With 15 months of campuses being closed and online learning being pursued, edtech push by Covid is now stronger than the fintech push by demonetization. The teacher-student model has ceased to exist forever now, and we are moving to a qualitatively different mentor-learner model not just in the current digital learning phase, but also in the post-pandemic times ahead. Beyond this complete campus lockdown phase, during which time mentoring-learning-assessing has gone online globally, we shall be moving towards blended phygital education ahead, which will be the new normal ahead and will make the new model of mentor-learner firmly entrenched.
Learning or academics or education broadly has three functions: the creation of learning content through research, writing, packaging with visuals; dissemination of learning through classes, lectures, notes, self-study, discussions, assessment, and evaluation of the education of the learner by various methods. All these three have been majorly impacted by the self-isolation imposed to ensure social distancing so that the learners and the mentors may first be protected from the spread of the infection of Covid-19. The lockdown across the world is simultaneously a boon and a bane for the teaching-learning community today.
Teacher to Mentor
The teacher was a sage on the stage, introducing every new topic, speaking the last word on it, sticking to a structured syllabus as prescribed, interpreting it as s/he deems right, finishing the syllabus, and focusing on examination and evaluation to complete the cycle of delivery of education. He often demands respect and relies on the power to punish to set things right (not always, though). The teacher teaches and often sermonizes.
Each premise noted above is changing now.
Mentor today is a co-learner, maybe the first stimulus for a topic but never the last word starts from a structured syllabus but is expected to move towards organic learning depending upon the variegated interest areas of groups of learners, aggregates learning resources from multiple sources, and shares with the learners, is more a guide, second parent and agony shelter of sorts for the learners. The examination also is diverse and evaluation is just one more function and not the ultimate yardstick of learning and brilliance of the learner. The mentor may often be less informed about an issue, but with a better perspective to guide. Mentor engages and inspires.
Learning Resources Aggregation & Delivery
To begin with being the new age mentor, a massive train the trainer and capacity building is needed today. For this, first, the mentor has to be a digital personality with a smartphone and net connection, and with a laptop and WiFi connection. Next, one has to learn how to create, deliver and engage in content across multiple online platforms, and how to take matter learned online to matter practiced offline face to face. Third, one has to now learn assessment with the open book through analysis and application, through the quiz, through applied projects, through phygital presentation, and actual work in labs and studios after using virtual labs and studios.
Creating the learning resources was quite easy earlier. There were the books, often called text and reference books, then the power-point presentation of the teacher, and then chalk and talk. And the topic was first introduced in a class, post which notes were given, books were mentioned, and later examination was conducted to check memory and a bit of understanding.
The game is changed now. And totally so.
The concept of proprietary content (the mentor’s own videos, audio or podcast content, power-points, cases, infographics, etc), aggregated content (books, monographs, videos, podcasts, URLs, PDFs, cases, etc taken from the internet, YouTube, and Vimeo, etc), and also massive open/closed online learning resources (free ones like Swayam or NAPTEL, paid ones like those of Coursera or LinkedIn, and the university’s own online courses): these three are the learning resources today.
The mentor is expected to make a mix of proprietary, aggregated, and online learning resources, suitably arranging them from the easiest one to the toughest one and offer to the learners digitally (using Google Class, emails, or better, Learning Management Systems like Canvas or TCSion, Blackboard or Collaborate, etc,) at least a week or more before they meet digitally or physically to discuss the content. This is called Flipped Classroom where the learners get learning content much in advance, read, watch or listen to the same asynchronously at their own time, place, or pace, note down things they have not understood or have questions on, and come to the digital/physical classroom synchronously, to clarify doubts, discuss cases, debate on conclusions drawn and participate in a quiz or analytical or applied assignments. Delivery of the online session can be on any platform: MS Teams, Zoom, Webex, Google Meet and can move from the synchronous digital classroom to asynchronous digital chatroom debates and discussions for further clarification.
This makes the task for content creation and content delivery for the mentors much more diverse, tech-savvy, and tougher than the traditional teacher’s job.
Towards Participative Learning for Engagement & Evaluation
Education will now move from a system-imposed disciplined endeavor to a voluntarily participating and internalized process. It will be truly a learner-centric education now in the new normal and shall be far more participative than the past. The learner in the digital or blended mode is learning voluntarily and not based on an imposed discipline on campus through a web of rules and power dynamics. While voluntary learning will throw many non-interested or apathetic learners out of the learning circle, it will also make many focused learners internalize education better and apply it in a more focused manner at his or her level.
