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Phygital Learning

Digital technologies will fill the gaps in our education system, be it virtual field trips, use of AR/VR in experiments or online lessons on-the-go
Coursera Print Edition: August 23, 2020
Phygital Learning
Illustration by Raj Verma

Higher education systems around the world have been crippled by Covid-19. In India alone, over 37 million students in the country's higher education system have been affected by campus closures. The demand for online learning continues to surge as colleges in India ensure academic continuity for students though remote teaching. Three months down the line, institutions have, in some form, adapted to virtual learning despite being largely unprepared for an abrupt shift.

Now that the near-term response is implemented, universities in India, much like their global counterparts, will have to make enduring changes in the medium and long-term. The strategic nature of their response will determine how well they adapt to the rapidly-changing future of higher education.

Medium-term: Blended Classrooms

As this crisis has shown, universities will need to future-proof their role with dynamic, resilient approaches that can empower faculty to quickly switch from on-campus to fully online on demand. For most colleges, developing high-quality online content from scratch remains a formidable challenge. But with technology, any college or university in India can integrate online courseware taught by experts from renowned institutions into their curricula, widely available through online platforms.

The 'forced experimentation' colleges have come through with this crisis could lead to lasting changes, fundamentally transforming how students learn in the future. The new normal will eventually make way for 'blended' classrooms that combine online and traditional in-person classroom learning.

As they become entrenched and mainstream, blended classrooms could serve a greater purpose, paving the way for colleges to deliver an upgraded online education that supplements learning on campus. A student in Lucknow, for instance, could move seamlessly from an economics class on campus to a data science class taught online by a global expert, learning with students from around the world. Building in-demand skills online could give millions of students in India a job-relevant education, boosting their employability. This could also create an opportunity for India's best institutions to deliver a far more significant impact across the country, and in fact, the world. By launching courses for critical skills online, India's top institutions would beat capacity and scale constraints, while delivering relevant education and expanding reach to a global audience. Last year, IIM-Calcutta took a bold step in this direction when it decided to launch two online MasterTrack certificate programmes, its first offerings to be delivered entirely online.

As institutions increasingly rely on a mix of online and traditional instruction, universities across the world and in India will be responsible for making such learning more inclusive in the future, bridging the digital divide that could leave the most vulnerable students behind. Institutions must lead by teaching with the integration of low bandwidth components (e.g., discussion boards, email, collaborative documents and downloadable video content) with high bandwidth programming (e.g., live video conferencing).

As virtual and blended classrooms evolve, colleges will have to re-imagine how they engage students. The online classroom experience has the potential for significant interactivity - group discussions, webinars, live discussion boards for example - which can lead to an engaging learning experience. Learners would also benefit from a learning community without borders - the most diverse study groups will be found online.

How colleges innovate and leverage technology online has taken a leap with this crisis, and this will continue to shape the future of higher education. It could not only change how students get an education, but also how they are assessed in the future. Medical students at Imperial College London recently sat for open timed exams held online, with very encouraging results. This could open alternative paths to online proctored exams and ongoing assessments moving forward.

Similarly, the use of immersive technologies like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) for education experiments in fields like medicine and engineering will only grow as colleges explore their potential across new use cases - from holographic displays to study engineering, to augmented reality for medical training and even research-driven VR field trips. Virtual lab simulations could remain a useful tool for students to continue experimenting in tandem with hands-on labs work long after this crisis. Recent advances in digitally-enabled labs offer promising possibilities, even in fields like life sciences.

Globally, we are already seeing universities boosting their digital infrastructure in response to this crisis. The adoption of cutting-edge technology will result in more immersive learning experiences online. With the UGC considering blended learning with up to 40 per cent classes in online mode, Indian institutions will now be able to explore the full potential of technology, to create blended and virtual classrooms of the future.

Long-term: Embracing Digital Transformation

Before Covid-19, colleges around the world had begun ramping up digital transformation as a way to achieve a range of benefits. They were looking to improve global reach, provide greater access to quality education, make learning more personalised, and bring significant improvements in pedagogical practices. After Covid-19, universities have added risk mitigation as a key driver of digital transformation. Institutions will increasingly look to protect their academic portfolios through advanced digital learning designed from the ground up to be delivered online. That's a trend I see coming to India too. As universities develop their digital competencies, what started as a short-term response to a crisis could well become an enduring digital transformation of higher education, across all aspects of on and off-campus learning.

In a crisis that has led to collapse of borders and brought communities closer to collaborate and reach out to those in need, top colleges in India and the world have the opportunity to fulfill a higher purpose by democratising access to top-quality education. At a time when the pandemic has caused widespread unemployment, people desperately need access to job-relevant learning. Though painful, Covid-19 has given us a glimpse of the future. The only way institutions can scale and serve the millions impacted by this crisis is by investing in digital, starting now. If acted on with urgency, the educational system will be able to serve as an engine of economic revival and a transformative force that empowers Indians to seize the opportunity presented by the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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