Reverting to physical classroomsIn a survey conducted for this article, a majority of students opted for the hybrid mode.
There was a Covid-19 induced hiatus for nearly two years from the age-old physical presence in the classroom for students and faculty, a majority of whom initially might not have been altogether comfortable with the online instruction mode. Of late, students have got adapted to and become conversant with the online mode of instruction in general and its evaluation component in particular. However, not all schools, colleges and universities have hired proctoring software for the proper conduct of examinations. This has resulted in the development of a dangerous psychological feeling among students that learning is all about passing examinations effortlessly through copying.
In a short dipstick survey conducted for this piece, a majority of students opted for the hybrid mode. They prefer offline classroom delivery but continuous assessment and examinations in online mode, pointing to a significant departure in the psychological underpinnings of the erstwhile teaching-learning processes. This is especially glaring in our context where online evaluations are yet to be made more scientific and rigorous, which definitely raises evaluation challenges as an underlying issue of the overall delivery of education though grading-related aberrations could be minimised through physical examination.
Given the logistical issues, an efficient transition from online to physical classroom still remains a challenge. For decades, most college students, especially those pursuing higher education, settled away from their homes and relocated mostly in towns and cities. Post Covid-19, most of them migrated back to their hometowns and are attending their classes from the comfort of their homes. Now, with the announcement of the reopening of educational institutions, students are a confused lot as a majority of them need to search for accommodation afresh. Most hostels and other kinds of accommodation in Kathmandu Valley and elsewhere having been closed post Covid-19, relocating will be an uphill task, especially for those whose education might be coming to a close. A sense of hesitancy still looms large especially for those who decided to go back to their hometowns after a brief stint of unfinished education.
Post Covid-19, the quality of evaluation continues to remain as one of the most pervasive questions raised in academic circles. The comparability of online evaluation grades with those obtained during physical examinations still remains a moot question. All educators and evaluators do agree that grades were unjustifiably inflated across the board. Most educational institutions never had quality software for checking plagiarism while the educators themselves tended to be too lax and liberal in grading their students. This leniency error must have crept into the evaluation processes as educators focused more on resolving Covid-19 created bottlenecks and completing their courses on time. Of course, it would not be wrong to state that most educators lacked the requisite skills for teaching and conducting assessments online.
Barring a few academic institutions that managed online classes well, many of their counterparts in rural areas failed to make the cut. It is saddening to note that a few of them couldn’t go online nor could they continue and persist with the offline mode. Now, the litmus test for them lies in managing to complete the syllabus while switching back to the physical mode. Logistical hiccups don’t make transitioning from online to offline smoother. Now, all educational institutions will be required to abide by and follow all the mandatory safety protocols such as adequate physical distancing, infrared thermometers, thermal guns, sanitisers, masks, staggered lunch breaks and so on within the school premises. They also need to separately earmark isolation rooms should cases of suspicious virus infections arise.
A policy formulation spelling out whether to operate at full or partial capacity is needed; and creating additional classrooms immediately may not be possible in all cases, making less than full operations the only best option till things return to normal. Going by the discrepancy in grades across all levels, the quality of learning outcomes of the last two years hasn’t been impressive. Hence, the top leadership at educational institutions needs to give serious thought to continuing the blended mode of learning which ensures that learning goals are not compromised while duly taking care of the evaluation and assessment aspects of the teaching-learning processes. For instance, the online learning outcomes of those pursuing grades 11 and 12 and their performance in the undergraduate-level entrance examinations are going to be the real barometers for testing their efficacy.
Some portion of the online learning component has to be retained for students who somehow got adjusted to it, especially at the higher education level. However, students who advocate offline learning are convinced that online learning made them unsocial in their inter-personal interactions, and lessened their social skills competencies. For those who feel hesitant in meeting and mingling with many people at one go, offering some psychological counselling may necessitate institutional help from schools and colleges. Having attended classes in the comfort of their homes, dressing up in formal attire and travelling to school requires a mindset change as well.
Despite the official announcement about reopening educational institutions in physical mode, the Ministry of Education is yet to come out with any specific guidelines for the same. While municipalities and educational institutions are deciding on their own what measures will be needed, policy guidelines from the government become a top priority in the interest of maintaining uniformity across the nation. Ensuring that educational institutions do not miss another academic year should be the national imperative now. There is no denying the fact that the necessity and capacity to offer education in hybrid mode may differ from institution to institution. It’s advisable to provide a certain amount of leeway and leverage to academic institutions to decide the most feasible measures and fruitful courses of actions.
While schools may provide opportunities for more physical interactions to their students, higher education might offer education in the blended form for some more time taking into account the discipline and domain considerations. It is high time that a national level research is undertaken by the Ministry of Education for a realistic assessment of the levels of students’ learning motivation, quality of learning outcomes and the relative advantages and pitfalls of online learning. This becomes a necessary prerequisite for making education really relevant and meaningful. Such an exercise would certainly be useful to take a call as to the components of online education that may be allowed even while successfully returning to the blended mode.