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A world of “Tele-Everything”

Pew Research Centre, known for its opinion polling, computational social science research, published a report on February 18, 2021, on what “New Normal” life will be in 2025. As many as 915 innovators, developers, business and policy leaders, researchers, and activists responded saying that people’s relationship with technology will deepen as we rely more on digital connections for work, education, health care, daily commercial transactions, and essential social interactions. Many of them described this as a “tele-everything” world. They said telework will result in de-urbanization, enhancement of telehealth system, the establishment of tele-justice, and inundation of tele-education.

Time for disruptive change in higher education

Prof. Ranjit Goswami, Dean (Academics), and Officiating Director of Institute of Management Technology (IMT), Nagpur, believes that we are seeing the beginning of a rapid possible disruption of higher education. As Victor Hugo observed, “Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come”, higher education is facing that moment of disruptive change today. Starting with computational technologies, the Internet, penetration of handheld devices and open access of knowledge within the formal education system, higher education is ready for a massive overhaul. Objectives of higher education are therefore getting redefined, and it no longer is time or location bound. There are clear signs that campus-based full-time enrollment in higher education has already hit its saturation point.

A blended mode of learning is the norm

While speaking at the recently concluded 10th edition of the University Distinguished Lecture (UDL) Series, organized by SRM University, Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Satish Chandra, Special Chief Secretary, Higher Education, Andhra Pradesh, highlighted the challenges associated with online education and said future of education brings a blended environment with both online and offline teaching-learning options. He opined that Learning Management systems (LMS), online platforms, gadgets such as desktops, laptops, or tablets are going to be a part of the new normal in education.

Teaching the Generation Z

Mr. B. V. R. Mohan Reddy, the founder Chairman, Cyient Ltd and Chairman of the Board of Governors of IIT Hyderabad and IIT Roorkee, says online education is not about broadcasting to students using audio/video communication technologies. That is distance education. Online education is not even about hours of teacher monologuing followed by student assignments and tests. He says to effectively engage Generation Z (born after 1996) during online sessions, the content must be modular, the pedagogy be refreshed, and the evaluation systems more robust. There is a need to experiment with new methods such as “flip learning”, where classwork becomes homework and homework becomes classwork. Educational institutions must replace face-to-face, long teacher monologues with modularized audio-video capsules of 10-12 minutes (Generation Z’s typical attention spans). Further, they need to reinforce the learning with follow-up quizzes, group activities, breakout room discussions, and problem-solving exercises before delivering the next module. There is no single way to address these ensuing challenges. Teachers will have to find innovative ways to engage students based on the subject, student behavior, and available infrastructure. Teachers also need to constantly look at the feedback to suitably modify their content. One solution will not fit all. More importantly, blended learning offers greater flexibility to students allowing them to pursue other interests outside of traditional learning.

A highly personalized menu

Maja Vujovic, a consultant for digital and ICT at Compass Communications, predicted (in the report published by Pew Research Centre), “Higher education will become a terrain where a small number of entertainment-savvy lecturers attract huge student audiences via tech-enabled remote learning, while professors unskilled in it become dispensable. A ‘marketplace’ will emerge, where students will be able to pick and choose courses from any university, to create unique, personalized schooling ‘menus.’ This will create a demand for a certification mechanism at a level above individual universities. Distinguished schools with vast traditions will thus have to reconsider and redefine their missions and their very purpose and a number of them may not prove sustainable.”

Higher education to be costlier and largely virtual

At present, India is facing manifold challenges such as returning to a “normal” rate of economic growth, recovery from the economic contraction, rising unemployment, and poverty rates. With resources being scarce, it is unlikely that the country will witness heavy investments in higher education from the government in the coming years. And with the opportunity provided by online and blended modes of learning, private players are rapidly making their presence visible in higher education. Therefore, we must not fail to understand that higher education is going to be far more expensive. To pay for this increase in costs, students from middle-class families (and with lower financial abilities of other sections) will be forced to take up relatively low-paying jobs in delivery segments, restaurants, and malls, etc. This means they will increasingly be absent from traditional time-bound higher education institutions and opt for a flexible mode of learning. Many universities and institutions are even considering having two shifts of work to enable students who would prefer to work in the daytime and study at late hours.
Students are highly susceptible

