COVID19 : This Crisis must Transform India’s Education and Skilling

    27-May-2020
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The Centre and State governments should constitute a task force comprising all stakeholders to assess, review and recommend changes in policies, procedures that can help transform India’s education and skills scenario post-COVID19.
- Raj Nehru 

Education and Skills Post 
 
Introduction
 
It is an unprecedented situation, which the world of education has not witnessed before. The schools, colleges, universities and other professional institutions all are closed sine die. Millions of students are interned into their homes. The examinations were either partly held or have been called off. The admissions for the next academic session, which used to be a humongous exercise in the country is clearly in jeopardy. Similar uncertainty prevails with the competitive examinations – engineering, medical, CAT, MAT, ICAI, UPSC and state service commissions where millions of candidates used to appear for admissions in professional courses and prestigious jobs. Never before in the annals of human history such a disruption has been wrecked on the education system by a single threat.
 
The education regulators, administrators, CBSE and state education boards are trying to grapple with the situation. The students’ population in India is very large and the education system is so diverse that the problem cannot be addressed by one remedy. With no end of the pandemic in sight, the days of classroom and face-to-face learning are supposedly over. Digital learning, learns’ facilitation and assessments are emerging as the new norms in the field of education.
 
Skill education and training has been particularly affected. New trainees and the apprentices who ‘learn by doing’ under the supervision of a trainer or mentor in the laboratory or shop floor are particularly hamstrung. Various skilling programmes across the country involving thousands of training providers and millions of trainees have been stopped abruptly.
 
Education and skill development are the pillars of an economy. This impasse cannot go on forever. Educationists, administrators and technical experts should find some via media to resume the teaching/ learning process.
 
Emerging Challenges
 
There is an old saying that, “Never let a good crisis go waste”. First and foremost, the challenge before the education system is to connect with the students and resume teaching and training activity. Given the scenario of lockdown and social distancing, it can be best achieved by adapting to the digital means of training delivery. Wherever, the assessments/ results have been stalled, we need to devise means to carry out the process digitally and declare the results. Digital education has the ability to fill in the gap, provided the IT infrastructure with the students, broadband connectivity and digital teaching platforms are available.
 
Loss of jobs across the employment spectrum has taken place; affecting certain sectors adversely. If the lockdown is extended and the uncertainty regarding the easing of pandemic prevails more jobs will be lost. In coming months, the prospects of campus placements appear to be dim. The professional courses, aligned to those sectors, where the jobs have been cut will lose appeal amongst the students. Project-based and GIG economy jobs will gain ground as the employers will shun long-term commitment with the employees.
 
While there is a pall of gloom hanging over the traditional jobs, the employment prospects in the high-end sectors such as virology, pharma, healthcare, data analytics, IOT, AI, machine learning, AR/VR/MR technologies, simulation, gaming, robotics, drone technology & application, GIS, 3D printing, etc. are likely brighten up. The COVID will will make millions of overseas education enthusiasts reluctant to go abroad for higher studies in wake of the devastation that has been witnessed in major developed countries. This will result in a huge demand for good quality of education and skills within India.
 
Emerging Paradigms
 
The COVID 19 outbreak has impacted not only the jobs but the education and skill development sector as well. The entire tertiary education system has come to a grinding halt. Feb-May is considered to be the examination season in India. Due to the lockdowns classes have been halted, examinations cancelled and the entire system from primary to university level continues to oscillate between hope and despair. Situation is grim and impregnated with long-term consequences for the education ecosystem. Lakhs of students have been displaced and their return is uncertain. The closure of campuses, laboratories and workshops and restricted movements have severely impacted research, associated field work and external research collaborations.
 
Indian education system is culturally aligned to kinaesthetic learning and teaching; with the physical classroom as an inseparable part. The parents drew immense satisfaction and pride by sending their children to schools and colleges. The pandemic has changed the perspective of education by disrupting the stereotype and introducing virtual education as an alternative.
 
