such attempts are made. The university rules and regulations are also required to be modified, accommodating such structural changes.
It must be stated that India embraced massification in higher education with over 60% investments coming from the private sector during last two decades. As per AISHE: 2018-2019, statistics, we have 993 universities and 53620 institutions, including standalone institutions, in the country today; third largest education system in the world, through the proliferation of new private entrants.
However, Indian HEIs’ strength in transition to new paradigm shift must be gauged from IT and Telecom infrastructure base in major districts and villages. Needless to say, COVID-19 brings on the table lots of such issues in education landscape which are to be addressed appropriately as per international standards.
Therefore, it must first be acknowledged the difficulties that we are currently facing in this quick transition process. The HEIs which have been practicing online teaching in the past, were able to shift entire academic process online. In fact, even though they have the infrastructure, capital, and resources they were successfully able to adapt only due to their prior experience. Others have to go through a protracted process of planning, training, counselling, and execution; and just not specifically during the pandemic period, as stop gap arrangement, rather for all times to come, as this transition is likely to stay permanent in our education system as experts predict.
It is believed that internet penetration in higher education has gone up to the level of 80-90% in developed countries, and consequently, a majority of universities could quickly shift to online classes. However, such internet penetration in Indian higher education remains very low, in percentage terms of total population. The National Sample Survey, 75th round (July 2017- June 2018) survey of Government of India, on ‘Household Social Consumption: Education’, brings out some aspects of ICT with regard to their access and use of internet. According to this report of NSS, only 23.8% of Indian households have internet facility and only 10.7 % households’ own computers. It appears only close to 8% of all households (with aged between five and above) have both a device and internet connection. The report further states that the persons able to use computers is 9.9 % while persons able to use internet is 13% at all India level, urban and rural put together. It is therefore evident that the penetration of internet with current level of IT and telecom infrastructure in India has been exclusionary and erratic, causing huge digital divide between rural and urban India. More importantly, NSS definition indicates that a household with a device and internet access does not necessarily imply that the internet connection and devices are owned by the household and can be used for educational purpose. Therefore, it is quite understandable that Indian HEIs are not prepared to face this challenge with massive digital divide that still exists in the country, with poor internet access in rural areas, and that too with weak bandwidth. The ground realities, however, are not entirely clear in absence of latest data.
The extent to which COVID-19 can cause damage to education systems across the country is still unclear. It is anticipated that some proportion of colleges and universities will close down or get merged together to cope with the changes. The most vulnerable are the tuition fees-dependent private institutions in India, particularly the ones already facing declines in demand in rural areas. Such institutions are expected to be hardest hit by the pandemic. Furthermore, for the vast majority of colleges and universities that will survive COVID-19, there may be declines in revenue and increase in costs of creating matching IT infrastructure in the future.
This is especially true due to a complete absence of online facilities in many HEIs and universities in the pre-COVID-19 time, as they were purely dedicated to the traditional mode of education delivery. There might be a few exceptions to this in the degree of variance to which online education was central to an institution’s strategic planning. Open universities, such as IGNOU and State Open Universities are good examples in India that can make a smooth transition from distance education to online mode; yet under restrictive regulatory mechanism in our country. The private universities within top 100 and few others with existing distance education departments and schools may also be the ones capable of quick transition, and as such must have shifted to online, pivoting on their available facilities.
It must be noted that the Indian situation can be moulded in accordance with the techniques adopted worldwide. The World Bank Education Global Practice Guidance Note: Remote Learning & COVID-19, (updated April 7, 2020), stipulates about how countries should go about designing and implementing their remote learning strategies. It has presented some general principles and recommendations of what policymakers can do to ensure that students continue to learn remotely. This document, and many more, are available on the World Bank’s dedicated Remote Learning, EdTech & COVID-19 web site. The World Bank Group on Education has suggested Covid- Protocol for Universities/HEIs, with a comprehensive list of immediate and long-term challenges and interventions needed in these unprecedented times. According to them, the stakeholders must seek and produce evidence from the learning sciences while embracing technological innovations, to ensure this push to change the delivery of teaching to online platforms. Vulnerable students need special attention. HEIs must ensure that equitable teaching and learning solutions, technological set-up, infrastructure investments and funding modalities are geared towards keeping all sections of students engaged and connected, for their learning process and outcomes.
UNESCO’s ‘Guidance on Flexible Learning During Campus Closures: Ensuring Course Quality of Higher Education in COVID-19 Outbreak’, April 2020, Version 1.0. is yet another important document for the HEIs in India. University teachers are currently facing the challenges of migrating offline instruction to online learning which involves considering instructional strategies, learning resources, digital tools, and assessment methods in this period of campus closures. The UNESCO Guidance states, “with campus closures, teachers in university should adopt multiple online learning platforms and tools to deliver education”. Their guidance provides “suggestions from the perspective of lesson plans, delivery methods, learning materials, and tools preparation, learning activity design, and learning outcome evaluation”. Indeed, the guidelines seeks to leverage technology to deliver flexible learning, transforming higher education and ensuring the quality of learning in such critical moment. The guidance has identified some academic terms, guidelines, tips, and stories for teachers.UNESCO Guidance is a guiding light for HEIs attempting to make transition in a sensible and responsible way.The academia expects such transformations to become a regular practice and rather strongly embedded with contact, face to face learning when things are normalised, post pandemic period.
In post-COVID-19 scenario, every Vice Chancellor, President, Provost, Dean, and Trustee will understand that online education is not only a potential source for new revenues; but is also a viable alternate to classroom teaching. Online education will indeed be recognized as central to every HEI’s plan for institutional resilience and academic continuity, and in fact must be made one of the key issues of University governance henceforth. It is inevitable that such a development will require overhauling of current regulations, guidelines, norms, and practices. Online education and its IT infrastructure need shall be the key factor in university’s strategic plan and budgetary exercise. This might even require a re-visitation of the vision and mission statements of each university and its constituent institutes and schools with consequent changes in strategic plan or long-term vision plan, incorporating many new issues and challenges in order to bring a paradigm shift in higher education landscape.
For any organic growth to happen in the transition from physical to online delivery in a synchronised setting, the HEIs must ensure prior preparedness in terms of IT facilities, faculty training and exposure, use of technology platform, creation of LMS etc. They must also ensure that students are having network access and devices, among others, as per recommendation of various agencies in the world.
One can thus imagine such transition cannot happen overnight; it would require preparation spanning over a year or more depending on capacity for fresh investments in such facilities. It is a matter of debate how this unfolds in Indian higher education landscape in a foreseeable future, and how the Government of India responds facilitating this transition. The policy makers and regulatory authorities must quickly come out with uniform model and structure after studding the best world practices and taking cognisance of recommendations of UNESCO and various other agencies in the world. It is also the right time to revisit the draft New Education Policy which was initiated in 2014, and still in its drafting stage. The draft National Education Policy, NEP 2020 must now be deliberated afresh addressing new issues that cropped up in Covid-19 crisis situation and envisioning newly emerging Higher Education system in India.