With Artificial Intelligence, robotics, automation, Machine Learning, and Internet of Things being the other emerging realities, the skills for mass production or education to do the same work repeatedly will be irrelevant ahead when machines will take over almost all such work (more than three-fourths of all human work today). Hence, new-age skills, apart from technology use, have to be in areas like creativity, innovation, incubation, problem-solving, teamwork, leadership, critical thinking, design thinking, empathy, emotional intelligence, and risk management. Each of these can be qualitatively and quantitatively mentored to any youth from an early age of say 15 years till 25 years of age and will become his or her second nature.
To deliver such learning, the learners’ engagement techniques have to be more tech-savvy (Google forms, polls, surveys, quiz, virtual lab and studio, AI tools) and also with higher emotional quotient (use of humor, videos, info-graphics, empathy in the class, allowing diversity of opinion, wellness conscious).
Even the evaluation or assessment has to be diverse. Assessment refers to learner performance; it helps us decide if students are learning and where improvement in that learning is needed. Evaluation refers to a systematic process of determining the merit value or worth of the instruction or program; it helps us determine if a course is effective (course goals) and informs our design efforts. Assessment and evaluation can be both formative (carried out during the course) and summative (carried out following the course). There can be many ways for the same. Mentors can make learners aware of expectations in advance (e.g. one week for feedback from deadline) and keep them posted (announcement: all projects have been marked). For example, one can create tests that are multiple-choice, true or false, or short answer essays and one can set the assessments to automatically provide feedback.
When online, evaluation can be based on proctored digital examination or open-book analytical and applied evaluation with non-Google-able questions. And this is surely not an easy task for the mentors as teachers of the past were used to repeating past questions, had set patterns of questions, examinations were ‘suggestions’ and memory-based, and not application-based in general. Online quiz, open-book examination with time-managed and proctored question paper delivered online, applied questions not based on memory but comprehension, telephonic interviews have been the usual ways of digital assessment and evaluation of learning.
There will be an offline evaluation also. Here, the assessment can be based on offline written examinations, field-survey-based presentation or report writing, debates, lab/studio-based practical, or peer-group work, or submission of a long-term real-life or live project.
Digital Learning Tools Today
The pandemic requires universities to rapidly offer online learning to their students. Fortunately, technology and content are available to help universities transition online quickly and with high quality, especially on the digital plank, though at a cost and with the risk of several teachers and administrators being forced to go out of the system.
Digital learning on the go or from distance calls for tech-led holistic solutions. It requires several content pieces to be transmitted digitally. These content pieces can be in the form of PDFs, PPTs, URLs, YouTube links, podcast links, case studies. There can also be e-books, audiobooks, Kindle-based content, Magzter sourced magazines. Then this can involve learning without being face to face through boxes, as in Google Class, or learning face to face as in Zoom live audio-visual discussions. People may also use GoToMeeting or MicrosoftMeet sessions. Attendance can be taken on Google Spreadsheet and through Whatsapp group chat of a batch of students too.
Then there are MOOCs, collaborative distance learning, wikis, blogs. Individual resource-rich institutes develop their customized secured and IPR protected Learning Management Systems, through the use of BlackBoard or TCSion LMS. Other LMS options like Kaltura or Impartus allowing video recording of talks also are in use in many places. There are Coursera courses, Swayam online lessons from UGC, and similar other avenues to learn online.
Learning digitally can be further assisted with Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR) which can take the viewer to an enhanced experience even integrating scenarios that are yet to happen creatively bringing them within the learning experience. These are immersive and contextual experiences, and artificial intelligence-driven chatbots can further enhance the digital interface of the learner and the mentor.
Adding Value to Digital Learning
Incorporating big data analytics and content management, educators can develop an individualized curriculum that enhances how each student learns (e.g. playlist of learning content in WiseWire changing for each student). Many in the West have started the use of the millennials’ language and style like Khan Academy video lessons, YouTube use, distinct style and language for young learners. Twitter, Tumblr, Snapchat, iMessage, Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp are being creatively integrated with school education. There is a case of a management school in India, where the professor sends a 3 minutes interesting video on the subject he is taking up next through group Whatsapp to increase interest in the batch towards the topic being taught.
