Home/ Opinion / Columns/  Universities must reopen to a better normal after covid

Eighteen months ago, we wrote in this column about a distressing gap in mainstream education: good pedagogical practice—applying insights from cognitive science about how people learn—has taken a back-seat to convenience, scale and tradition. Twelve months ago, schools and universities across the nation shut down under the pandemic, and shifted seamlessly to an online mode of delivery. During the course of the year, many of the mental barriers associated with convenience, scale and tradition have fallen. As pandemic-related restrictions now start to ease and campuses begin to open, the question on most educators’ minds is—how can we now begin with a new and better normal, rather than revert to the old ways?

What was wrong with the old ways to begin with? The richness of in-person discussion, debate, criticism and feedback was often missing in our classrooms. Many institutions found the transition to video-conferencing relatively straightforward, so long as students had access to digital devices and networks. This seamless transition itself exposes the deeper problem in traditional education, which is that the lecture-based and exam-driven system was somewhat socially distanced to begin with. Further, what we are seeing with Zoom classes today is not state-of-the-art in online education. Cognitive science tells us that properly designed online content involves short (5-10 minutes), well-produced, asynchronous videos that are more attuned to the human brain’s ability to focus. Simulations, games and online group annotation of a document are also effective.

So, when campuses open, properly designed online learning must be used to make time for the most important aspect of education: in-person engagement. Adoption of the flipped classroom—where we reserve in-person classroom time for engaging two-way activities, while using online content and pre-reading to accomplish one-way communication—is one part of the solution. This is no longer a new idea, and many universities, including both ours, understand that students need to marinate in the content. The science of learning tells us that learning is most effective when students are curious, and dopamine is released in the brain. Students absorb material best when they struggle but then receive timely coaching, and when they discover and apply concepts. Discussions, performances and projects can activate this.

A more nuanced take on the flipped classroom is to break up the learning trajectory into three aspects: Learning of concepts and methods, learning to think creatively to solve problems, and applying concepts, methods and creativity cross-contextually to develop solutions to real-life problems. Across disciplines, the learning of concepts and methods lends itself well to asynchronous online learning, where students use online content at a pace and time of their own choice. Developing creative solutions to problems and applying these cross-contextually to real-life situations involves working collaboratively, ideally in-person.

Pedagogical innovation is often met with scepticism by faculty, and the idea of the flipped classroom is no exception. In reality, though, it saves faculty members the monotony of repeating their lectures to multiple sections, semester after semester, when they can instead record it once and offer it to students asynchronously. It also makes classroom time more engaging for faculty members, as they join small groups of students to, say, collaboratively find solutions to complex real-life problems.

Another perceived impediment to the flipped classroom is that existing campus spaces are often not designed for it. It calls for smaller but more classrooms. These need to be furnished more like meeting rooms than classrooms, to facilitate discussion and project work. This is easily done. Existing classrooms designed for lecturing 100 students can be partitioned into smaller spaces for group discussions among 12-15 students.

Beyond flipping the classroom, universities need to change the rigid structure of our educational programmes. As the contours of labour markets change, education must embrace a more flexible and modular approach to credentialing. Linear pathways to fixed-term 3-year or 4-year degrees may no longer be adequate. Degrees and programmes need to be broken up into smaller modules, and students must have the freedom to select one or more, in parallel or in whatever meaningful sequence suits them. Employers will begin to insist that students must do certain modules for certain jobs. The National Education Policy 2020, which was largely written before the pandemic, envisages this sort of modularization and provides for a supportive regulatory framework.

Especially for post-graduate and lifelong learning programmes such as mid-career and executive education, the delivery of content may happen through a ‘blend’ of time spent on online material with campus experiences and work-related projects. Not all these programmes need to be full-time, as working individuals seek to continuously update their skills while still at their jobs. Specialized business and technical education, in particular, lends itself well to these types of blended and modular certificate programmes.

If the pandemic is brought under control by the end of this summer, and campuses re-open as planned, universities will have a short window of time—say, the next one or two trimesters—to embrace this new normal in a way that’s significant enough to make a big difference. Else, they risk reverting to the old ways, and will have to await the next global crisis before they change for the better.

Kapil Viswanathan and Sanjay Sarma are respectively, chairman of the executive committee of Krea University and vice-president for open learning at MIT

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Updated: 17 Mar 2021, 10:24 PM IST
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