The quality of infrastructure in our education system in terms of digitisation and broadband support is still very basic. Some of the city-based schools, colleges and universities were quick to shift on to digital teaching platforms with A/V options. Students from lower classes are also being introduced to digital learning platforms to attend classes from the confines of their homes. For the students and parents, it is a new learning experience. The experiment, albeit on a limited scale, holds promise as an alternate strategy for education. However, poor infrastructure continues to play truant.
 
In the coming days, given the pandemic’s virulence, the parents may prefer home-based education for their wards until the risk subsides. Digitally delivered tuitions are expected to see an increased demand. Even when the schools and colleges reopen, the fear of COVID and social distancing requirements will impact the attendance of the students. Distance education and open schooling, if aligned to the new realities, may find many students opting for it. The syllabuses might shrink to pave way for micro-learning as the students would prefer short skill oriented learning modules.
 
The pandemic has made a damaging impact on many developed countries including USA, UK, Germany, Japan and Australia, which used to attract the Indian students for higher learning. The students may not prefer to go to these countries at least in the near future. This will again result in a huge surge in demand for quality education and capacity expansion in the country.
 
The emerging paradigm poses more questions than it answers. India has a large number of teachers, who are at present sitting at home. How can they resume teaching? Their ability to work through the digital platforms for training delivery needs to be developed through skills gap analysis and quick skilling. Our teaching methods, pedagogy, contents, learning and assessments are yet to align with digital processes. The demand for the subject matter experts who can teach via digital platforms; write digitally aligned teaching content; prepare digital platforms and applications and facilitate the learning process in any other manner will surge. Perhaps these will be a prerequisite for the success of any alternate training strategy.
 
The Way Forward: Ensure Business Continuity
 
Role of the Regulators
 
The Coronavirus due to its high infection rate and consequent mortality shall continue to haunt mankind. Unless and until a vaccine for COVID 19 is found, normal functioning of educational institutions shall remain a distant dream. A successful education and skilling strategy shall span over all the phases of the pandemic – lockdown; eased restriction and post-COVID.
 
Business continuity is an immediate challenge. The education regulators must evaluate the impact of the pandemic and take a pragmatic view to ensure resumption of teaching activities. As it is going to be a long drawn affair, there is a need to act in short-term but also plan for the long-term. We may have to break the old paradigms and take some disruptive decisions. As digital learning will gain prominence, a proper guideline can be issued for a structured digital learning process for mentoring of the students for the projects, thesis, dissertations besides specific coaching sessions for laboratories and workshops related requirements.
 
For the immediate and short-term (Academic Year 2020-21) the examination ordinances may require some changes, wherein institutions can opt for either online or offline examinations or a blend of both. Reduction of duration of examination can be achieved by introducing an open book system and project-based assessments. This change will augment the need for innovative and effective methods for assessments. The examination and assessment of students can be further technologically enabled while keeping both the channels (offline and online) in mind. Specialists in this field will have a big demand to work with content specialists and SMEs to develop customised assessments, simulations, games that can enhance learning by taking and testing knowledge to application. Shifting to digital platforms would require institutions to assess data security when uploading data or educational resources to web spaces, as well as when sharing them with other organizations or individuals. Ensure that the use of applications and platforms does not violate students’ data privacy, secrecy and sanctity of any examination or learning process.
 
University Grants Commission Regulation of Minimum Standards 2003 guidelines must be reviewed and compulsion of 180 days for class/ laboratory training should be relaxed so that online activities can be increased by the institutions. A committee of experts must be constituted to make a Digital Learning Policy. The virtual laboratories, simulations, contact classes, group learnings, project-based activities must be incorporated in the new policy. The regulators should consider making digital learning flexible and not restrict it to 20 percent.
The future will see more impetus on digital, distance and open schooling and hence regulators must make disruptive or innovative changes in the entire education policy. The government needs to formulate a plan for all schools, small or big, private or government to have a “Fusion Model of Learning” where regular, open and distance models see convergence and integration. Open Schooling and Distance Learning can become an integrated part of future alternate learning without any stigma attached to it. The new partnership of academia and industry needs to be forged and a renewed focus on building start-up and entrepreneurial mindset needs to be ignited through education and skill development.
 
