As the University Grants Commission (UGC) has recently come up with a direction of conducting online classes due to the Coronavirus situation, universities have embarked on a new journey of adjusting to a new way of teaching. Though online learning is not something new to the developed world, it is somewhat new to our overall experience so far, especially in higher education.
The concept of online learning in the academia got traction when MIT OpenCourseWare project started to publish their educational materials and contents during 2001. Later on, the concept and practice became more structured and completely online based learning initiatives started to emerge and flourished eventually. Coursera (2012), Udemy (2009), Udacity (2011) are some of the globally known names today who are providing courses in partnership with many world renowned universities (e.g. Harvard, Princeton, Yale etc.).
For the last few years, some of the universities were considering online learning to be introduced for busy professionals and a wider coverage of learners. However, lack of government policy guidelines eventually barred them from taking that route for practical reasons. It seems that the policy matter is going to be resolved soon as the Education Ministry and UGC has jointly agreed and instructed universities taking courses and conducting exams online. Hopefully, we will receive detailed instructions very soon; India has already done this a while back.
My experience in the e-learning industry at organisational level for almost a decade gave me an opportunity to work in partnership with many global key players in e-learning arena which in turn blessed me with getting to know some global best practices. And in that connection I feel obliged to share few things here.
As we try to grasp the idea of online based education, we often end up picturing teachers lecturing through skype call or a recorded lecture being shared with students. Although such examples are not unrealistic, nevertheless, the dimension and amplitude of university level learning should remind us of more issues to be managed than just conducting a lecture session. Sharing learning materials, post-lecture discussion, case studies, group work, assignment, research work, use of library resources (e.g., ebook, ejournal), presentations and finally assessment & evaluation are an integral part of a participatory teaching-learning mechanism, especially in higher education. And the amount of activities that we have just mentioned here are not something that can be addressed by an online lecture only.
In addition to this, online teaching demands more from the teacher to make the whole experience engaging than a classroom based setup where the feedback mechanism is direct and instant. Oftentimes, the learners who could go to a teacher and ask for solutions are not available online for obvious reasons. Hence the effort that needs to go into creating a proper learning experience online is considerably higher. However, if we have to ignore the instructional design issues here for the time being, we do not have much option to ignore the other integral part of the pedagogy.
Now the question is: how all these can be managed or is it at all possible to be managed? Which actually leads to a second question -- how the successful ones in online based education are managing this today?
If we look at them, we will find a common practice across-the-board which is the use of LMS or Learning Management System. An LMS is a software based single platform, capable of managing all the activities that we have discussed above. The biggest benefit of such system is that it reduces all distractions and keeps both teacher and student focused and engaged on a single place to teach and learn. For example a good LMS can integrate application like Zoom which is a tool for live class or conference. Similarly, it can integrate remote access solutions that are used for eLibrary resources to be accessed outside university campus, anti-plagiarism software to check the authenticity of an assignment, proctoring tool to make sure a level of transparency in conducting exams online.
Some may believe that the same thing could be done by opening a facebook group, taking assignment through emails and using an assessment tool online. What they fail to realise is that it makes the whole experience tedious, jumping from one application to another is frustrating for both teachers and learners eventually. Just imagine if a teacher has to take 3 classes with 30 students in each, he would have to check and send feedback for 90 different emails and that too for assignment purpose only. So in the long run, this does not become a very sustainable and successful model to go for. Already there are issues cropping up and some universities had to withhold online classes.
Apart from managing the hassle, the other advantage of an LMS is the analytics part of the data stored e.g., assessment and evaluation. The system enables an admin user/teacher to get an overall view of how each student is performing and what their specific gaps are. One might be very good at exams but not in case studies or vice versa, now if a teacher can pin point that by just a click, he has the option to revisit and redesign his pedagogy as applicable. Due to this unique advantage, LMS is also being used in classroom based, online based and blended mode of learning (mix of online and classroom) in all the world renowned institutions.
There are a lot of LMS out there that could be easily found from Google. Some are free and some are paid with added benefits and options. A university can opt for any solution based on present requirement and future plans. However, three things need to be actively considered while screening any LMS - firstly, if this is cloud based which will eradicate the cost and hassle of buying, installing and maintaining a server and also any dedicated team to look after it. Secondly, if the software is device agnostic, meaning, can be used from any device, especially from mobile phones. This is a very important aspect as many of us today are using lots of web applications through mobile phone, especially, the students. Thirdly, if this can run offline - since internet speed varies in different locations, and if a learner for any reason fails to do a class online, he needs to have an option to download it later on. Few days back one of the professors of a leading private university shared that they could not make the LMS use mandatory for all their students as this was not a mobile compatible one.
In addition to this a fourth option can be kept in mind which is training. If an institute is adopting such solution from any vendor, it needs to ensure that they help them with adequate training on how best to use it. And if it's a free one, there has to be adequate training videos for the same. Learning by doing is a good way of mastering something but not for organisation-wide rollout especially when it takes a lot of change in the management process to be in place.
BdREN has already made zoom application available for many universities. Zoom is a nice tool to conduct online meeting/class efficiently and it really works equally well on a smartphone. Such video conferencing tool can easily be integrated with most of the LMS along with other necessary educational tools.
However, one thing we need to keep in mind is that any new initiative requires a change in management effort. Technology works wonders but it does not work of its own. So, we need to have a detailed plan on how best to use it.
As the UGC has come forward to allow online teaching/learning, hopefully they will clarify how best this can be utilised, especially to ensure the intended quality and a standard operational procedure. As universities are not equally capable, a minimum requirement can be suggested along with a list of indicative best practices. This will help them ensure minimum standard having a futuristic vision on improving further.
S M Asheque Yamin works as Head of E-learning Solutions at Core Knowledge Ltd. (a sister concern of Rahimafrooz Group). firstname.lastname@example.org
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