In the US, smartphone applications like Socrative and Plickers are helping teachers interact and assess students’ progress, collaborate via cloud-based applications to work and solve a common goal. Teachers can publish real-time quizzes and polls for students via mobile devices to keep them engaged.
Further, using anything from iMovie to WeVideo, learners can create a video as a learning resource. YouTube (with privacy settings) and SeeSaw or Flipgrid are also alternatives learners can make use of. The benefits of SeeSaw and Flipgrid are that students can add voice recordings or text sharing feedback with peers. Students became the co-creators of content and as a result, more engaged, including their parents. Useful apps like Book Creator, Explain Everything and EduCreations can be utilized towards this end.
There is much software to create digital content, like Camtasia, Raptivity, Captivate, Articulate Online.
Yes alongside, social media use extensively will support learning online. Facebook Page can broadcast updates and alerts. Facebook Group or Google Hangout with advanced features in G-suite can stream live lectures and host discussions. Twitter can act as a class message board. The 256 characters help to keep messages succinct. Instagram can be used for photo essays. One can create a class blog for discussions. There are many different platforms available, such as WordPress, SquareSpace, Wix, Blogger that. And, one can create a class-specific Pinterest board as well.
Students to Learners
With mentors replacing teachers, the students cannot be the pre-Covid typical students anymore going ahead.
Students study in the classroom, are taught by teachers, are limited to the given syllabus, and study for marks, grades, degrees. Students give exams in writing and on the basis of suggestions or set patterns of evaluation.
Learners study within and beyond the classroom, from mentors, peers, personal experience, books, digitally aggregated content, through projects and through assignments. Learners learn for lifetime application, and hence learn to learn further as things learned today are obsolete soon. Self-learning or learning to learn is hence a major cultivated skill for the present-day learners, especially in higher education, as techniques and technologies are changing in the workplace in less than five years now. Learners also learn organically. While a structured syllabus must be completed for foundation and examination, organic learning is about self-driven learning in a few chosen areas out of interest, assisted by the mentors.
Yes, for this, doubling public education expenditure, digital access to the hinterland, considering digital connectivity as a human right, digital literacy as a fundamental prerequisite in any work, providing cell phones and laptops or tablets en masse, announcing cheaper data packages for students, CSR in the field of the domain of digital connectivity by corporate houses, and more would be needed soonest to bridge the yawning digital divide in the otherwise class-divided society. According to UNESCO, only 48 percent of the Indian learners’ community of 283 million is receiving some sort of online education today, the rest 52 percent going bereft of any form of formal learning whatsoever for more than a year now! And among these 48 percent, the girl-students are having a worse fate in the poorer families due to limited digital devices to which the sons have higher access than the daughters.
India has been speaking of digital education for a long but it has stayed on as a possibility and not a reality for more than a decade now. Even IITs and IIMs have used digital platforms on the side for sharing content and debating on issues sporadically. The larger mass of 900 plus universities and some 44,000 colleges have actually not digitized their content, not made access to online learning a mainstay of their teaching-learning process, except the distance learning universities. In fact, the old school educationists looked at online and distance education with some disdain all across South Asia. They are in for a major shock now. The digital divide needs fast bridging through the promise of 6 percent of the GDP for public education, through 2 percent of profits for CSR given here, and through civil society initiatives like getting smartphones, laptops, and tabs for the less privileged.
It is clear that going ahead with digital access will be a human right, and those in governance must wake up to the reality that youngsters need inexpensive tablets and easy data access. A nation that spends less than 3 percent of the national budget for public education (lower than Tanzania, Angola, and Ghana, et al), with the states putting in 2.5 (Bihar) to 26 percent (Delhi), with Delhi being the only state in double digits, cannot ensure digital education for the masses unless allocation of funds and their transparent spending happen.
Prof Ujjwal K Chowdhury is a maverick who travels between media academics and media practice, between profession and social activism, between traveling and staying put. Currently, the Pro-Vice-Chancellor of Kolkata-based Adamas University, he had been earlier the Dean of Symbiosis and Amity Universities, apart from Pearl Academy and Whistling Woods International. He had been a wanderer, working as a media consultant in Nepal, consulting with Amsterdam Film School in the Netherlands, working on films for WHO in several nations, and working with Acore Media in Dubai. He speaks and writes on various platforms, and works in civil society initiatives on media, youth entrepreneurship, and democracy.