Is Online Education Transitory?

Students are finally making their way back into colleges across the country. Omicron, and whatever variant follows next will make the road bumpy, and there remains a significant chance that there will be some U-turns along the way. But we’re finally limping back towards something approaching normalcy. Or so one hopes.

But the transition isn’t smooth, and cultural adjustments are going to be tricky. What sort of cultural adjustments? Here goes:

  • Lockdowns and restrictions have been in place long enough for a culture of online learning to have emerged. In the context of this blog post, I define the word culture to mean social behaviors and norms that have emerged among students during the past eighteen (or so) months. There is more to culture than that, I am well aware, but it is this specific aspect of the word that I am focusing on.
  • Students across India have gotten used to the following aspects of this culture:
    • Listening to a lecture that is being delivered need not be a community based event. You can listen to a lecture alone, anywhere, as opposed to along with your classmates in a classroom.
    • Listening to a lecture need not by a synchronous event. That is, you don’t need to listen when the professor is speaking. One can listen later, as per one’s own convenience.
    • Listening to a lecture need not be a 1x event. Amit Varma’s point about being able to listen to somebody else speaking at even 3x applies to lectures as much as it does to podcasts. Students who find a particular professor boring may even argue that the point applies with even greater force to lectures than it does to podcasts!
    • Students feel much more comfortable calling out online examinations for the farce that they are. And let me be clear about this: online examinations are a farce. If you are a part of any university’s administration in this country, I urge you to speak to students, their parents, and recruiters about this issue. I repeat, online examinations are a farce. This is important, and it needs to be called out. We’re very much in Emperor’s New Clothes territory in this regard, and that is where the cultural aspect comes in.
  • At the moment, most colleges (if not all) are not making classroom attendance mandatory, at least for the students. Students may be on campus, but not necessarily in the classroom. Most students I have spoken to (in a completely unscientific fashion, I should add, so this is strictly anecdotal) think this to be the best of all worlds. They are not at home, they are with friends, and they are not in a classroom. It doesn’t get better than this, as far as they are concerned.

So now, assuming you find yourself in even limited agreement with what I have written above, think about the scenario I am about to outline. Imagine that you are a university administrator with the power to mandate offline attendance in classrooms and offline examinations for your students. And at some date in the foreseeable future, you decree that this must happen.

And some students come along and ask an entirely reasonable (to them, at any rate) question: why?

Why are offline attendance and offline examinations better than what we have right now?

What would your answers be?

2 thoughts on “Is Online Education Transitory?

  1. Hello Professor! Here’s a question/thought, if you’d would like to take it 🙂

    Why isn’t online education revolutionising the Indian education structure yet?

    This question is based on the fact that, in India given our gigantic population size, it is impossible for eminent institutions of excellence to cater to every interested, prospective student (making a major assumption here that all educational institutions are in favour of catering to any & EVERY interested student and providing them with the best possible education).

    So, in our current scenario, we have an almost infinite number of applicants who are desiring to enrol into only a handful of prestigious academic institutions (the IITs, IIMs, Esteemed Universities, etc if these can be counted as so).

    However, online-based education systems have the potential to solve this with utmost ease. If universities start online enrolments of students to online-only sessions (or even some form of rotating hybrid sessions), the number of applicants they can accommodate would theoretically have no limits. Any number of students can be enrolled into and have access to the best possible knowledge, faculty and course material. And the institutions get to earn more in this system as well.

    Yes, there will be cases where online-only programs shall be tough to replicate or implement in the same spirit as their offline counterparts, such as medical training perhaps. But in many other scenarios, it is entirely feasible and possible (I’m talking about you, degree courses!)

    Of course, in the pre-pandemic times one could have argued that most universities (Especially the govt funded ones) were so old, short of funds & lacking in infrastructure & IT capabilities that such a system was not implementable for them. However, this excuse really cannot fly after our experiences with the pandemic.

    And so, sir my question- why doesn’t this shift seem to be happening? Or is it already happening behind the scenes and in hushed tones, the fruits of which are likely to be seen in the coming times? Or is there some existential flaw in this argument/proposed system that I’m perhaps missing?

    Would love to hear your thoughts on this 🙂

    • Great set of questions, and very well argued! I think the biggest hurdle is confusion about what students want from universities. If education is more about “sorting” than it is about learning than everybody associated with the system would like exclusivity. 4000 students write the entrance exam and only 160 get in sounds much “cooler” than all 4000 getting a degree. Students want to buy exclusivity, in other words, at least as much as they want to buy education.
      And that’s why online education hasn’t taken off – just yet. I sincerely hope that education becomes more about learning in non-zero-sum fashion in the years to come, and the more this happens, the more we will start to see a shift towards online education. And over time, I think it will be very much an 80-20 split. 80% of the learning will be online, from where will come 20% of the revenue. Thanks for reading, and for such a great question!

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