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Digital University: Integrating Learning, Actualising Inclusion

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By: Prof. Raghavendra P. Tiwari*

The education system has to be inclusive, dynamic and evolving so as to meet the ever-increasing needs and aspirations of a diverse group of learners. It should be able to embrace advancementsin the field to remain current and relevant. ICT is a great enabler as well as a great disabler in this context; if we catch up with ICT, it becomes an enabler and if we lag-behind, it becomes a disabler. Digital or virtual education is emerging as a most-potent mode of the teaching-learning world over, especially after the corona pandemic. Learning loss owing to the closure of educational institutions was mitigated to a considerable extent due to online learning. In spite of limitations of high bandwidth internet connectivity and electronic gadgets, online learning helped avoid academic sessions becoming zero, and precious years of students were saved. The corona pandemic prompted UGC to increase percentage of online teaching components from 20 to 40. Several universities resorted to LMS customised by the INFLIBNET. In the process, teachers and students developed skills in online teaching-learning to a large extent. UGC uploaded a draft regulation on blended learning for suggestions fromacademia and permitted universities to offer online programmes. The Ministry of Education launched several ICT initiatives for improving equity, access, quality and GER. These include, SWAYAM, ARPIT, SWAYAMPRABHA, NPTEL, NDL, e-PG Pathshala, Shodhganga, e-Shodhsindhu, e-Yatra, ShodhShuddhi, Spoken Tutorials, Virtual Labs, VIDWAN etc. There is a need felt now to accelerate and scaleup the above-mentioned and new efforts for leveraging the benefits of virtual learning.

Anticipating the future growth trajectory of the learning system, the central government announced several initiatives on 17th May, 2020 itself. These included the launch of PM e-Vidya programme for multimode access to digital education encompassing Diksha (one nation-one digital platform), one class-one channel (upto class-XII), special e-Contents for the differently-abled student community and use of radio, community radio and podcastand e-Tutoring for higher education.

All this amply demonstrates that the governmenthas been preparing for a big push with respect to digital learning,which eventually happened on 1st February, 2022 with the announcement made by Ms. NirmalaSitharaman for establishing a digital university. She informed that this university is intended to provide access to world-class quality universal education with personalised learning experiences to students across the country at their ‘’hands’. It will be set-up on a networked hub and spoke model. In this model, the knowledge will originate from a centralised hub and will digitally travel to spokes (smaller locations) for use. Here, the hub refers to the best public universities and institutions in India and the spokes refer to individual learners who will be beneficiaries of the digital mode of delivery of knowledge.This digital university will comply with ISTE standards for the use of technology in teaching-learning. The catch point is that each hub needs to develop a cutting-edge ICT system. The beautyofplan is that the knowledge originating at the hubs will be in different Indian languages.

Modes of instruction in a digital or virtual university range from distance learning  to live, interactive classes where students communicate with a teacher. In an asynchronous learning environment, the students are given the assignments from the self-paced courses to be completed within a timeframe. Students complete the assignments at their own pace and the interactions are limited to discussion boards, blogs, wikis etc. Oppositely, synchronous online study happens in real-time, whereby teachers and students all interact online simultaneously. This happens either through text, video, audio or in all modes. In addition to the scheduled class time, there are usually additional assignments to be completed. Therefore these lessons are socially constructed. In my view, the proposed digital university should embrace all three models of online learning to meet the needs of diverse sections of the student community dwelling in a wide-range of socio-economic contexts. An added advantage is that students can graduate from their homes without ever dislocating themselves. Moreover, online resources function as a library, and with the facility for creating online study materials, the requirement of textbooks is also met with.

However, the caution is that it becomes extremely difficult to keep the learners’attention at the optimum level in the online learning ecosystem’, making synchronous learning extremely difficult. Teachers have to find technology-enabled creative ways to keep students’ attention focussed on the screen as they are in the comfort zone of their home environment. Individualising lessons and short breaks can help students to stay engaged. Moreover, in a synchronous learning environment, teachers and students have to be extremely disciplined and focused in order to avoid learning loss and make it as interactive as offline learning. Digital learners can be effectively engaged through gamification that provides learning material as games to bring clarity and enjoyment to students learning experience. Gamification can also assist students to increase their intrinsic motivation for accomplishing desired learning goals.

Thus,a digital university is a huge opportunity for the nation to integrate learning, actualise digital inclusion, and build the future of rich and poor alike. However, the mandate of the digital university should not be restricted to converting traditional course materials into digital forms and their delivery in online mode. Delivery of contents amounts only to having a set of data or information without knowing what to do with it. Analysis, synthesis, inference drawing, firming-up conclusions, application potential and validation of the knowledge created,and mid-course correction complete the learning cycle. How to ensure this, is the biggest challenge in online learning. Creative use of hybrid learning models may help overcome this deficiency. Hybrid learning, as understood, is not merely a mode of delivery of knowledge in a mix of online and offline learning environments. It is actually an appropriate blending of pedagogies for capacity building of learners like lecturing, tutorial, group discussion, debate, students’ seminar, home assignment, dissertation, internship, case study, policy formulation, project evaluation, field study, survey, excursion, use of virtual labs etc. Digital University, if conceptualised and nurtured carefully, has the potential to transform current learning system as envisaged in NEP2020.

Author is the Vice-Chancellor of Central University of Punjab, Bathinda

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