Education amid COVID-19 shutdowns: ICT and social media ensures continuation of India’s University life

Months of pandemic COVID19 shutdowns in China and Italy and now in the rest of the world have urged new lessons to many across the globe. In the education sector, with time for mitigation limited and with some Universities not scaling to requirements for online and remote education, what more should educators do to save education and the time of several students?

Since March 25, India has gone into a 21-day shutdown across the country and even before that, many states had closed its public and private educational institutions to reduce community-spread risk from the COVID19 coronavirus pandemic. With this unprecedented lockdown, social media platforms like Facebook, WhatsApp have been playing their role in mass communication and increasing India’s COVID-19 testing capacity manifold complementing available infrastructure. In 2018, when Kerala floods happened, it was a quick decision by Prof. Maneesha Ramesh of  Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (Amrita University) to release a freely available AmritaKripa FloodEvac app that saved 12,000 lives and helped over 100,000.  In 2019, the same app had helped save before the 2019 floods took a major toll. The relevance of how social media and online teaching tools change lives has been crucial to assess for many universities and governments. Almost a decade ago, my colleagues had developed A-VIEW, an e-learning platform focused on keeping remote educators connected to local classrooms. This was then redeveloped to a MOOC-style platform called AMPLE and now many of my colleagues who had started on AMPLE had a head-start, with their students easily adjusting to the changes imposed by the outbreak. Two years ago, another set of colleagues led by Amrita’s UNESCO chair in gender equality and women empowerment, Prof. Bhavani Rao had taken the platform and launched skill training courses like plumbing, masonry making a large community of illiterate and neoliterate learners in rural communities in India. Now, using several learning methods with several of them using information and communication technologies, Prof. Rao’s Amrita Multi Modal Applications in Computer-Human Interaction (AMMACHI) labs lead several rural participatory design and rural tech prototypes.

Let us take the case of laboratory courses in this age of social distancing. Laboratory skills are far from being socially distant or being away from a classroom environment. With the Ministry of Human Resource Development’s funding, our University along with the a dozen other institutions, including the top Indian Institutes of Technology, had developed 1,000+ virtual experiments as part of a national mission project which can currently boast of 202,000+ workshop attendees, 2 million+ usages and 1,300 workshops. Having been developed to provide remote access to undergraduate and postgraduate laboratory courses in engineering and bioscience programs, until before January 2020, we had only seen spiked surges of usage during examination season. This COVID19 period has suddenly seen us getting requests from individual learners and many institutions to conduct online workshops, asking us to track their real-time usage, training their teachers/teaching assistants and more. We also noticed students today want someone to share or chat with even while performing their learning roles, an observation that was not so critical in the past. An observed increase in larger number of messages asking for help in their exercises also seem to be characteristic of remote learning. What we still do not know, is whether the surge in opening up to ask questions has any correlation to the inability to gather publicly during this season.

With such observations, today’s scene now compares students in COVID19 lock-downs against those of regular classrooms; an analogue would be those who stay at home and watch Netflix, Amazon Prime against those who watch a movie at a multiplex with friends, or to someone who attends a wedding party or to someone who does a Nature trek with a social group of friends.

So, what lessons can we learn due to the COVID19 coronavirus outbreak and the social distancing it brings with it?

In this phase of the pandemic-related lock-down, the education tools seem to critically miss a key component — how human connection can be evaluated and how assessments done remotely stand good alongside its standard mechanisms such as regular interactions in classrooms, paper examinations, faculty-student link etc. Vigor of research in terms of numbers of constructive contributions in certain domains are difficult to estimate via online interactions and have certainly taken a back swing. Most of my bioscience colleagues still do not know how to optimally use ICT tools to interact and design better protocols and design focused experiments, not because of the lack of knowledge or know-how but mainly because these fields succeeded due to person-person meetings. Online platforms are sometimes perceived by non-IT colleagues as a poor measure of wetlab work and its realms of human endeavor.

There is a need to better focus and we need to consider examination assessment of students, estimating physical activity and emotional/social interaction assessments in the classrooms, which may be critical in this COVID19 related shutdown season.  For research in enhancing some platforms, the problems in existing ICT and social media tools need to be listed publicly to motivate developers and fresh minds to add tweaks and quality and specifically design tools for such use-cases.

Creating resources by recording lectures complementing classroom style lectures may not fit best in the absence of regular classroom lectures. Some professors including me often forget during online classes and meetings, that we are not in front of the students physically unlike what may happen in classrooms. I have often noticed that my students pay more attention when I teach them in person rather than sending a teaching assistant and this seems to be a point to scale in remote lectures as well. There seems to be a lack of pedagogic style that bridges purely remote learners and brings them to a level par with classroom or University-education.

Perhaps, this will add to use-cases being developed by WeNet as well, since this COVID19 shutdown shows us a new picture in countries like India with every house has become a school for its children and every parent a self-appointed teacher. It is high time to keep the doors of learning open while developing the culture, methodologies that will empower novel diversity-aware interactions between learners in these constrained environments as well.

Article by Prof. Shyam Diwakar, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Lab Director
Computational Neuroscience Lab, Amrita School of Biotechnology
Faculty Fellow – Amrita Center for International Programs

Amrita Vishwa Vidyapeetham (Amrita University)