A clear cut policy accepting the new norms regarding a structured digital learning/ teaching/ assessment process through digital mode and related changes in the pedagogy, syllabus, contents and assessment tools would be required from the regulators to ensure uniformity of methods and application.
 
The government must also explore how Doordarshan can become an mode of school, higher education and skill based learning in the current situation, to address the challenges of connectivity and those people who are unable to access internet.
 
Institutions’ Role
 
Every university or institution must call their Board of Studies, Academic Councils/ Skill Councils to review the curriculum for all the programmes and map the digital and virtual content where possible to make the overall course structure more blended in nature.
 
At the school levels, while introducing and shifting to new technological platforms, it is important to mobilize available tools to connect schools, parents, teachers and students with each other. Create communities to ensure regular human interactions, enable social caring measures, and address possible psychosocial challenges that students may face when they are isolated. Organize brief training or orientation sessions for teachers and parents as well, if monitoring and facilitation are needed.
 
As and when the institutions reopen, social distancing will be the norm. It will reduce the number of students in each class by half. So, the requirement of classrooms will double, affecting the overall cost of education, to be borne by the parents. The classes can be planned in two shifts. Institutes should also think about some alternate model of revenue generation, for example, multi-purpose use of existing infrastructure and resources.
The educational institutions may face a fiscal challenge as their revenue collections dip. Resource crunch and reduced enrolments would further aggravate their financial stability. We may see many institutions going out of business. A large number of teaching professionals may also lose their jobs. It will impact the overall educational infrastructure of the country.
 
The institutions should also assess the loss of teaching hours and plan to make it up through organising special classes on weekends, vacations and holidays. Digital classes can be organised on flexible timings keeping in mind the availability of the students. Institutional collaborations to leverage higher and better returns on technological investments and interventions will help institutions to keep the costs at minimum while maximizing value for the learners.
 
Role of the Stakeholders
 
Education ecosystem has many stakeholders – students, teachers, assessors, parents, government, subject matter experts, etc. Initially, changed paradigm and methods may not convince everyone. Teachers, assessors and subject matter experts must be convinced about the efficacy of digital methods of teaching. The parents, who are so used to the previous ‘chalk and talk’ model will need counselling and convincing about the new system. The parents must be taken on board, because they are an important stakeholder.
 
Due to the prevailing upheaval, the students are an anxious lot. Their every query needs to be heard and answered patiently. Through repeated counselling and hand-holding we can introduce the students to the new model. The students may need infrastructural support in terms of broadband connectivity, availability of android phones, tablets, laptop computers to be able to participate in the new learning process. The anxiety levels of the students need to be handled by trained counsellors. The institutions must create a pool of skilled counsellors who can address the concerns amongst the youths and inculcate positivity.
 
Resumption of Skill Education and Training
 
The exodus of inter-state migrant workers back to their homes has led to a dual challenge for the governments. The workers back in their villages will be out of the job. The industries and other work areas will face an acute shortage of workers. Skilling, reskilling of migrant workers in the villages to enhance their livelihood options and new workers to fill the void in the industrial areas will emerge as priority as the industries resume operations.
The National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC), Sector Skill Councils (SSC), State Skill Missions and Skill institutions will be required to devise a new strategy with an aim to ‘Reprioritize Skills’ to align to the new demand and supply requirements. A quick skill demand mapping shall be required to identify emerging job-roles, post pandemic. The existing skill training partner model would need to be reviewed to include digital methodologies on priority. The training partners – old or new, who possess such subject matter expertise would be preferred for empanelment.
 
