Teaching-learning Pattern Has Been Undergoing Tectonic Shift In Light Of COVID-19 Crisis: Prof Sarit Kumar Das, IIT Ropar

In an exclusive discussion with BW Education, Prof Sarit Kumar Das, Director and Professor, Indian Institute of Technology Ropar, Punjab, talks about the ways in which the institution is tackling the present situation of Coronavirus pandemic.

What are your strategies to cope with the impact of COVID-19 on the teaching-learning process?

The outbreak of COVID-19 pandemic has led to unfathomable and far-reaching economic and societal consequences. Needless to say, the pandemic has significantly impacted the education sector as well.  According to the UNESCO report, the closure of schools, colleges and universities around the world has affected over 87% of all the world’s students. Pandemic has compelled educational institutions in India also to suspend their operations from March 2020 and prolonged lockdown thereafter has created panic amongst the educational institutions about the way forward.

To ensure continuity of learning, we at IIT Ropar have responded appropriately to this crisis to minimise academic loss to the students. All our faculty members have come forward in this endeavour to support the institution in all possible ways. In an attempt to continue learning, IIT Ropar has taken all the measures to put the relevant infrastructure in place to offer online classes through D2D mode. Faculty also quickly geared up to prepare digital content in various engaging formats. The study material was posted online and teaching sessions were recorded and made available online so that students from any corner of the country can access at their convenience. Though it appeared to be challenging to suddenly shift completely to the online mode of delivery, the commitment of IIT Ropar staff and management made digital transformation indeed a smooth journey. With our multi-pronged strategy to tackle the crisis, determination, and scientific outlook, we are confident that we will overcome this crisis effectively and emerge stronger than ever. 

What kind of changes were made at the policy level? 

There are a few changes that were made at the policy level. Foreseeing the imminent threat of fast-spreading COVID-19 pandemic, we have announced the extension of mid-semester holidays even before the nationwide lockdown was enforced. Only students who were from badly affected areas were being allowed to stay in the campus. Following the government’s directives, the only minimum staff was being deployed to offer medical services, maintenance, IT services etc. Other initiatives such as sanitising the campus, vehicles etc were also put in place.  

We have conducted nearly 3500 online lectures thereby covering around 8 weeks of teaching for all courses. Unlike some other institutes/universities where mid-term performances were translated into final grades, IIT Ropar toiled hard to maintain the highest academic rigour even in these testing times. IIT Ropar has decided to conduct online exams for all students including undergraduate and postgraduate so that they don’t suffer an academic loss. The institute is also looking at various options, including the ‘take-home exams’ option, design questions, online quizzes, viva-voce. Design problems could be typically solved only by the student without taking any help. Similarly, various other measures would be taken by the institute as the situation calls for.  

Do you find the institution prepared to fight with such a situation in the future and ensure continued learning?

IIT Ropar is chalking out a host of innovative ways for students to maintain social distancing norms right from classrooms to cafeteria and laundry areas to the canteen to be implemented soon after campuses will be reopened. We are geared up to strictly follow all the relevant government directives and WHO guidelines to ensure a safe and continued learning at the institute. IIT Ropar takes pride in its active contribution to address the issues related to COVID-19 crisis and offer solutions to combat the crisis. IIT Ropar’s consistent efforts to offer quality education has also reaped in desired results and it featured among top 50 Institutions in Times Higher Education Asian University rankings 2020.  

IIT Ropar has also prepared the ground for a smooth adoption of online education model. The institute has been actively collaborating with industry to offer programs in online modes of delivery. In its latest move, IIT Ropar has collaborated with TimesTSW to launch a 6-months online programme – Post Graduate Certificate Programme in Artificial Intelligence & Deep Learning (PGCPAIDL) – offering the exclusive benefit of Alumni status. The cutting-edge program will be coordinated under the aegis of the Indo-Taiwan Joint Research Centre on AI and ML at IIT Ropar. Through such mutually-invigorating collaborations, the institution is aiming to offer continued and effective learning under any given circumstances.   

What changes do you see coming into the learning pattern post-COVID-19? 

