Impact of Covid-19 Pandemic on Higher Education: A Critical Review
The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a global health problem but also has severe impacts on human and social life, including employment, education, agriculture and the other spheres of the world economy. The pandemic is expected to have enormous economic consequences, and it is also having a devastating impact on global education. According to UNESCO, around 1.3 billion learners across the world were not able to attend school or university as of March 23, 2020, and current UNESCO statistics put this figure at over 1.5 billion (McCarthy, 2020). The paper intends to critically understand the impact of the Covid-19 on higher education and the sudden shift of education to the online mode of teaching- learning.
Pedagogical Tensions: Content Delivery versus Learning
Adoption of preventing measures like maintaining physical distance and ban on public gathering have led to the suspension of regular classes and cancellation of academic activities like seminars, conferences etc. However, there are efforts being made to ensure no dip in the academic year by shifting the teaching-learning to an online mode.
The Hindu (April 14, 2020) states that online learning is an amalgamation of various pedagogical models instead of any one single model as it is a specialized learning science that includes delivery of content, behavioral analytics, learning psychology and assessments. This enables to measure the learning progress of individuals and therefore, having a ‘hand-stitched’ mechanism of delivery is the need of the hour. Through interactions and discussion in the face-to-face classes, the teachers get an idea of the prior knowledge and the collective ability of the students based on which they can customize the teaching-learning techniques and lesson plans. However, this becomes difficult in the digital platform. The focus is not on delivering the content but ensuring effective opportunities for learning and thus, there is a need to shift from a teacher-centric approach to a learner-centric one. The aim is always to impact learners in such a manner that they are able to understand concepts better, think effectively and apply them practically. Thus, facilitators need to further orient themselves in becoming efficient disseminators of knowledge on digital platforms. Some of the partnerships sparked between universities, online education companies and tech providers may continue beyond the pandemic (Kandri, 2020).
The Discourse of Online Teaching-Learning
Miller (2016) also argues that the technology might simply fail due to non-availability of electricity across in all the places at the same time. Running videos, audios and programs on the online mode and integration with the learning management system of the college might result in problems on the virtual platform (Miller, 2016). Some theories suggest that more cheating happens in the virtual mode because of anonymity and distance between the students and faculty (Miller, 2016). However, this can be prevented by explaining the students properly, creating opportunities so that students engage meaningfully with the content and holding them responsible for generating evidence that they have mastered the content (Miller, 2016).
Issues of Social Justice: Digital Divide
The sudden shift from classroom learning to digital learning did not come without challenges, the main ones being access to technical infrastructure, competencies and pedagogies for distance learning and the requirements of specific fields of study (IAU, 2020) and created the digital divide between rich and poor. While higher education institutions in developed countries have managed well to implement digital learning, higher education institutes in African and South Asian countries have to overcome many challenges before shifting completely to digital modes of learning. The access to technical gadgets, technical infrastructure are some major reasons behind access to higher education and thus, enabling the divide.
Online classes require long hours of internet service, peaceful space and one device/ phone dedicated to each student in a family, which might not be affordable for everyone. In a country like India, where students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds have to take care of domestic chores, family members and children, managing with limited space in the house, managing with a limited budget and poor connectivity in rural areas etc. may cause them to deal with discomfort, frustration and shame. Thus, according to Sarkar (2020), online classes have added to the already existing feelings of vulnerability among students.
According to the Key Indicators of Household Social Consumption on Education in India report, based on the 2017-18 National Sample Survey, less than 15% of rural Indian households have Internet (as opposed to 42% urban Indian households). A mere 13% of people surveyed (aged above five) in rural areas — just 8.5% of females — could use the Internet. The poorest households cannot afford a smartphone or a computer (The Indian Express, June 8, 2020).