The existing skilling regulations and norms set by the government and the training infrastructure requirement would need tweaking to accommodate new realities. As skill-based programmes largely draw students from rural belts, the challenge of trainees’ mobilization and attendance will have to be dealt with. Shifting of skill training to digital platforms will face the dual challenge of availability of digital devices and internet connectivity. The success of the model would largely depend upon skill upgradation and orientation of trainers, students and assessors to use the digital platforms effectively.
 
The regulators need to make relevant changes in the Apprenticeship Act to accommodate online/ blended/ virtual learning. A committee of experts from all stakeholders must examine the pros and cons and formulate a policy on introducing virtual or blended learning as a qualifier for apprenticeship. The new rules may allocate more responsibilities for the industries and on-site supervisors to ensure deployment of apprentices on the shop floor through digital mode. The apprentice who is trained through this new scheme will receive virtual certification and allowed to work without supervision.
 
Focus on Job Creation
 
The Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship (MSDE) and NSDC need to bring a special and differentiated focus on the start-up and entrepreneurship training that promotes livelihood at sub-district levels. As the jobs in future may shrink, focussing on agro-based jobs and skilling can address post-COVID livelihood challenges. Farmer Producer Company model (FPC) is the need of the hour. Access to small credit and unhindered market connect can rejuvenate the local agro-based livelihood opportunities. A Cooperative Corporate model that encompasses various interwoven opportunities to create an attractive and satisfying rural living assumes importance in engaging rural youth meaningfully. A rural leadership programme must be started by the MSDE for all the youngsters in rural belts incorporating traditional Bhartiya practices with value- based leadership and digital and financial modelling that helps to develop home based enterprises. Cooperative Corporates must encompass all aspects of rural livelihood and integrate it with urban economic structures.
 
The government and organisations need to explore ways to help the emerging GIG workers by introducing suitable policies and schemes. The companies may relook at the terms of employment wherein regular, part time, flexible jobs are integrated with GIG jobs. The compensation can be planned accordingly. The GIG workforce must be included in the social security and healthcare schemes of the government. The existing schemes of the Government of India (Start-up, Jan Dhan, Micro Financing etc.) must be reviewed to incorporate informal workers. With many industries and organizations planning to pull out of China, India may get favourable attention. Therefore it is important to predict which new skills will emerge out of global front that will require us to plan in advance and train our resources for new emerging technologies and job roles.
 
Public private partnership in the areas of developing applications, digital platforms, learning resources and contents for training delivery, monitoring, assessment and post-training tracking should be explored nationally and internationally.
 
Preparing for the New Normal
 
While the knowledge component can be delivered easily to the trainees using digital platforms, the challenge is to ensure that it is translated into application by teachers and trainers using innovative pedagogy blended with experiential learning. This would require reorienting teachers and trainers to the distance and digital learning models from traditional teaching methods. For skilling of learners, in vocational and skill development two main training methods - “Off-the-Job Training” and “On-the-Job Training” play an important role. The success of skill education in future would depend on how effectively a trainer is able to blend these two.
Training of teachers on various technologies and tools will be an important driver to make this shift successful. The teachers need to be oriented on the fundamentals and principles of Work From Home (WFH). The WFH requires an even more regulated regime and certain Do’s and Don’ts have to be followed. Improving the technical threshold of teachers with reference to various tools, features and applications of digital platforms would be required to make learning effective.
 
The traditional teaching and skilling practices will seldom align to the new norms of virtual learning. Keeping the students engaged and motivated for learning would be a challenge. This requires teachers to be upskilled for planning their classes remotely besides learning how to engage students in groups, leverage video-based teaching, and carry out online live assessments. The options of recorded sessions to be sent to students can help those who might have missed the session for various reasons.
 
