The government’s vision of a digital university to reach all students across the country, with its promise of personalized education at the doorstep, should be seen as a historic milestone in Indian education.
While I was on the Harvard Board of Overseers which launched Havardx (which offers free online courses from Harvard University) and Edx (a huge provider of open online courses from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), I I was encouraged to see that the registration of Indian students for Edx was second only to that of American students. Unfortunately, only 16% of students took these “digital-only” courses.
Many challenges need to be overcome. The Piramal Foundation’s own experience of working with approximately 2 million students and 700,000 educators during the pandemic has helped us see the shortcomings of a digital-only approach.
Students struggle to transition to online learning, feel demotivated in the absence of a mentor or peer group, and also struggle with tests and assignments. Teachers, on the other hand, struggle to produce online content and struggle to keep kids engaged.
What works is a “phygital” model that combines online courses with weekly or biweekly in-person training sessions. As observed, phygital education makes it easier for students to transition into online learning, stay motivated to complete their courses, and also complete their tests and assignments. Phygital education also helps teachers keep students engaged, read patterns of behavior among them that may be relevant, and adapt their delivery accordingly.
However, a phygital approach alone is not enough. We need a lot more components for it to be truly inclusive and groundbreaking, as it can turn out to be.
Here are our main recommendations.
Use a multilingual and accessible learning management system: Language barriers are a major challenge for online learning in our country, with such a diversity of languages and dialects. The videos and frequently asked questions (FAQs) are mostly in English, and students find it difficult to access, navigate, understand, and synthesize the content. The website interface, applications, support and digital learning content should be available in major regional languages. These must also be inclusive in other respects, bearing in mind the needs of people with disabilities, so that all learners embark on their learning journey with confidence.
Enable course adoption, retention, and completion: Students are overwhelmed with creating online accounts and filling out and uploading complex documents, and it all adds to their confusion about using apps. Solving this problem requires developing their digital literacy through simple and concise learning modules on how to use a device and how to interact with a digital platform. Providing on-call support with minimum wait time through call centers, chatbots, etc., will help them overcome start-up issues.
Create engaging and immersive learning experiences: Shared teaching-learning experiences that have fallen due to the use of a virtual interface can be rebuilt by promoting a spirit of competition through contests and events periodicals that assess performance and boost student motivation levels. A weekly in-person interaction between teachers and students will further enhance the experience for both.
Connecting peer learners to create strong learning communities: One of the great challenges of digital education is the lack of a peer network. Students face the difficulty of studying on their own, coupled with the boredom of online teaching, which can lead to discontinuities and dropouts. Creating peer learning communities and connecting groups of 3-5 students located in the same geographic neighborhood will bring back joy, while promoting healthy competition and cross-learning.
Improving the quality of teaching on digital platforms: Teachers face unique challenges with the infrastructure required to teach online, an inability to adapt to virtual lesson mode, especially in the face of low attendance and lack of real-time student feedback. Educators should be supported in creating hygiene-controlled content and regularly assessed to elevate their skill levels. In addition, curriculum frameworks need to be developed to encourage the creation of competency-based micro-modular courses.
Physical education has the potential to transform education in India. It is the future because it contextualizes and reinvents education. However, we need to create an enabling environment that allows students and teachers to feel comfortable and confident navigating this space in their own language. Coeducation opens up immense opportunities for capacity building among frontline workers. It holds great potential for empowerment as it can enable adults, especially women, to return to school. Physical education can serve as an engine of economic growth and a transformative force that empowers every Indian.
Swati Piramal and Aditya Nataraj are Vice Chairman of Piramal Group and Managing Director of Piramal Foundation respectively.
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