The digital divide has not only led to the exclusion of students from poor and marginalized backgrounds from digital learning but also pushed many underprivileged students towards depression and death. For instance, In the Indian state of Kerala, a 14 girl committed suicide as she was unable to join online classes (The Hindu, June 11, 2020). A 16-year-old boy (class 10 student), from a very poor family, took his life because he did not have a smartphone to attend online classes and examinations organized by his school in the Chirang district of Assam in India (The Hindustan Times, June 24, 2020) . A 10th standard girl student, committed suicide at Bali in West Bengal because she had not been able to attend online classes and was afraid of failing her exams (Dalit Camera, June19, 2020). Thus, the pandemic has exposed the deeply rooted inequality and hierarchy between the rich and poor in the Indian education system. Thus, it can be argued that the digital divide negatively affects the enrollment in higher education institutes and lack of digital access further pushes out students from colleges and universities in India.
The purpose of understanding the concept of the digital divide is to understand how accessing the internet and the impact of the use of the internet is deeply rooted in the social conditions of a students’ day to day life. The issues of the digital divide can be understood from two perspectives, one being the socio-economic aspects of age, gender, race, education, and gender and the another is regional or spatial variations like rural-urban dimensions (Rye, 2008).
According to Wilson (2006) financial, physical, content, cognitive, design, production, political and institutional access are eight different aspects of the digital divide. Warschauer (2003) argues that accessing online information does not have to do much with the Internet, but definitely has to do with the cultural, economic, political and linguistic contexts that give shape to the meaning of the internet in people’s lives. The inequality does not exist in the digital but it exists in the society (Warschauer, 2003; Rye, 2008). The focus is on how to use the technology. There is a digital divide between those students who have access and who are deprived of the new technology thus resulting in social inequalities among rich, privileged and poor, underprivileged. The physical access to digital technology along with motivation leads to a stage that provides skills that are necessary to use and handle the digital platform. However, motivation can get reduced if students have no access to digital technology (Dijk, 2005). Thus, the availability of necessary technological infrastructure promotes the Internet-enabled online education (Rye, 2008). Issues of internet cost, access to cyber cafes, distance and time required to travel to the cyber cafes etc. also determine the motivation and access to digital technology. Teachers' response to students' queries, being inactive in learning management systems also influence digital learning other than technological accessibility.
According to Judith Boettcher, an expert in online teaching, “we learn as social beings in a social context” (Miller, 2016). In a face-to-face environment, students get an opportunity to interact with the facilitator and other peers. In such an environment, meetings with teachers, classroom debates and discussions promote social connectedness among teachers and students. Students are affected by the absence and presence of their peers and teachers and thus, online learning needs to accommodate the aspects of social connectedness in their program design. According to Miller (2016), encouraging of cooperation and faculty-student connections are two of the principles introduced by Chickering and Gramson and these are connected to the idea of interpersonal connectedness.
Access to online libraries, books, journals should be created to promote remote learning as we have shifted from the regular classes to virtual mode of education and are working remotely in terms of assignments, projects and examinations. The IAU (2020) survey indicates that research (at 80% HEIs), cancelling of international travel (at 83% of HEIs) and the cancellation or postponement of scientific conferences (81% of HEIs) has been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The survey also reveals that scientific projects are at risk of not being completed (at 52 % HEIs) and Covid-19 will also impact on the enrollment numbers for new academic years (as mentioned by almost 80% of the respondents) (IAU, 2020).
Virtual mode of teaching learning requires orientation in terms of how the course will be delivered including discussions from textbooks, class activities, and assessments and thus, there is a need to communicate well to the students about the structure, expectation and outcomes of the course. There is a need to create authentic interaction between teachers, students and peers in online platforms, therefore, making the online course successful.
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Jyoti Bania: A PhD scholar at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad, India currently working in the area of men and masculinities. He holds an M.Phil in Women’s Studies around the topic of experiences of widowhood from TISS, Hyderabad and Master of Social Work from Visva Bharati University, Santiniketan. His areas of interest include Men and Masculinity, Gender and Development, Caste and Gender-Based Violence, Migration, Sustainable Development.
Ishani Banerjee: A research scholar, currently pursuing M.Phil. in Education at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), Hyderabad, India. She has completed her M.A. in Education from TISS, Hyderabad, India. Her areas of interests include Design and Technology Education, STEAM Education, Pedagogy and Curriculum.