Status quo, challenges, and future implications of E-learning
By Nawaz Sarif
The deadly infectious disease COVID-19 has triggered a chaotic social atmosphere and brought a paradigm shift to how we learn at formal institutions. The Indian education system, being an important sector, is passing through an irreversible learning crisis. The sudden outbreak has resulted in the nation-wide lockdown that led to closing down all educational institutions and made students stay at home. The cutting of all physical interactions and discontinuity in course studies has completely halted students’ learning in India and around the world. According to the UN Secretary-General (2020, March), the current COVID-19 crisis has pushed more than 1.52 billion students (87% of global students) to stay out of schools in nearly 166 countries(1). India has one of the world’s largest education systems engrossing nearly 300 million students at 1.4 million schools and 51,000 colleges(2). Amidst this crisis, the country, along with its world’s largest young population and its $180 billion education sector is switching to online education in-situ of mainstream classroom teaching(3).
The young population is critical for the growth and prosperity of a nation. The world has more than 3 billion young people and around 1.2 billion of this is in adolescence. Also, India is home to the world’s largest population of adolescents with 243 million individuals aged between 10 and 19 years(4). Adolescence is a crucial time in life. It is a transitional phase where individuals shift from childhood to adulthood through physical, social, emotional, and psychological reconstructions. At this stage, individuals learn about how to become independent. They develop life skills, learn new behaviors, and establish social relationships(5). However, due to the lockdown, the young population has suffered from the learning crisis in the physical classroom system. Besides, millions of today’s young populations who are likely to attend adulthood will also catastrophically suffer from the lack of skills required to strive in academic, social, and vocational realms.
In a bid to overcome such a crisis, pushing educational institutions to adopt online learning is understood as a need of the hour in India. The e-learning has emerged as the only significant alternative that can rescue millions of students country-wide. Currently, the digital platform is enabling students and teachers to access a plethora of learning opportunities. Several platforms are boosted to compensate for the disruption caused by the pandemic in educational institutions. On the national level, enabling online learning platforms such as Skype, Team link, Google Meet, Google Classroom, Zoom, Microsoft Teams, etc. are extensively used to ensure online education to students. Besides, interactive tools like webinars, WhatsApp, virtual labs, and peer-tutoring learning are also being used to provide e-learning materials to students. These platforms are presently connecting students and teachers over the video-enabled virtual classroom. Using electronic media and ICT-based technology, students are easily accessing study-materials in the forms of e-content, reading materials, video lectures, graphic contents, and can do virtual collaborations, discussions, and debates.
The shifting to the e-learning platforms is to suffice the minimum need for delivering the course contents and fulfilling the educational tasks in the times of COVID-19 pandemic. The digital classes transcend space and time constraint and avail teaching-learning activities continued amidst the isolation crisis. It has brought a new paradigm shift in the offline classroom learning system. It is ensuring physical distancing, staying at home and learning through online ‘anytime’. In the present article, a focus is set on to facilitate an expatiate skimming on the central and state measurements that have been taken to boost online learning in the country. It has probed the emerging issues of e-education from the perspectives of teachers, learners, and parents. Also, the proposed solutions and future implications have been served in closing.
Central government’s plans and initiatives for E-education
The Covid-19 lockdown has boosted formal institutions to go online nation-wide. Gripped with the catastrophe, both Central and state governments have taken several initiatives to ensure digital infrastructure to guarantee ‘learning never stops’ as envisaged by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO)(6). The Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) and other institutional regulators such as the University Grants Commission (UGC), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT), State Council of Educational Research and Training (SCERTs), District Institute for Education and Training (DIETs), and Telecom operators are working together in coordination with government and private institutions to ensure e-learning at different digital platforms. The initiative, like the National Knowledge Network (NKN), has stepped towards disseminating e-learning contents with an economic-outlay of 5990 crores(7). It facilitates high-speed backbone connectivity and quality service among NKN connected institutions in the country. Similarly, the initiative like the National Mission on Education Through Information and Communication Technology (NME-ICT) is also providing 3.5 crores (35000000) free-contents to over 25 lakh (2500,000) active users in ten different languages nation-wide(8).
The government of India is also propelling its e-platform named Swayam Prabha to expatriate free telecasting e-contents to students of class I to XII through 32 DTH channels(9). The HRD Ministry and the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting are working together to air Swayam Prabha channels on DTH for wide access of e-learning materials to those who have no internet access in remote areas. The channels circulate e-contents for 4 hours a day and also repeat the same five times in a day. Recently, on May 17, a new dedicated education channel named PM e-Vidya was launched to multi-modes access to digital education under Swayam Prabha DTH channels. It is a one-nation, one-digital platform set to facilitate online lectures for school students(10). The HRD Ministry is also exploring other options like All India Radio (AIR), Doordarshan, and 2G networks to outreach e-learning materials in rural areas. The Ministry has boosted the Diksha portal (e-pathshala) which has over 80,000 e-books available for both teachers and students. Besides, amid the lockdown, NCERT has also amplified its e-pathshala by adding 1886 audio files, 2000 videos, 696 e-books, and 504 flipbooks for students of class I to XII(11). The e-pathshala enables millions of students to access various textbooks and other related learning materials in different languages.
