With uncertainty looming large over the future of the global economy in the aftermath of the Coronavirus pandemic, there is widespread speculation in India too on its possible impact on various sectors with far-reaching implications on GDP, unemployment and inflation.
Economists are expecting the maximum impact on sectors such as oil and gas, automobiles, MSMEs, aviation, agriculture, retail as also travel and hospitality.
While there would hardly be a sector that would remain unaffected by the crisis, there is a perception that some evergreen sectors catering to the fundamental requirements of the people such as pharma, FMCG and education would not be impacted as much.
There cannot be a more faulty understanding of the situation than this. The shortfall in liquidity and purchasing power coupled with inflation and layoffs would certainly influence the education sector too no less.
To begin with, all major entrance examinations for engineering, medical, law, agriculture, fashion and design courses have been postponed leading to anxiety among parents and students who are now adopting a wait and watch approach. This, in turn, has already started ringing the alarm bells, particularly in private sector universities. Many universities have already gone in for salary cuts of faculty and employees and even contemplating retrenchments in anticipation of the recession while the better ones have put on hold bonuses and increments.
Another major concern is whether governments, both state and Central, will succumb to populist demand for a fee waiver which in turn would severely impact the paying capacity of many players in the private sector, which is today catering to a sizeable section of the students in the country.
The lockdown has not only led to uncertainty over the exam cycle, the universities are already feeling the impact in terms of the slowdown in student internships and placements as also lower fee collection, which in turn is creating hurdles in managing the working capital.
With events aimed at attracting prospective students and student counselling operations coming to a grinding halt, the educational institutions are also apprehending higher attrition levels and lower conversion rates among the applications received so far.
The diversification and expansion plans of several institutions too have suffered a major setback with construction activities coming to a standstill and en masse labour migration. Many have frozen their faculty hiring plans for existing vacancies thereby affecting quality and excellence for which students pay a higher fee.
The silver lining among the dark clouds predicting a recession bigger than the one seen in the aftermath of the Second World War is that telecom is among the handful of sectors expected to do well with increased data consumption and concepts like study from home and work from home likely to become the new norm in the Post Corona era with lockdowns in many countries expected to be lifted only in a phased manner.
Edutech or education technology is another sector that is looking forward to a brighter future with universities and educational institutions expected to jump on to the bandwagon in a big way for online platforms to ensure learning never stops.
How are the Indian universities coping up with the new situation? A recent report quoting Sharad Mehra, Chief Executive Officer, Global University Systems (GUS) – Asia Pacific said education of around 300 million students have been disrupted globally owing to the closure of educational institutions.
“Adoption of tech-led holistic solutions can help tide over the challenge and keep the classes going without a halt”, he says adding “what could have taken five years may now probably happen in 30 days”.
If education on the go is a new reality, the moot question is whether Indian educational institutions and above all Indian teachers, who have been following the traditional classroom method and using smart classrooms more as a fad, are willing to take that big leap? If so, the biggest and foremost challenge is the Training of Trainers (ToT). Many universities such as Pearl Academy and the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies have taken the lead in conducting training programmes for their faculty through Zoom technology.
The efforts have started paying dividends with Pearl Academy reporting 1300 classes online involving over 300 faculty members and engaging over 3300 students while UPES taught 10,000 students online with the support of over 450 faculty members in the last couple of weeks alone.
Some of the emerging technologies in the education sector include Flipped Classrooms, Active Learning Classrooms, MOOCs, Collaborative Distance Learning Environments, Online Assessment and Grading, Collaborative Forums, Wikis, Blogs, Gamification, Learning Management Systems and EBooks.
Some of the leading universities such as UPES have already implemented for the millennial students Hybrid, Blended and Online Learning (HBO) education through technologies such as Blackboard – Learning management system, the technology that is used worldwide; Blackboard Collaborate: Web conferencing/webinar platform designed for use in online teaching; Kaltura: Education platform integrated with Blackboard for Video education and Impartus: Lecture recording studio, where faculty can create lectures in campus.
The highly qualified faculty in such institutions are also creating engaging content through softwares such as Camtasia, Raptivity, Articulate Storyline and Captivate.
Government institutions such as Consortium of Educational Communication, National Institute of Open School and distance learning universities such as IGNOU are also promoting online learning including MOOCS and Swayam digital and audio-visual platforms.
Virtual Reality is another technology that can make learning much more immersive and take students to far away and inaccessible locations while Augmented Reality can help in contextual learning. Artificial Intelligence too can help in making learning more adaptive and personalized.
Teachers are finding AI driven Chatbots very useful at different stages to enhance the student experience. Social media platforms such as Instagram and WhatsApp, are also being put into use extensively for more informal and interactive learning. Many students are also increasingly using podcasts and Youtube for learning.
Technology can play a critical role in not only the creation and dissemination of educational content but also in the assessment of students. Then there are Enterprise systems to manage admissions and academic administrations through ERP, SAP, CRMs etc.
Farsighted universities with visionary leadership are going for online learning and operational efficiency to tide over the current crisis. Nevertheless, internet penetration, affordability and quality of connectivity remains a major challenge.
As for internship of the outgoing batches, some corporates are offering online opportunities as also projects in problem-solving involving secondary research but placements in an expected downturn will prove to be a major challenge.
It is imperative therefore that steps are taken to ensure that entrance examinations such as JEE and NEET go online. The Human Resources Development Ministry, institutional regulators such as UGC, AICTE and Telecom operators should work in close coordination with state, Central and private universities to ensure that students don’t lose out in the long run for at stake is the very future of India itself.
(K G Suresh is Founder Dean, School of Modern Media, UPES and former Director General, Indian Institute of Mass Communication. He is also a member of Academic Council, Jawaharlal Nehru University; Research Council, ICSSR. He has earlier served as Senior Consulting Editor with Doordarshan News and Chief Political Correspondent with PTI)