Preparedness Of Higher Educational Institutions To Reopen In Near Future

Before we dive deeper into analyzing the impact of this pandemic on higher education in the Indian subcontinent, let’s try to understand the magnitude of this crisis.

Crumbling societal organizations, millions dead or dying, overflowing hospitals, empty streets and humanity huddled indoors with fear. This dystopian picture is not an excerpt from a movie but a description of reality, today. The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in December 2019 in China and further spreading to Europe, the US, India and other parts of the world, has completely thrown the world into disarray. The outbreak led governments to impose lockdowns and staying at home became the new ‘normal.’ 

Before we dive deeper into analyzing the impact of this pandemic on higher education in the Indian subcontinent, let’s try to understand the magnitude of this crisis. 

As on 7th July 2020, the total number of cases in India is 722,007 (ref. The number of deceased stands at 20,185. The pandemic has severely impacted the economy and the functioning of all educational institutions in India. Schools, colleges and university campuses have been closed due to the nationwide lockdown. Although the government and higher educational institutions have announced that online classes shall be conducted, the problems of implementing this planning seem to have run aground by several practical problems. Teachers and students are facing severe problems due to many factors like lack of good connectivity, limited knowledge of online platforms and lack of content compatible with virtual learning environments. 

Over a period of time, many institutions are slowly overcoming these challenges. However, there is a larger challenge looming ahead. And no one has any clear answers. As the lockdown is lifted in stages and life moves back to its old pace, there’s growing concern about the rapidly increasing number of cases. This raises a serious question, “are we prepared to reopen once the lockdown is removed?” 

Recently, we conducted online town halls with our undergraduate students at JKLU and their parents, where several hundred parents were a part of the discussion. We wanted to gather a collective response of parents regarding the reopening of the university, post lockdown. 

Parents and students displayed a lot of concern about safety issues due to COVID-19. Many parents were eager to see their wards return to studying ‘normally’ on campus, with the mindset that it would provide a better education. However, parents of students pursuing professional programmes are deeply conflicted between keeping students on-track for careers and employment, and the contrasting desire to keep them safe at home. For middle-class families, the former is a big focus. In contrast, students of our international programmes, who were to go to Amherst US for their second year, are more likely to consider deferrals. 

The Hybrid Model - Future of Education 

When we talk about the future of higher education, we must consider a hybrid model. To ensure minimum risk, theory classes can continue online with well-prepared teaching methods while practical classes can be conducted when it is absolutely necessary. Until the pandemic is over, or a cure is found, our approach will be to limit physical interaction and gatherings at the university campus. Practical classes are necessary for a few disciplines and in their absence, the conduct of online education would fall flat. 

It is imperative to prepare and look for myriad ways to conduct online classes, creating pre-recorded lecture videos and query resolution sessions. Low levels of preparedness and a high dependence on traditional classroom teaching have hampered the creation of high-quality online classes. Another urgent necessity is to come up with online assessment modules because examinations cannot be waived off or ignored forever. We need to come up with online examination modules as extending the semester or simply waiving off examinations and automatically upgrading students is not a permanent solution. 

Strict adherence to social distancing, personal hygiene and the government issued guidelines can help ensure safe conduct of practical classes. The key lies in detailed planning and error-free implementation. Leading pharmaceutical companies are already racing to develop a vaccine. Once the research and trials are completed, the world will start moving towards a lasting solution. However, till the danger abates, educational institutions must have a hybrid model in place to ensure that the education sector recovers and keeps playing its important role going forward. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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