Eighteen months ago, we wrote in this column about the distressing gap in mainstream education: good pedagogy — applying insights from cognitive science about how people learn — took the back seat to convenience, level, and tradition. Twelve months ago, schools and universities across the country closed under the epidemic and went smoothly into the online delivery mode. Over the years, many psychological barriers to comfort, level, and tradition have fallen. When pandemic sanctions are now easing and campuses are opening up, the question on the minds of many educators is — how can we start with the new and the good common without going back to the old ways now?
Blame the old ways to get started? The greatness of individual discussion, debate, critique and opinion is often lacking in our classrooms. As long as students have access to digital devices and networks most companies have found it very easy to switch to video-conferencing. This seamless transformation reveals a deeper problem in traditional education, which means that the discourse-based and test-based system is somewhat socially detached from initiation. Furthermore, what we are seeing with zoom classes today is not the latest in online education. Properly designed online content contains short (5-10 minutes), well-produced, asynchronous videos that are more conducive to the human brain’s ability to focus. Simulation of the document, games and online group citation are also effective.
Therefore, when campuses are open, properly designed online learning should be used to devote time to the most important aspect of education: in-person engagement. Adopting a rotated classroom — where we personally allocate classroom time to engage in two-way activities — when using pre-reading to achieve online content and one-way communication — is part of the solution. This is no longer a new idea, and many universities, including both of us, understand that students need to marinate in content. Learning science says that learning is most effective when students are interested, and that dopamine is released in the brain. Students better grasp the material when they are struggling, but get coaching in a timely manner and they find and apply concepts. Discussions, presentations and projects can activate this.
Taking the flipped classroom more subtly is like dividing the learning trajectory into three dimensions: learning concepts and methods, learning to think creatively to solve problems, and applying concepts, techniques, and creativity in context to develop real-life solutions. Problems. In sections, the practice of concepts and methods lends itself well to asynchronous online learning, where students use online content at the speed and time of their choice. Developing creative solutions to problems and applying them contextually to real-life situations involves collaborative, personal work.
Teaching innovation is often questioned by faculty, and the idea of a flipped classroom is no exception. In fact, it saves faculty members the transition of their lectures to multiple sections, repeating from semester to semester, so they can record it once and deliver it to students asynchronously. This makes classroom time more attractive for faculty members as they engage in small groups of students and find collaborative solutions to complex real-life problems.
Another barrier to a rotated classroom is that existing campus spaces are not designed for it. It calls for smaller but larger classrooms. These should be arranged more like meeting rooms rather than classrooms to facilitate discussions and project work. This is easily done. Classrooms designed for lectures for 100 students can be divided into small areas for group discussions of 12-15 students.
Beyond rotating the classroom, universities need to change the rigid structure of our educational programs. As the shapes of labor markets change, education needs to adopt a more flexible and modular approach to credentials. Linear routes are no longer sufficient for fixed-term 3-year or 4-year degrees. Degrees and programs need to be broken down into smaller modules, and students should have the freedom to have one or more, parallel or meaningful sequences to suit them. Employers begin to insist that students must do certain modules for certain jobs. The National Education Policy 2020, which was largely written before the epidemic, provides this kind of modulation and support and regulatory framework.
Content can be distributed through a ‘mix’ of time spent on online material with on-campus experiences and work-related projects, especially for post-graduate and lifelong learning programs such as mid-career and executive education. Not all of these programs need to be full-time, because working people try to constantly update their skills while on the job. Specializes in business and technical education, in particular, for these types of blended and modular certification programs.
If the epidemic is contained by the end of this summer, and the campuses reopen as planned, universities will have less time — that is, in the next one or two quarters — to make a big difference in embracing this new normalcy in a significant way. Otherwise, they run the risk of going back to the old ways and have to wait for the next global crisis before they become better.
Kapil Vishwanathan and Sanjay Sharma respectively, Kriya University Executive Committee Chairman and Vice President for Open Learning at MIT