Moreover, in pursuit of promoting online classes, the government of India has launched the ‘Bharat Padhe Online’ campaign on April 11 where over 3700 suggestions have been received(12). Another program, VidyaDaan 2.0, was launched on April 23 inviting contributors to develop e-contents due to an unusual increase in the demands of e-contents(13). The central government has planned to ‘the use of community radio and television broadcast’ as also urged by UNESCO for outreaching the facilities in remote areas. Besides these initiatives, various other e-services are there like SCERT’s YouTube channel, NIOS’s courses, MOOC learning, National Academic Depository (NAD), National Digital Library of India, National Project on Technology Enhanced Learning (NP-TEL), free educational TV channel, Virtual labs, Spoken Tutorial, E-Yantra, Free and Open Source Software for Education (FOSSEE), which are among the other noteworthy initiatives taken by the government to connect institutions to easily access learning resources.
Response of state governments towards shifting from physical classrooms to online learning
As the lockdown continues and school education postpones, several state governments have also prompted digitally-packed management systems to facilitate e-learning through different virtual platforms. Various state governments have taken several strategies to connect students and teachers over the virtual learning platform amidst the lockdown as such. For instance, the state of Andhra Pradesh has stepped up by providing online access to educational institutions. The state has created its self-learning app named ‘Abhiasa’ to provide e-contents and video lectures(14). Doordarshan and radio broadcasts are also being used to telecast lessons for school students daily for two hours in the morning and evening. Moreover, the state has also projected the development of online curriculum, instructional design, and e-learning content for school students.
Similarly, the state like Kerala has also taken several initiatives to provide ICT-enabled education in government schools. The Kerala Infrastructure and Technology for Education (KITE) started the KOOL e-learning platform that provides training for teachers. It is India’s first massive government-sponsored online program (MOOC), and so far, over 12,000 teachers have benefited. KITE has also digitized all school textbooks and placed 57,843 laptops and 25,011 projectors at different schools in the state(15). The major initiatives taken by the government of Kerala are ‘Avadikaala Santhoshangal’ (Happy Holidays), ‘Akshara Vrikshams’ (Tree of Letters), and KITE’s Victers TV channel. The platforms like ‘Avadikaala Santhoshangal’ and ‘Akshara Vrikshams’ are boosting e-learning through creative writing, stories, poems, and mathematical experiments(16). The KITE’s Victers TV channel telecasts curriculum-based contents and teachers’ lectures across the state. Besides, schools and teachers are also using WhatsApp, YouTube, and other different digital media to share curriculum-based e-contents with students.
The online classes have also received an ‘overwhelming response’ from the state board students of West Bengal(17). The state has planned for virtual classes on TV channels for students of class IX to XII. The online classes will be telecast by ABP Ananda from 3 pm to 4 pm six days a week and by DD Bangla from 4 pm to 5 pm. The students will have the opportunity to ask questions to teachers through WhatsApp and phone calls during the interaction session on the TV channel’s studio(18). Besides, the government also prompts schools of state-aided, state-run, and privately-owned to connect over virtual classes and use WhatsApp for sharing e-learning materials among students.
Further, several massive government-sponsored initiatives and campaigns have been undertaken in different states to boost online learning. The e-learning project named SMILE (Social Media Interface for Learning Engagement) was launched by the government of Rajasthan to provide online classes through various social media. The state has created over 20,000 WhatsApp groups to share study-materials with students and teachers. Similarly, the Haryana government with its state education department and SCERT have also launched a full-throated e-learning campaign under the banner of ‘Ghar Se Padhao Abhiyan’ (Teach from Home Campaign) to connect students and parents with over 50,000 teachers using WhatsApp, SMS, and phone(20). The state aims at resuming academic activities across different districts and provides lessons on various school subjects like Hindi, Maths, and Sciences. Besides, the state has also planned to pool the necessary e-content from different centrally sponsored e-learning platforms such as Diksha and Swayam Prabha and share those with teachers and students through WhatsApp groups or SMS.
