Col (Dr) Baldev Singh Choudhury
(The author is serving as an Indian Army officer. Views expressed in the article are his personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Viruses, epidemics and pandemics are not new to the world. It has been happening since prehistoric epidemic circa around 3000 BC in China and plague of Athens in 430 BC to the 20th century Spanish flu (1918-20 ), most recent SARS (2002), swine flu (2009-10) Ebola (2014-16) and now novel coronavirus Pandemic -2019. What is unique about COVID-19 is, its speedy spread, geographical coverage and lethality with which it has hit the entire world. Advanced technology in the fields of telecommunication, telemetry and fast means of communication has made it possible for this localized unseen micro virus to dominate almost whole earth. Highly advanced technology has reduced the barrier of time and distances and removed the international borders in cyberspace, which in turn integrated nations all across and turned whole world into a global village. We are reaping the benefits of this technology, sharing our resources and exchanging ideas, spreading the knowledge in the interest of entire humanity and availing luxuries even a Maharaja couldn’t have dreamed of just 100 years back. It was unthinkable even six months back for us to become suspicious of such a wonderful technology until this Wuhan originated tinny virus hit the world hard and paralysed our daily lives. It compels us to think whether technology is boon or curse for humanity? But, it is also a fact that we cannot go back to stone age. Advancement once happened is irreversible. We need to find solutions by applying even more advanced technology in problem areas. Need of the hour is to shift our focus from problem to solution. All clouds have silver linings in it and all challenges come with inherent opportunities. Economic slowdown and financial crisis of 2008 gave birth to WhatsApp, Pinterest, uber and Instagram which created new avenues and changed the way world worked prior to it. India is now known as the Facebook and WhatsApp country. It is true that necessity is the mother of invention. November 2016 demonetization expedited mass digitization in India, even a roadside tea vendor was compelled to accept rupees 10 on Paytm. Since lockdown in March this year, the world is changing even faster. Mahindra is making sanitizers, Maruti is making ventilators, Swiggy is delivering groceries, Louis Vuitton is making masks and doctors consulting online.
I do not know how the industries and business world will shape and function exactly in future but because of my association with education sector, have fair ideas as what the new realities entail for this sector. Though, it is premature to say but latest trends and prevailing circumstances indicate that less number of students will go abroad to study, technology companies will become educators and vice a versa, education will become more accessible and affordable, parents would encourage their children to learn online. Look at the websites of Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD), University Grant Commission (UGC), National Council of Education Research and Training (NCERT), Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE), even State Boards, National Council of Teacher Education (NCTE), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and it will be crystal clear to one and all as how fast we are aligning to new realities. App-based learning and online delivery of contents has become sudden necessity in lockdown, whereas we are lacking technical knowhow and infrastructure for the same. Hats off to our great teachers, despite all odds they did not allow education sector to shut down. When students were not able to join physical schools, teachers took virtual schools to the drawing rooms of the students, though it needed Herculean efforts to adjust with paradigm shift in creation and delivery of contents .But it is also a stark truth that only minuscule public and government schools based in cities could do it with some of the frontline dedicated educators. What about majority of schools if lockdown continues after summer breaks also? Even if schools reopen some school will report mass contaminations? Will the parents allow their wards to go to school in such frightening situations? What about training of non-skilled teachers for such education? What about majority of students in rural government schools who cannot afford to buy android phone, let alone computer? How are we planning to bridge the ever widening digital divide between rural and urban students? Will increased use of apps, games and online learning not lead to mechanized behaviour by our children? How to achieve balance between technology and human touch of a teacher in the long run? How to manage crowds in buses and local trains and metros to facilitate move of students? How technology can help those who cannot reach school? How to organize staff conferences, recesses and parent-teacher meetings, keeping social distancing in view? Many more such questions and contingencies need to be brainstormed by our government, educationists and think tanks to arrive at some solutions for this remarkable challenge before schools and colleges reopen in July/August this year only.
