The BBC asked Fred Trueman what made him love cricket so much and the erstwhile English fast bowler, and he replied that it was a great leveller.
In view of the UGC Chairman’s latest announcement of a digital university to be set up in the coming academic session, it is time to mention that the spectre of Coronavirus haunted the policy makers of education for more than two years and it is, undoubtedly, education technology that came to their rescue. Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Skype, Google Hangout and other apps helped all to communicate and exchange knowledge with each other.
The universities also embraced these solutions, but the time has come to ask if India can come up with the concept of a digital university, as visualised by the National Policy of Education (NEP 2000), thereby providing learners with a new experience of learning? It sounds exhilarating to think of attending a class whenever one wants to because of prerecorded sessions, asking the teacher questions and receiving answers instantly as the teacher is logged on at the same time. Also, it could be a moment of enjoying financial relief because one does not have to travel or stay at some hostel.
The plan to set up digital universities is premised on the National Education Policy’s objective of enhancing the gross enrolment rate in higher education in the country from the current 26 per cent to 50 per cent by 2035. However, on the basis of global experience, it is feared that the quality of education delivered by such universities may have to be compromised. The concept of digital universities has been developed for students to obtain almost immediate feedback from teachers through emails or online discussions. When the term came into existence it applied to things that were simulated by the computer, like virtual memory.
Now, this came to be applied to things that physically exist and are created by means of computers. In fact, the concept of digital universities first came with the idea of a wireless university at the BBC. In the tele-university concept, courses were taught on the radio and television in the name of “university on air” which came to take the shape of an open university. Online courses mean that students will learn in their own time by reading course materials, working on course activities, writing assignments, and interacting with teachers and other students through teleconferences.
Digital classroom environments will be accessible to any student provided he or she has access to a computer or internet connection. This may allow dynamic interaction with teachers and among the students themselves. The synergy that may exist in student-centred digital classes is one of the most vital traits of the digital learning format. Virtual Global University in Germany offers a graduate programme in information and management where students can have access to a wide network of people and interactions. They are able to work at their own pace. Hence, the importance of the development of such skills including creativity, communication, and knowledge application.
However, the fact remains that a digital university cannot provide face-to-face interactions. So, the students would be deprived of opportunities for better communication and deeper understanding. Their computer literacy may also deter them from adopting new technology which may lead to incomplete learning and low performance. The performance of many students at DeVry University in the US was examined some time ago. The university offers online and contacts versions of all its courses, using the same textbooks, assessments, assignments, and lecture materials for each format. Even though the courses are seemingly identical, the students who enrolled online performed worse.
As a result, online students would be more likely to drop out. The hardest hit would be the unwilling few and those who enter the virtual classes with low grades in their previous examinations. The weaker students would be the worst sufferers. An overwhelming advantage to student learning by thrusting information technology has not been perceived as yet when simple chalk and talk methods could have done equally well. We have not thought of an equally good alternative to the classroom lecture ~ the discussion method that has been at the heart of the teaching-learning experience.
No instructional technology has been developed to replace cooperative learning that takes place in group projects, field studies, recitals, and presentations. It is generally agreed that students do not learn merely from textbooks; if so, teachers would not be required. Only when textbooks and supplementary study materials are brought to bear upon a topic to be discussed in the classroom does the teaching-learning process become live. This is further accentuated through projects and assignments followed by term-end examinations.
Lack of access, whether it be for economic or logistic reasons, may exclude otherwise eligible students from the digital courses. This is an important issue in rural and lower socio-economic neighbourhoods. Internet access may pose a significant cost to the users in a digital university. Both students and facilitators must be able to use a variety of search engines and be comfortable navigating on the web, as well as be familiar with newsgroups, FTP procedures and e-mail. Even the most sophisticated technology is not hundred per cent reliable.
At the same time, to successfully participate in an online programme of a digital university, students must be well-organised, self-motivated and possess a high degree of time management skills. An online teacher must compensate for the lack of physical presence by creating a supportive environment in a digital classroom where all students feel comfortable participating. Computer-related frustration and the fear to face new things on the part of teachers may make them unacceptable to students.
A Digital class environment means the transfer of traditional pedagogy towards an electronic pedagogy in which the teacher becomes a facilitator of the learning process. This new pedagogy presupposes that the teacher should be qualified in new techniques. For many, it may be a threatening experience. It may be important to recognise that some subjects may not be taught online in a digital university because the electronic medium does not permit the best method of instruction.
Examples are hands-on subjects, such as public speaking, surgery, dental hygiene and sports where physical movements contribute to the achievement of the learning objectives. Hybrid courses may represent a solution, thus making that area of the course more accessible to a greater number of people who would otherwise have difficulty getting to the campus. An online curriculum should reflect the use of dialogue among students and group discussions. Quality education may be provided in a digital university only if the curriculum is developed or converted to meet the needs of the online medium.
The task of accessing both the curriculum products and curriculum experts is an important issue for the success of a digital university. As the students cannot have access to the entire curriculum products, it is likely that scientific visualisation is used as an educational tool. The curriculum may not be easily updated or very interactive. The use of email may be effective for the exchange of information. Video conferencing over the internet may not be a practical substitute. From the administrative point of view, the question of accreditation becomes pertinent. Where would the credits go? How can Intellectual Property Rights be maintained? How will the issue of faculty control over content and curriculum be preserved?
These questions must be addressed initially. The students may not be able to reach dramatic moments that occasionally result in witticism, humour and other such elements that help to enhance the joy of the teaching-learning process. If a colourful presentation using PowerPoint fails to lead to a lively classroom discussion, it will be of no use.
But the teacher on the dais in front of many students can do wonders. It is always challenging for the teacher in traditional mode to get his point across without facial gestures and vocal cues. He can create classroom animation ~ the thrill of being with the students ~ which is absent online.