In order to make digital transition successful, the teachers and trainers need to be trained on new and advanced features of digital technologies that helps them in customising their learning resources for digital platforms, for example, how to develop caselets, role plays, project-based assignments, group learnings, shared learnings, community-based learnings, collaborative learnings and cross cultural connects, that can be effectively administered digitally besides the usage of features e.g Using digital discussion or breakaway rooms, digital polls, chat boards. The teachers need to be trained to reimage the learning needs in the changed environment and be able to deliver that
 
The students would also need orientation towards digital learning. Their gainful engagement and participation will reflect on their attendance in the class. Institutions, and faculties must from time to time orient and reorient students besides seeking feedback to make digital learning a two-way channel. Like the WFH for teachers, every institution must prepare and share guidelines for Study from Home for the students.
 
The institutions, universities and NSDC through their Board of Studies need to review the Qualification Packs (QPs) and curriculums for the various programmes for their suitability for delivery - online, virtual or blended learning methods.
 
Infrastructural Improvement
 
The government will have to play a big role in making sure the internet speed and connectivity issues are addressed. Government’s policy on the internet and broad band to provide free access to the students and teaching communities to 4G network would be a great enabler.
 
A special scheme can be introduced for the students pursuing skill education and training courses, to provide them with android phones, tablets, laptop computers free of cost or on easy instalments, which can be recovered from them once their job or livelihood starts.
 
Skill Ecosystem
 
In this hour of pandemic where the active classroom for training and skilling are shifting to virtual mode, the Ministry of Skill Development should change the current training norms and introduce a new norm where dual mode of Industry integrated skilling is incentivised. The new norms should allow any industry to partner with local Missions and enrol its new joining workmen into a specific skill development program through a virtual skilling model as per defined hours. The new norms may grant credits to the work as well as provide teaching through a virtual mode on weekend and self pace mode. For all the certified candidates, the industry shall be reimbursed a portion out of the common norms cost. This will become a Win Win for all the stakeholders.
 
NSDC, SSCs and skill institutions need to rope in digital content developers and technologists to create experiential learning content for every job role. The SSCs should also explore available digital contents with various countries and make it available in local Indian languages. This should be integrated with virtual laboratory solutions, and other means of pedagogical interventions that facilitate knowledge to application concept.
 
The MSDE, NSDC and SSCs need to adopt new learning cycles, pedagogies, content changes, that will incorporate virtual and blended learning and therefore a review of the Common Norms would be highly desirable. The cost norms, the infrastructure norms, payment norms, certification process for both teacher and student need to be revised keeping the innovation and disruption costs. The new norms for assessments need to be introduced incorporating the digital and virtual options.
 
Conclusion
 
We are unsure how the post-COVID scenario would unfold; but it is very unlikely that things will ever return to pre-COVID days. Our workplaces, social interactions, business interactions, personal and public life are likely to see a drastic change. Emotional intelligence will be an important skill set for the future. The art of staying calm in all circumstances will be the key for survival in an unpredictable and surprising environment. All learners need to be skilled now for a lifelong learning process. The curriculum at all levels must include adaptability, embracing challenge, collaborative thinking, cross cultural learning, creativity and critical thinking skills besides digital skills.
The convergence of syllabus, resources, digital platforms, and credit sharing can be seen as a transformative method of blended options of learning at all levels. The future will see melting of physical boundaries of educational institutions and a more collaborative and a disruptive autonomy amongst higher educational institutions. This will pave the way for a new concept of ‘anywhere, anytime and from anyone’ learning. A policy to let institutions collaborate with each other, use each other’s resources, infrastructure, strengths and a freedom and flexibility to students can prove to be a transformation. In the short term even the quarantine period of migratory labourers and interested people can be used for digital upskilling. The schools and colleges converted to quarantine centres can be also used for skilling and training.
 
The Centre and State governments should constitute a task force comprising all stakeholders to assess, review and recommend changes in policies, procedures that can help nation to handle the post-COVID scenario, that promotes appreciation for an interconnected world where we see everyone as a part of one common human family and work for the betterment of mankind in the spirit of “Sarve Bhavantu Sukhina”. In order to decide what kind of education we need post COVID 19, Bharat has to decide what kind of India we want.
 
(Author is Vice Chancellor, Shri Vishwakarma Skill University and Managing Director, Haryana Skill Development Mission)