It is time to realise that Covid 19 has not really unearthed all sorts of negativity about what our students need; it has just forced our hands to try doing something different.

The crisis has compelled us to begin to do something about gaps in our education system that have hitherto not been in sight and that acceleration of effort could mean a better educated India down the road.

The fact that a vast portion of students face problems like hunger reminds us that the education system cannot be expected to solve all problems of society. Education could be an easier proposition if students’ families did not struggle with low incomes, unstable housing, lack of health care – the problems that can affect learning.

Evidently, in a post pandemic India all students need their own internet connection. Even when institutions are fully in-person, digital access would allow them to form study groups, get involved in coding or digital art projects.

Online learning may be disastrous for many because the screen is a barrier to building teacher-student relationships, or because they lack a strong internet signal. But one of the most surprising lessons to emerge is that many students are just thriving, and that includes quite young ones.

So online learning is here to stay. In fact, we did not realise as a society how much we needed schools until they were shut down.

Apart from all the intellectual development they offer to children, schooling is the linchpin of a childcare ecosystem that allows parents to participate in the workforce. The moment came in March 2020 when every parent suddenly realized how deeply their lives depended on an Institution like a school, too often in the background. All found themselves embroiled in a national experiment in new ways of the teaching-learning process.

A year later, it is now clear that the pandemic has changed the game of learning in lasting ways. Schools have developed virtual options and it is likely that after the pandemic is over, some will have to stick to remote learning – even for elementary kids. A wave of innovation has been unleashed. Before we contemplate some futuristic, high tech utopia, millions of students have to be supported to catch up academically – something that will take several years.

Even the most obvious gain of the pandemic ~ millions of students with access to technology ~ will be fleeting in the absence of structural improvements. Students now need to prepare themselves for a world that is not just demanding novel skill sets but a completely new mindset that allows them to acquire knowledge in different forms.

They need to appreciate that the novelty of tech-driven learning, the relevance of the physical environment, immersive experiences and transacted classroom learning cannot be fully dispensed with. Educators must get accustomed to balancing expanding technological requirements with ensuring optimal utilisation of existing physical infrastructure.

The use of virtual reality technologies would transcend the boundaries of directly experienced reality and offer a real time interface for students to feel and understand things in a way they otherwise could not.

VR courses will be found to be more effective than regular school curriculum.

Virtual reality technology will prove to be a medium to create real-life experiences, which trends in different industries ranging from education to gaming, health care, space science and others, having changed the face of these sectors. Its usefulness will be found effective in helping students understand social science subjects too.

Students across the country would be engaged in coding languages, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics and other nuances of technology.

We must appreciate that we are going to see a new generation of young entrepreneurs who will have to redefine the concept and purpose of human development.

Post-Covid Indian universities will be found gearing up to tone up a life where hybridized ecosystems will be the norm.

The Covid crisis had provided the higher education sector with an opportunity to reimagine education and how it is delivered, moving beyond how things were done and creating new solutions for a changed climate.

Institutions will be exploring more about how learning could be delivered in a blended format through public-private partnerships involving digital technology.

The International Commission on the Futures of Education launched by UNESCO published a report in 2020, Education in a Post-Covid World: Nine Ideas for Public Action, which said: “There is a serious risk that Covid 19 will wipe out several decades of progress – most notably the progress that has been made in addressing poverty and gender equality. While the pandemic demonstrates that we belong to one interconnected humanity, social and economic arrangements mean that the impacts of the virus are disparate and unjust. Gender discrimination means that girls’ educational attainments are likely to suffer greatly, with a risk of many not returning to school post Covid 19”.

The nine ideas proposed in the report reinforce the importance of equal access to education, suggesting that leaders strengthen education as a common good, expand the right to education to include connectivity and access to resources, and place more value on the teaching profession and collaboration with teachers. Covid 19 has widened the gap between haves and have nots.

The National Bureau of Economic Research found that lower income group students are 55 per cent more likely to delay graduation due to the pandemic than their more affluent peers.

All teachers would be required to be trained in online technology. They would have to discard the “one size fits all” approach that is followed in traditional classrooms and use technology to offer a learning experience that may be suited to a child’s learning needs.

The use of Artificial Intelligence ( AI) will help personalise the learning experience for the child. With information readily available just a click away, the role of a teacher from that of a knowledge giver will gradually move to that of a facilitator in the development of learners and help them to become lifelong learners.

Educators will have to bring in a lot of innovations in their e-learning modules. They would have to take the responsibility of equipping students with coping mechanisms and help them to strengthen their connections with supportive adults and peers.

Social distancing principles would have to be incorporated.

The new social distancing rules would necessarily change the existing ways of imparting education. Institutions might consider working in shifts; classrooms would follow a strict sanitisation process and social distancing would become a norm for all activities.

Though Covid 19 has created many challenges, various opportunities will also evolve. India is not fully equipped to make education reach all corners via digital platforms. This may be made possible with efforts in the post pandemic period which might see priorities given to utilising digital technology to create an advantageous position for millions of young students in the country.

The writer, a former Associate Professor, Department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University.