A small virus of size 0.125 micron or 125 nanometers in diameter has changed the world created by the Homo sapiens. In the history of humans there won’t be any time dimensions like B.C. or A.D. from now onwards. It’s going to be post-Covid-19 era or pre-Covid-19 era. One area which was greatly affected by this virus is the education sector. Across the globe almost all major universities have shut down for months. The situation in India is no different. For the first time in the history of our postIndependence era all educational institutions including the prestigious ones like IITs, IISc, IISERs, etc., have to closed down for months. Even research students have been asked to leave campuses. Many students fear that this lockdown would badly affect their scientific research especially those who have been maintaining cell culture laboratories. Research and teaching are two sides of education. For the first time the two sides are badly affected. How this affects our society, only time could tell us.
The government has initiated classes through online mode during the corona period. But does it serve the purpose? Is it a new beginning for change in the education sector? Does the role of teacher being redefined? The academic arena across globe is in an upheaval over digitalisation of education. The corona effect has expatiated this process. The present-day teachers are in crossroads, they live in a digital world where information flow is rampant but its assimilation is too low. Kids even from their kindergarten classes are familiar with LCD projector, power point, internet, etc. They even handle touch pad and mouse without any training. Technology has revolutionised the educational scenario from primary to higher education. Now a day’s nursery rhymes are not recited by the teacher, instead it is played in a computer and projected. Even the dances for kids are showed through video. The teacher just sits as a technician. Parents seem to be attracted towards this technology transformation and are inclined to send their wards only to schools having smart class room. Smart class room means less interaction with either teachers or friends and more addiction towards digitalisation. From childhood itself our students are losing personal contact with teachers and friends.
Even friendship is made only through social networking sites. Their emotions, affections, and feelings are all expressed through digital communication. This attachment with digital world continues in their degree and post graduate level through online courses and virtual labs. Is digitalisation good? This is a perplexing question. There are many proponents and so also many opponents. In higher education one of the major harms digitalisation has caused is in the usage of languages, including English and regional languages. Evolution of language occurs catering to the need of the computer. If a computer can’t understand a word, we modify it accordingly. Similarly, even mathematics students don’t know how to use a log table, as they have been addicted to calculators from their school days itself. Technological intervention has created a paradigm shift in the teaching learning process. In many colleges, teachers have shifted from blackboard teaching to LCD teaching mode, which is easy on teacher’s point of view and attractive from the point of students. A major drawback of this is that teachers spend less time on preparation and updating of topics. Once a slide is prepared it is for their life time.
Even students find this LCD-based teaching more comfortable as it contains minimum points with less explanation, so that they can easily digest. Students don’t like to read books and prepares for the examination from the power points either provided by the teacher or downloaded from Internet. Many universities have started massive open online courses (MOOCs) and even virtual labs. The e-Pathashala, an initiative of UGC, and ICT-enabled courses of IITs like NPTEL are the perfect examples. Virtual labs have created a universal lab for everyone. Students can understand the basic functioning of most of the high-end experiments through virtual lab. They can even do practical from any part of the globe and teachers can monitor them sitting from any part. One of the potential benefits of MOOCs is the ability to make frequent updates to reflect changes in technology or the thinking on a subject, which will otherwise take more than a decade to appear in a textbook. The discussion boards available on the MOOCs platforms can produce intense debate on a particular topic.
Even though online lectures by video are fine for conveying facts, formulas and concepts, they themselves cannot help anyone learn how to put those ideas into practice. Nor can they give students experience in planning an experiment and analysing data, participating in a team, operating a pipette or microscope, persevering in the face of setbacks or exercising any of the other practical and social skills essential for success in science. You only understand something when you know how to do it. Almost by definition, practical skills have to be acquired through experience. They require the hands-on, problem-solving activities that have traditionally been the domain of laboratory courses, field trips, internships and, eventually, project work in the lab of a more senior academic. In the science subjects especially, the standard vehicle for teaching practical skills is the lab course. Unfortunately, many of colleges don’t have enough facility to do all practical experiments and students are forced to train in experiments that are needed for their university examination. This lapse in our system could be rectified using virtual labs. Many experiments in biochemistry and molecular biology that needs costly chemical and instruments could be carried out using virtual labs. Similar to working scientists, students can collect real data from remotely controlled instrument. Even though these cannot be a replacement for a real science lab, it is better than not doing anything. Post corona period will bring out a lot of changes in the education sector. The initiation of online classes may be continued at least by few educational institutions in future for its ease in managing classes with limited resources. Once online classes become the norm, the role of teachers shall be relegated to the level of an anchor. They will be just delivering the content without understanding how many students in the group have imbibed the concepts clearly. Another issue with online mode is once recorded the videos will stay without several months or years without any up dation. Even few NPTEL courses delivered by IIT professors have been running for the years without change.
But when the same IIT professor delivers a lecture physically in a class there will be lot of updates in his lecture. During lecturing the information gathered by the teacher through reading books and research papers shall come out unknowingly from his mouth. That’s the beauty of a real class room teaching. In the not too distant future AI-based technologies will be incorporated into these online learning platforms and humanoid robots will be used as a supplementary to human teacher. Only teachers having high quality can survive in such environment as a content developer or academic supervisor. Let’s hope corona doesn’t take us to that situation, for if a good teacher is lost, then not only students but the whole humanity gets affected. We always need good teachers to show us the right path by leading us from darkness to light. The writer is Assistant Professor and Head, School of Biosciences, MACFAST (Mar Athanasios College for Advanced Studies Tiruvalla), Kerala