Gurjant Singh and Shana Quraishi published an article on July 20, 2021, in Psychological Studies (66, pages 303–307). Taking a sample of 844 students from different colleges and universities of Haryana and Punjab, their study concluded that the students are developing mental stress due to uncertainty over the studies and completion of the syllabus. This stress itself may lead to increased panic forcing the students to take unhealthy and harsh decisions to avoid disappointment or failure. In other words, we now have students with much higher mental stress who are at high risk of making inappropriate decisions compared to before March 2020. Most of the faculties and administrative staff are unaware of this new mental framework of the students.
Challenges for UESI

UESI has been a campus-based ministry since its inception. Over the years it has successfully learned to pattern itself into a specific schedule and mode of functioning. But it is time for UESI to undergo a disruptive change.

(a) A campus-less environment

Regardless of our realization, we are increasingly moving toward the “campus-less” or “virtual campus” mode of the system. Before March 2020, we went to the campuses, hostels, met students, and conducted Bible studies. When the campuses became virtual, we opted for zoom bible studies. Due to poor network connectivity and scarcity of data, we have perpetuated a system of “video-off” mode of teaching and learning. Little do we understand that today is the age of “Learn on the Go” as it is “Work on the Go” for graduates. So, the students are constantly multitasking even when they are in bible studies or normal academic classes. Many of us are firm believers that learning cannot happen effectively in online mode as the delivery of lessons has several limitations. Hence, we wait for the return of the “normal”. But the “new normal” is going to stay. For ministry in the “virtual campus” scenario, we at UESI are ill-prepared. As a movement, we have failed to develop a system of robust learning and discipling using tools such as the Learning Management System (LMS) and many more which most of the universities and institutes have already implemented. Instead of facing the challenge ahead, we await the return of the old days!

(b) “Guess-me” time schedules

In UESI we successfully developed a system of conducting certain camps at a specific time of the year. But is this applicable even today? Where is the significant semester break between the courses today? No wonder when we roll out registration links, the registrations are so dismal. How can students register when they are not even aware of their academic schedule! We think that if life comes to “normal”, we will get back to the earlier pattern and everything will be fine. Let’s not forget that with the blended mode of learning to be the norm and continuous evaluation to be the assessment pattern, their academic schedule is going to be a “guess-me” type of schedule. Are we prepared to deal with that challenge as UESI?

(c) Open homes being “closed”

One of the backbones of the UESI ministry are open homes. With covid-19 creating havoc, omicron threatening another wave, and open homes being “closed”, we don’t seem to have alternative strategies to reach out to students who are burdened with high levels of mental stress. Students, taking up temporary and part-time jobs to support their cost of education, are mostly going to be absent from physical camps or attend at a loss of income. What alternative mode of discipling do we have for them? There was a time when students were kind of free in the evenings. Today an average student seems to be busy with “work”, “assignments”, “unscheduled lectures”, or “part-time jobs”. How do we reach out to students who seem to be always caught up with some things in the evenings!

Instead of investing days and months on strategic thinking on these “new normal” challenges, we in UESI spend hours together debating over policies and issues which are of very little significance with the enormous change that has come upon us. Unfortunately, we have left the strategic and abstract thinking to a group of individuals who form a sub-committee with only recommending authority! Some of us have the God-given prerogative to shoot down their ideas when brought for an open discussion and then by the end of the day we discuss how to stop becoming an organization and become more of a movement! Time is short. We have no dearth of resources to face this “new normal”. Let us all rise above ourselves.

Dipesh Kundu serves as a faculty of commerce in an undergraduate college in Bolpur Santiniketan, WB. He is married to Mrs. Themboi, from Nagaland. They are blessed with two daughters Anwesha and Anushka. They both serve UESI as graduates and have an open home.

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