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Photo: Bloomberg
Photo: Bloomberg

Opinion | Time to embrace blended learning as the new normal

At Harvard, even laboratory-based courses have moved online with simple innovations. For example, for a lab course in genetics, students were required to collect biological samples, extract and analyse the DNA

The modern purpose of education is to prepare humanity for an unpredictable world. Precisely the sort of world that is unexpectedly brought to a standstill within a matter of weeks, by a rapidly spreading epidemic that leaves governments across the world perplexed and struggling with the impossible choice between lives and livelihoods. Once the dust settles on the current covid-19 crisis, the one dominant issue that faces humanity in the medium and long term is how we can prepare ourselves to deal with such unpredictable disruptions that will inevitably continue to occur in our complex and inter-connected world. It is to this challenge that educational institutions must now rise.

To adapt to inflection points such as the covid-19 crisis, universities must be nimble and decisive, embracing change at all levels. One such change is the use of online learning as a key element of university education.

The technology necessary for online learning has been present for many years now. A 2017 research study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the US confirmed that students performed just as well with blended learning—where online learning supplements, and not replaces, conventional instruction—as they did with traditional classrooms. It’s there, it works, and yet there has been no compelling reason for universities to embrace it—until now.

In response to physical distancing and the closure of campuses necessitated by covid-related lockdowns, schools and universities across the world have ensured that continuity of instruction does not miss a beat, and completed their academic activities entirely online, with few, if any, glitches or compromises. At Harvard University, even laboratory-based courses have moved online with simple innovations in pedagogy and teaching methods. For example, for a lab course in genetics, students were required to collect biological samples, and extract and analyse the DNA. In the online version, the teaching team collected the samples, recorded a video of the DNA extraction process, and sent the sequenced data to students for analysis against an existing database.

Closer home, Skill Shakti, a Mumbai-based organization imparting employable skills to differently-abled adults using a combination of arts, management and technology, has begun to offer its online sessions free of cost. Harappa, a Delhi-based startup, offers customized online courses in skills such as critical thinking, logic and creativity. Rainbow Fish, a Chennai-based art studio for young children, has moved its after-school art classes and summer courses online. Its virtual classes have received such a strong response, that Rainbow Fish may continue to offer online programmes even after the lockdown.

Why wouldn’t they? It’s there, it works, and people across the world are finally starting to use online learning at scale. This is not very different from say web-based video-conferencing, which has always been there but has only now become the default mode of meetings for most companies. Even after travel lockdowns are lifted, many companies expect to continue using videoconferencing substantially, cutting down on expenses and time spent on non-essential travel, but supplementing essential travel. Online learning is no different.

The learning of information and concepts has proven to be effective online, and people are now used to it. Much of this learning can be asynchronous—which, even at its most basic level of personalization, enables learners to view the lecture at their pace, at a time of their choice and in modular chunks optimized for each learner’s span. Further personalization can be enabled through the use of artificial intelligence, which tracks how and when a learner consumes the content. It also enables learning at scale in two ways. First, there is no limit on how many times or by how many learners a recorded module can be viewed asynchronously. Second, it enables us to create a very large library of courses offered by professors from all over the world—in some ways like a Netflix for learning.

Contrary to popular belief, online learning does not present an existential issue for universities. If they are prepared to break away from status quo mindsets, online learning can be used an effective supplement to contemporize the campus student experience. While information and concepts can be learned effectively online, students can spend on-campus time more productively by applying concepts and information to solve problems, working together in teams under the guidance of faculty members. The traditional concept of four courses a semester could give way to the idea of four problems that students must work on solving every semester, under the guidance of faculty. They could do this partly on campus, in project rooms rather than traditional class rooms, and partly on-site at companies, not-for-profit organizations or government departments, as universities begin to develop porous boundaries with the real world.

Universities would do well to embrace online learning and its concomitant structural changes, as they set themselves up to prepare humanity for an unpredictable world. The current moment will test universities not on how innovative they can be, but on how aggressive they dare to be in adopting a proven technology.

Kapil Viswanathan is vice-chairman of Krea university

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