Limitations of online learning – The Hindu

Posted: April 30, 2020 at 12:52 pm


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India has been under lockdown for more than a month in a desperate attempt to contain the COVID-19 pandemic. Even when the lockdown gets lifted eventually, the government may not allow large congregations in restricted physical spaces. It is almost certain that educational campuses will not be fully populated any time soon.

Universities and colleges were in the middle of the second semester of their academic year when the lockdown was enforced. There was a great deal of anxiety, particularly about the graduating batches of students, lest the ongoing session should be declared a zero semester. This prompted a number of local initiatives in response to the exigency. There were sporadic attempts from individual teachers to reach out to their students and keep them engaged. A few universities made hasty arrangements for teachers to continue to hold their classes virtually through video conferencing services such as Zoom. The transition to virtual modes was relatively less difficult for those institutions that had, even prior to the lockdown, adopted learning management system platforms like Blackboard or Moodle. All the above were well-meaning attempts, albeit somewhat impromptu, to keep the core educational processes going through this period.

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There was a report in the media on April 13, 2020 quoting the Chairman of the University Grants Commission (UGC) as saying, among other things, that to maintain social distancing, online learning and e-education were the only way out, and that it was the need of the hour for students, teachers and the education system as a whole. This statement was clearly meant to prepare the higher education community for the exigencies of a protracted and indefinite period of closure of campuses.

However, close on the heels of this, it was also reported that online education was likely to be adopted as a strategy to enhance the gross enrolment ratio in higher education. The Chairman of the UGC told the news agency ANI: We are seeing at this time of COVID-19 and even later when all of this (is) over, to give a push to online education. It is important for improvement in the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in the country. This prompts several questions about the appropriateness of what may well be an effective contingency measure to tide over the pandemic crisis to be deployed as a long-term strategy for enhancing enrolment in higher education. The following are three such questions: one, how far will online education help support greater access to and success in higher education among those who are on the margins? Two, how equipped are online and other digital forms of education to support the depth and diversity of learning in higher education? And three, is there an unstated political motivation for this apparent shift in strategy? We will address these questions briefly here.

Higher education today has an unprecedented influx of students who are first-generation aspirants. They have no cultural capital to bank on while struggling their way through college. Access is not merely enrolment. It also includes effective participation in curricular processes, which for those on the margins would mean first, to negotiate through language and social barriers. These students are also from the other side of the digital divide which makes them vulnerable to a double disadvantage if digital modes become the mainstay of education. Unless they receive consistent hand-holding and backstopping from teachers and peers, they tend to remain on the margins and eventually drop out or fail. It is therefore necessary to think deeply and gather research-based evidences on the extent to which online education can be deployed to help enhance the access and success rates.

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Acquisition of given knowledge that can be transmitted didactically by a teacher or a text constitutes only one minor segment of curricular content. It is this segment that is largely amenable to online and digital forms of transaction. Disciplines, particularly at the undergraduate level, which are textbook-based and pretend to be relatively stable bodies of certitudes, lend themselves somewhat to such transaction. But learning in higher education means much more than this. It involves development of analytical and other intellectual skills, the ability to critically deconstruct and evaluate given knowledge, and the creativity to make new connections and syntheses. It also means to acquire practical skills, explore, inquire, seek solutions to complex problems, learn to work in teams and more. All these by and large assume direct human engagement not just teacher-student interaction, but also peer interactions, including informal ones. Learning often happens through osmosis in social settings. Deconstructing given knowledge in relative isolation is never the same as doing it through a dynamic group process.

Arguably, some of this can, to some extent, be built on to a digital platform. But curricular knowledge has a tendency to adjust its own contours according to the mode of transaction and the focus of evaluation. It gets collapsed into largely information-based content when transacted through standard and uniform structures of teaching-learning and examination.

While digital forms of learning have the potential to enable students to pursue independent learning, conventional and digital forms of education should not be considered mutually exclusive. Online learning needs to be understood as one strand in a complex tapestry of curricular communication that may still assign an important central role to direct human engagement and social learning.

Several institutions of open and distance learning (ODL) had been established in India and other countries during the mid-1960s to 1980s. This was a consequence of explorations for less expensive models for provisioning access to higher education to new generations of aspirants. As has been argued elsewhere, ODL may also have been considered by governments at that time as a safe strategy (in the light of the many instances of campus turbulence) for managing mass aspirations for higher education without necessarily effecting large congregations on campuses (Menon, 2016). One wonders whether there is a similar unstated motivation behind the present enthusiasm for online education.

(Shyam Menon is a Professor at the Central Institute of Education, University of Delhi and former Vice Chancellor, Ambedkar University Delhi)

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Limitations of online learning - The Hindu

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April 30th, 2020 at 12:52 pm

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