Digital transformation in the education sector has been on the anvil since long. Educators across the globe have been pondering on the need to rethink how future generations like Generations Z, Alpha and beyond need to be educated and empowered. I strongly believe this disruptive crisis might help to redefine the teaching and learning pattern suitable for future generations and rethink on new ways of communications beyond the conventional rigid structures.   

As per the hypothesis of well-known academician, Prof. Clayton Christensen, the 500-year old university model is up for a major overhaul. We see a new student-centric credit collection model, where students may opt for a couple of online courses from one institute and earn a certificate. They can move on to another institute for more courses or even a degree and finally perform hands-on training at another university. Students can earn an MD-PhD degree with institutes like PGIMER, Chandigarh and IIT Ropar or an MBA-Data Analytics degree with say IIM and IIT Ropar. This unique model is, in a way, facilitated due to the current Covid-19 crisis. 

The pattern of teaching-learning has been undergoing a tectonic shift in the light of Covid-19 crisis. Online learning became the default mode of education during the prolonged lockdown period imposed to contain the crisis. The agility of the institutions and government to quickly gear up to offer online modules is commendable. COVID-19 crisis might act as a catalyst for the change which has been long pending. It has reinforced the need to adopt innovative ways of getting education services accessible at all levels.  

Do you think online will be the default mode for education in India? Are we ready for this transformation?

In the post-COVID-19 era, online mode of education will surely gain more prominence vis-à-vis conventional education mode. Given the cost-effectiveness and flexibility in approach, institutions will be more willing to offer online programs wherever possible.  However, in the near future, as institutions are gradually progressing towards digital transformation, the new norm might be blended learning mode, a combination of classroom and online patterns.  

The blended approach to learning helps faculty in engaging with students with various types of content such as videos, audios, presentations, etc. Institutions and faculty will blend the two modes of teaching prudently for the effective delivery of the programs in terms of context and content. 

However, faculty should be trained adequately to be well-versed with the digital delivery mode. Institutions might need to collaborate with various digital experts to train their faculty, prepare digital content, and enable seamless delivery to offer students powerful learning experience. Institutions should essentially take innovative approaches to keep up crucial elements of physical learning mode such as a high degree of interactivity and collaboration, even in their online modules.  In a world where the information is just a click away, the role of the educator should gradually move from being a knowledge provider to being a facilitator.  

These measures would enable them to re-design higher education teaching-learning pattern in line with the evolving online education world. 

What is the role of AI Sector in boosting the education sector? How can AI enable Indian educators in fast-tracking digital transformation in the post-COVID era? 

Artificial intelligence (AI), with its digital and dynamic nature, has taken the world by a storm. It has been accelerating at a faster pace, leaving no industry untouched by its innovations, and education sector is no exception. In an attempt to revolutionise conventional education systems, educators across the globe are leveraging AI in learning, administration, assessments as well as grading. The need for a technologically developed education sector is all the more important for India given its large youth population. As statistics revealed that half of the Indian population is below 25 years, adoption of advanced digital technologies like AI plays a significant role in delivering improved education and teaching in India. COVID-19 crisis has aggravated the need to transform the traditional chalk-talk education pattern into a technology-driven one. 

We need to develop IT platforms that are Made in India and Made for India keeping in mind the requirements of the Indian audience. Let me give you an example: Last week we conducted an online Immunology conference at Ropar with nearly 23000 participants. It was quite difficult to have all of these participants on a single online platform. How can we solve this issue? I see that Indian IT companies can come forward to address such unique challenges. 

Needless to say, leveraging AI in the education sector offers immerse benefits even in the post-crisis era. There can be a shift in the learning pattern from the ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of conventional model to the ‘personalised and experiential learning’ approach suitable to the needs of the students. AI-powered machines can help in observing patterns of students’ performance which can help in course correction by focusing on their weak areas. Technology can also help in identifying gaps in the teaching techniques which can help educators in working on bridging the gaps. Besides, AI can automate mundane administrative tasks like paperwork, grading, assessing and others, which can result in faster completion of tedious tasks without subjecting to human errors. If AI is properly leveraged, the Indian education sector can achieve significant success in its digital transformation journey. Those who are aspiring to build a career in advanced technologies can join the PGCPAID offered by IIT Ropar and TimesTSW to make a head-start in the exciting and challenging AI field.   

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