August 4, 2021
More than a year since the pandemic struck us, online education has remained our only lifeline. The transition was as sudden as the on slot of the pandemic and has put higher education in the doldrums. The teachers and students were instructed to move to online classes with the hope that with a bridge course we could prepare the students to take up the conventional evaluation and declare the results. The concentration was on teaching and the UGC proposed the “blended mode” – the 60% - 40% formula of offline and on line methods respectively. The objective was on enhanced self-learning that was used in the distance education mode. However, the ground reality was not on teaching as was apparent but on evaluation and declaration of results which was the underlying reason.
When things started falling in place and when we thought that the “new normal” will bring things back on our feet, the second wave brought the higher education system on its knees. There was a struggle to bring about access to online classes. The emphasis was again on the teaching process. The only difference was the shift from classroom teaching and learning to online teaching and learning mode. Though the goal post was shifted the goal remained the same it was evaluated with the purpose of declaration of results. Higher education therefore came under the grip of the classification of students through the declaration of results.
Though one year and more have passed after the first lockdown, no attempt was made for an alternative approach. The policy makers need to understand that pushing the buck down the line to the frontline workers does not change the situation. At the grass root level they – the teachers fight the war – the battle has to be won by the Generals giving directions to the overall scenario. The ground reality is that the online classes to an extent bridges the gap for theory classes but for practical field work and laboratory based learning, the online mode was a perfect disaster. The compelling reality is that we thought that the online mode is a perfect solution to the crisis. Further, given the excess of internet and digital education is asymmetrical in our society. It has created another divide of accessibility. We have not considered that more than 60% of our Institutes of Higher learning is located in rural areas and about 78% of these institutes are managed by private entities, coupled with this scenario is that education in India is teacher centric and hence the students will look up to them for a quick fix solution. But does the system empower them to take up the challenge? It is therefore becoming clear that we cannot continue the old system of teaching-evaluation in the changed pandemic situation.
Has Blended learning really worked?
As blended learning has been the backbone of the teaching system in Institutes of higher learning, we need to ask whether it has succeeded in bridging the gap in the teaching learning process. Policy makers need to understand the situation from the grass root imperatives. Online learning has shifted the role of a teacher from a knowledge provider to a catalyst in the learning process. They need to have a great influence on the students' learning. This is where the difference arises from teacher-directed top down effort to the student centric down-top approach. The teaching method has to be customised to cater to the students who come from different places, different approaches and different mindsets which needs to be effectively addressed. There has to be imaginative thinking on the part of the teacher who now needs to explore and visualise his words in different geographical areas and different learning strengths. It is therefore imperative for Higher Educational Institutions (HEIs) to embrace a pragmatic approach by engaging the teachers, students and other stakeholders and then working out the blended learning approach that is tailor made to suit its students and teachers rather than having a one approach that fits all. All students entering higher education do not have similar learning styles, digital literacy and ability to make a quick switch from offline to online mode. Learning has therefore become highly stressful which may result in exclusion of a large number of students who lack the resources or the ability to cope with the present reality.
The online experiment has resulted in online class between teacher and his or her students, the uploading of scanned lecture notes and powerpoint presentation that does not serve any meaningful learning purpose. Evaluation and understanding is obviously omitted from the online mode. Another reality in the Indian context is that education including higher education is by and large teacher driven. Expecting an enabled learning will not only be a disaster but will also result in stress for the student. The cardinal principle of equity and quality is largely forgotten and making the wheels of the system which was jolted to sudden stop is put on tract and somehow starts moving.
Where does the evaluation figure?
For the student community and the society at large, a proper and just evaluation system is the basis. A proper evaluation system gives empowerment to the students and provides the society with certified acknowledgment on the ability of the recipient of the Degree / Diploma. To a large extent our examination system evaluated the students and got acceptance from society though it judged only the intellectual development based on rote memory. Therefore it is imperative that a justifiable evaluation system is the need of the hour.
Though we have somehow developed an alternative method of teaching no thought was given for a credible alternative method of evaluation. The alternative system of examination designed based on prior performance did not meet the requirements of judicial scrutiny. The Supreme Court ruled that in higher education, students cannot be promoted without a terminal semester examination. The UGC has also ruled that a degree cannot be granted without examination.
The pandemic has brought on the forefront the limitations of our evaluation system. The rote learning that pervades our examination system is not an all weather system and needs to be changed in the present condition. The scenario now is just about the right time to overall the examination system to evaluate and assess besides the rote learning the analytical and skill applications. It could probably evaluate the students based on quality, competence, skill and application. In an evaluation system what needs to be ensured is the credibility of the system coupled with the needs and aspirations of the stakeholders’ especially the student community and their employers.
The system must sensitise students to real learning application of knowledge and analytic skills rather than have a ‘gradist’ mind set on securing higher grades in examinations. It is therefore clear that the evaluation criteria must test the knowledge skills gained as that is the core of any education system. It is the foremost responsibility of policy makers and teachers to take up the challenge posed by the pandemic and bring about a structural change in the system that will not only be useful but will have an inbuilt credibility.
To follow: Part – II Building an empowering Evaluation System in Higher Education