Can Digital Learning Platforms Replace Human Interface in Classrooms?

New Delhi:

PROF M. ASLAM, former Vice-Chancellor, IGNOU, New Delhi, was conferred 7 national and international awards, authored 8 books and dozens of papers and book chapters and served as consultant/Expert to FAO and UNDP of the United Nations; EDI of the World Bank; Commonwealth Advisory Services, Inc, Philippines; UNESCO; ADB/Price Waterhouse; AARRO; UPSC; ESCWA of the UN; Commonwealth of learning and others. He also served as visiting faculty to as many as 20 institutions in India and abroad. In an interview to MOHD NAUSHAD KHAN, he said ICT revolution preceded the emergence of these Digital Learning Platforms. ICT in education was expected to supplement and reinforce learning process. It was expected to help turn traditional classroom into technology-enabled classrooms through the use of multi-media. Most unfortunately through these digital learning platforms we are attempting to replace human interface in classrooms with digital tools.

Education is one of the sectors affected by Covid-19. What was the scenario just before the onset of Covid-19?

There were many significant changes taking place in the society in general and education sector in particular necessitating framing of a New Education Policy to address these concerns. The Government of India had initiated a series of consultations at state, district, block and village levels to elicit public opinion on the subject, including taking inputs from citizens online. During the Draft National Educational Policy (NEP) debate, an attempt was being made to bring in more equitable education system. Some of the salient suggestions of the new policy included transforming the 10+2 system of school education into a new 5+3+3+4 design; renaming the Ministry of Human Resource Development to Ministry of Education, and merging of accreditation bodies such as National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) and National Board of Accreditation (NBA) into National Higher Education Regulatory Authority (NHERA).

We also witnessed that various aspects of NEP 2019 overlapped with the reforms mentioned in the National Curriculum Framework (NCF). There was also emphasis on establishing specialised research universities through National Research Foundation (NRF), which could fund academic research in science and technology, social sciences, arts and humanities.

How has Covid-19 impacted all these initiatives and what issues have surfaced as a result of this situation?

As a result of unprecedented situation created by Covid-19 lockdowns, all these policy interventions and plans which were intended to shape future educational scenario in the country got shelved. The Covid-19 compulsions in the shape of closure of all educational institutions gave rise to new issues of immediate concern. These among others included: Feasibility of converting traditional classroom teaching into online teaching; Availability and readiness of ICT infrastructure and trained human resources needed and so on.

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What was done to address these emerging concerns?

This unprecedented situation dictated by Covid-19 needed a systematic and well-planned response on war footing. Instead we indulged in making statements, which were to a large extent unrealistic and ad-hoc in nature. Such as: All educational institutions to remain closed; Students were asked to attend online classes and appear for online exams. When the mechanism for conducting online exams was not in place, all universities and affiliated colleges had to postpone exams and suspend evaluation work. UGC was to issue new guidelines to the universities on exams and academics. NCERT was to prepare alternative academic learning material for the entire curriculum for school students, and to revise NCF for school education to be ready by March 2021.

Post-COVID-19: What kind of transformation has taken place in the field of education? 

We are witnessing a massive transformation in the education sector due to Covid-19 lockdowns and subsequent closure of all educational institutions. It has not only impacted age-old classroom based teaching-learning processes but is intended to replace them, through various edtech platforms, by online courses. The prolonged lockdown and closure of educational institutions has particularly impacted school children who have not only been forced to remain confined inside their homes but are also expected to learn their lessons through web-based technologies in a non-classroom environment. The schools were not only centres of learning but also place where a child’s personality development was taking place. Neither the students nor teachers are prepared to face this unexpected total lockdown.

We also witness Emergence of Digital Learning Platforms. To what extent these learning platforms facilitate students’ access to high quality effective learning resources?

ICT revolution preceded the emergence of these Digital Learning Platforms. ICT in education was expected to supplement and reinforce learning process. It was expected to help turn traditional classroom into technology-enabled classrooms through the use of multi-media. Most unfortunately through these digital learning platforms we are attempting to replace human interface in classrooms with digital tools. Covid-19 lockdown has intensified and accelerated this process. The learning experience with judicious application of ICT could have been made interesting and complicated topics could have been better explained in a classroom setup in the presence of a teacher.

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A large number of our students come from rural areas, belong to economically less privileged families and would not have a dedicated access to these new technologies. Even the teachers may also require a helping hand to equip them with the IT hardware to take up these online classes. Covid-19 lockdown is forcing us to go for remote teaching. It has not even allowed us to study the degree of assimilation of knowledge by a learner when taught virtually as compared to conventional system of classroom teaching so as to arrive at a considered decision. We also have not paid any attention as to what improvements are required in IT infrastructure to make it dedicated and conducive for online education. There are a number of hardware and software issues which need to be addressed before online education is prescribed.

What is that one major concern which needs to be addressed immediately?            

My major concern is what will be the implications of such a rapid transformation and can automation totally replace human interface in classrooms particularly at school level in general and pre-school level in particular. I remember that the Preschool Curriculum was released by NCERT in August, 2019. It envisaged to help the teachers to create an enabling environment in the classroom where they can help children play, learn and be happy. Can a digital learning platform replace it?

One only hopes that NCERT, while revising NCF, will pay due attention to psychological determinants of curriculum, including knowledge of learner and learning process and conditions facilitating optimum learning and measurement of learning outcomes. I also hope that institutions of higher learning including IITs who have decided to go completely online next semester in view of the coronavirus pandemic, will keep their options open to return to classroom teaching and use online courses only for supplementing and reinforcing basic courses taught through conventional mode. We seem to be running after new technologies through these digital leaning platforms blindly without any concern for learning processes and its adverse implications on behavioural patterns and personality development particularly of pre and primary children. We may reach a point of no return. The sooner we realise it the better it will be.

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