The state of Bihar has also pushed its educational institutions to advance online classes to students of different levels. In the state, around 10,000 education institutions including both government and private are rendering online classes to students(21). The Bihar Education Project Council (BEPC) has launched an innovative mobile app named ‘Unnayan –Mera Mobile Mera Vidyalaya’ for students of Class VI to XII of over 70,000 government-run schools(22). Moreover, a YouTube channel named ‘Study with Ratna’ was also launched by Ratna Sign, a notable women educationist. She said that online classes help students in terms of both completing the unfinished curriculum and recovering from psychological fear amidst the Covid-19 lockdown(23). Also, the state like Uttar Pradesh has developed over 65,943 e-contents with the help of teachers from various state universities and colleges to impart online education(24). Besides, several states like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Meghalaya, and Manipur, and so on have also ordered their respective educational regulators to push schools to embrace e-learning platforms amidst the crisis.
Notwithstanding, as the country is switching to virtual learning, there has been an increased number of students’ congregations at different e-learning platforms for the past three months. As such, the HRD Ministry has expressed warmth over a 5-fold-congested swelling in the access of e-learning platforms nation-wide(25). The e-learning platform, like Swayam Prabha, provides e-contents for different levels of education, has witnessed a rapid growth of 25 percent on its e-contents(26). The National Digital Library is now accessed by about 43,000 people, which is double the time than usual(27). Besides, different non-government e-learning platforms such as Unacademy, Khan Academy, Shaw Academy, Udemy, and Gradeup have also emerged as significant providers of e-learning materials. These digital platforms provide thousands of live classes on different academic subjects, competitive exams, and specific skills to millions of students and help in furthering the outreach to the countryside. These ‘digital scaffoldings’ have experienced an unparalleled increase in the number of users. For instance, BYJU’s e-learning platform hosts free live classes for IV to XII students. It runs similar to YouTube and uploads learning materials for different courses. It has registered an increase of 150 percent, which added 6 million new student users(28). Another example: a cloud-based video calling app named Zoom has also registered an unprecedented growth in users, including students and teachers, even though it is now under deep scrutiny over its security issue(29).
The issues emerged in online learning
At the time, as schools scramble to shift off physical classrooms, online classes emerged as a greater option for learning amidst the coronavirus lockdown crisis. However, the technology-enabled virtual platforms have left some serious concerns over the digital alienation of economically disadvantaged students. In a study conducted by India’s largest scholarship platform, Buddy4Study, revealed that over 25 crores students had been affected by this hastened COVID-19 lockdown and 80 percent of which fall in economically weaker section category(30). “Children of the lowest rung of the society caught up with a livelihood challenge now face a stark vacuum even as government’s advisories ask schools to go online and consider homework as classwork to reduce disruption” said by Kalpesh Banker, a Delhi-based entrepreneur runs an education consulting firm(31).
Further, the country has boosted its endeavors through different central- and state-sponsored digital initiatives to avail ample opportunities for learners. But these initiatives are meeting limited learning requirements that are not even inclusive due to asymmetric outreach of digital resources and internet establishments across the country. The e-contents and lectures available at different digital platforms are highly dependent on internet connectivity. Underpinning the concerns, a teacher from Mahatma Gandhi Central University, at Motihari, Bihar, said “how does the government expect us to teach students in rural areas through mobile and Zoom classes? We have a decent network for a video call for a few minutes, but how will they continue a 40-minutes class”. He also expressed concern that many of these students do not “have the kind of devices, laptops, smartphones”(32).
Online learning is something new to both teachers as well as students. The execution of lockdown had no pre-preparation in terms of both availing ICT-enabling technology or providing training intervention for developing digital skills to adapt to online classes. Many teachers have trouble in operating electronic devices, referring to different academic links, information processing, and even establishing a connection over virtual classrooms. Many of the teachers have also expressed awful experiences while conducting online classes. For them, it becomes challenging to keep eye contact, a crucial aspect of teaching that is very necessary to regulate not only the interests of the students but also to gauge if children are actually learning what they are being taught in the classrooms. Some teachers have also raised doubt about the effective curriculum transaction at online classes as such. Meghna Saxena, a Delhi-based nursing teacher told Quartz, “kids don’t understand half our activities even in the real classroom. A teacher on a computer screen would hardly make sense to them”(33). Also, there is no way-out to know the students’ engagement during online classes as Saloni Kumar, a teacher at the middle and senior school in Gurugram near to Delhi, said “during the classes, I have no way of knowing who is paying attention and who is not”(34).
Similarly, students around whom the whole teaching-learning process evolves are also expressing discontented experiences with online learning. Sruthi Sri Laxmi, a 12th standard student in Coimbatore, said “I prefer to be in a classroom, now I have to do everything on WhatsApp-submitting assignments, talking to friends, asking doubts…it is boring”(35). Similarly, students, across disciplines like languages, art and crafts, journalism, and science streams where the involvement of both teachers and students is required in the face-to-face classroom and laboratory settings, are also expressing concerns for not being able to have experiential learning amidst the crisis.