There is no point in brooding over the problem and sulking. Leave bigger things to government. We as teachers, parents, administrators, educational leaders and policy facilitators at lower level can’t shy away but prepare ourselves mentally and stand by the government and welcome their huge efforts by tuning ourselves with the rapidly changing educational environment. Most important thing for us to do immediately is to prepare teachers, students and parents for new system of online contents delivery with smart devices by arranging online training sessions for teachers and counselling sessions for students and parents for coping with the sudden changes. Teachers have to make greater adjustments as education is shifting from teacher centric to pupil centric. System will be more transparent as teachers will not be able to differentiate between front benchers and back benchers. George Couros, a Canadian author once rightly said, “Technology will not replace great teachers but technology in the hands of great teachers can be transformational.” I am very sure our teachers will be able to tide over the problem provided we build capacity of our vast teaching community on war footing as digital learning from smart devices taking roots is surely to grow further even when Coronavirus vanishes.
Second most important thing is to be done is to aligning our higher education curricula to ensure development of employability skills in college pass outs as job market will be volatile post COVID-19. Degrees will be less important than demonstrable skills. Soft skills and IT literacy will be essential for future employment .Recent NACE survey has found that 93% employer consider that soft skills are must. Such essential employability skills have to be embedded in existing syllabus. Greater coordination is required to be established with industry houses to know their human resource requirement to develop job ready youth. Some businesses are vanishing and being replaced by newer ones, which will require new operational skill sets. National Educational Alliance for Technology (NEAT) scheme has already been launched by AICTE for using technology for better learning outcomes in this Artificial Intelligence (AI) era. People would like to avoid crowds, malls, markets, cinemas, restaurants and working from home will be a new normal. Wearing masks and social distancing will be done voluntarily. In view of these changes, some of the old businesses and old skills will be rendered obsolete and new businesses and new skills will be in great demand. Many job laid off during this lockdown are not coming back. Gauging the environment rightly, the govt has launched special economic package ‘Atamnirbhar Bharat’.
It reminds me of American futurist Alvin Toffler who wrote in his book ‘Future Shock’ in 1970 that there will be too much changes into short period of time in future which has become instant reality and we are facing it right now. He further says the illiterate of 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn Unlearn and relearn. The inroads by artificial intelligence will expedite it further. Hence, unlearning obsolete skills and learning new skills by our work force for new requirement is the prime need. We need to create a pool of human resources for Bharat Nirman and make in India projects and make it a grand success by skilling our more than 65% below the age of 35 young population. We do not have any other option but to leverage this huge young population for national development by making them home-grown entrepreneurs and job ready in this changed business environment. Education institutions have to lead from the front for this onerous task as human resource is the key factor for national development. We in the armed forces strongly believe that it is not machine, but man behind the machine who wins the battle. It is equally applicable to win the battle of Atamnirbhar Bharat project as we need such a battle worthy army of people equipped with necessary demonstrable skills. Global models and global virtual campuses have already knocked at our doors in too short a time. We also need to make our presence felt globally and learn new pedagogy from global leaders and technology giants in the field. Educational institutions and technology companies have to integrate fast with a missionary zeal and learning from best global minds has to be facilitated to find solution of this unusual and unexpected sudden revolution in this arena. Keeping pace with future unfolding and vigil on ever-occurring new developments is a must.
I was attending one online webinar being organized by North Storm Academy and Bombay University a few days back in which more than 12,000 educational leaders, vice chancellors, principals, educators and administrators from all nooks and corners of the country registered for the digital training to stay relevant in the field. Many more were waiting for their turn in next session. Enthusiastic and volunteer participation of them made me optimistic about the future and I am sanguine that our capable education leaders grappling with sudden new norm of completely tech-mediated teaching-learning and challenge of skill development will come out of it efficiently within limited resources available. The Nation and the society only need to encourage and support their mission.