Online learning promotes a culture of the ‘banking system of education’(36). It encourages students to acquire a decided amount of knowledge. There is an overwhelming emphasis on the cognitive development of children’s personality. Hence, the concerns mounted over e-learning for its deficit-importance on the development of children’s physical, social, emotional, and moral aspects(37). Moreover, many teachers feel online learning is becoming mechanical where there is no life experience. Also, such behavioral shifting to knowledge acquisition has havoc to classroom-social proximity and teacher-learner relationships. The societal and emotional bondage embedded in the physical classroom has now completely wiped out at online classes.
At home-based e-learning, parents are playing the role of teachers. They guide children in doing study-related tasks. But by doing so, in many cases, parents are found complaining about not getting enough time for their home-related activities. As the children spend around 4-6 hours online, parents are also expressing concerns over the long-time screening of their children. Kanika Ahuja, a psychology teacher at Delhi’s Lady Shri Ram College for Women, has also unequivocally said that the “increased screen time can cause increased sedentary behaviour in children and teens, decreased metabolism, disturbance in the sleep cycle, more distractibility and perhaps lower well-being”(38).
Possible solutions to emerging issues of e-learning
Thus, the technology-enabling classes have led to some serious concerns. It escalates problems such as digital accessibility and internet penetration in rural areas, and the ineffective and mechanical teaching-learning process in online classes. It also raised doubts about the students’ all-round development, socio-emotional proximity, and teacher-learner relationship and others, as underscored earlier. So, attempts must be taken to turn these problems around with well-planned multi-stage management systems, community-supported activities, and collaborative endeavors of policymakers and experts in the field. Both Central and state governments must uphold several specific fiscal-incentives and different stimulus economic packages to digitize schools nation-wide. The welfare schemes like distributing smart devices to school students must be underpinned in governments’ economic manifesto. Besides, the state also has to ensure a home-based congenial learning environment for students from economically weaker sections of society.
As the long-lasting lockdown impairs children’s learning, educational institutions must have to play a pivotal role in connecting with students to help cope with uncertainty and study-related difficulty amidst this crisis. Attempts must be taken to facilitate an institution-based live chat 24×7 to make learning effective. With the slower learners in mind, there should be a well-structured plan for interactive sessions, and in some cases repetition of some of the lessons as well. Also, educational institutions must plan for remedial teaching especially for those who have home-deficit supportive systems.
Further, as the students’ mental health is at risk due to the work-load and long-time screening, institutions must hear parents’ concerns and provide the necessary support and counseling. The institutions must push parents to encourage children to talk about their problems and share feelings. At home, parents have to maintain learning-engaged healthy practices for children such as creative writing, drawing, story-telling, and theme-based open-discussions. Also, they should navigate and choose the ‘age-appropriate educational programs on the television or through the radio’ that can be useful for children as recommended by UNICEF(39).
Future prospects of e-learning
The shifting from the physical classroom to online learning is a mammoth task. Also, it is not something that is going to replace the mainstream classroom model. It is a temporal alternative necessary in times of pandemic. However, the initiatives and endeavors taken by both Central and state governments to push educational institutions could lead the whole system into a new era of education. “The integration of information technology in education will be further accelerated and that online education will eventually become an integral component of school education” says Wang Tao, Vice Presidents of Tencent Cloud and the Vice Presidents of Tencent Education(40). The virtual classrooms and the use of various digital tools may become the new normal in the post-COVID-19 crisis. The use of smart devices, digital textbooks, and other e-learning materials will play a greater role in learning. The roles and obligations of governments, teachers, parents, and communities will also become more crucial. However, in such a case, home does not need to replicate schools, it needs to give children some control over study-related activities as suggested by Cora McCauley, a mother of four who has been home-schooling her children for the past six years(41).
Further, there will be a big-demand for digitally competent teachers in employment opportunities beyond the COVID-19 pandemic. The availability of ICT-enabling infrastructure in schools will be one of the underscored hard-core yardsticks for determining the quality of education in the coming future. As the demand soars for e-learning, there will be vibrant opportunities for private entrepreneurs to invest in the education sector in terms of both creating greater outreach and inclusive virtual learning platforms for learners as well as furnishing educational institutions with digital infrastructure.
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About the Author
Nawaz Sarif is a Ph.D. scholar at the School of Education, North-Eastern Hill University (NEHU), Shillong, India. He has completed his master’s degree at Banaras Hindu University (BHU), Varanasi, India. Presently, he works on ‘the development of psychological capital in the young population’. Along with the research, he writes short articles on contemporary issues.