Is UGC’s New Draft Proposal on ‘Blended Learning’ a Distant Vision?

Last month, the University Grants Commission (UGC) published a draft ‘Concept Note on Blending Learning of Teaching and Learning’ in higher education, which intends to revamp pedagogical practices during the pandemic as classes have now largely shifted online. The draft comes as a long-due initiative to reimagine higher education, and seeks to incorporate some of the technological solutions employed by higher education institutions across the country to develop a long-term teaching-learning methodology in universities.

The deliberation is welcome, albeit a little late in the larger scheme of things given since the vision of the National Education Policy, 2020 is substantially contingent on the transformation of higher education in the very least. But there are structural hurdles in higher education today that would challenge the pragmatic implementation of the UGC recommendations. The inequities of the digital divide plaguing educational infrastructure among universities and socio-economic diversity among students have only widened since the ministry of education pushed for online education as a universal solution without much consultation last year. The same has expectedly been reiterated by several teacher’s associations as a roadblock that must be addressed before a meaningful discourse on blended learning can even begin.

However, beyond these obvious concerns, I believe some barriers need redress for arriving at a realistic and consistent policy for effecting the high ideals aimed for in the concept note.

Assessment and evaluation

I believe a large number of my esteemed colleagues across the country have shared my frustration in rationalising the assessment-evaluation process followed since the onset of the pandemic. The first instinct was to replicate the erstwhile patterns of examinations conducted in undergraduate programmes, attempting to mimic the real-time controlled environment through proctored examination solutions. A year later, cynicism has replaced naïveté, driving the very rationale of the evaluation system into an existential crisis. It is an open secret that despite the high-end AI monitoring, enterprising candidates have found, often through concerted action with classmates, innovative ways to evade the eye of the proctor.

On the other hand, I stand by my vehement opposition to proctored examinations, as it raises issues of privacy because of the employment of AI-enabled facial recognition technology. An institutional policy requiring students to compulsorily appear for proctored examinations do not give them an effective choice of deciding whether they wish to compromise their privacy, especially in the absence of any law yet that declares the ownership of persons over their data, biometric or otherwise, or restricts third-parties in their use of collected data.

Besides this, the concept note recommends increased weightage of module-wise continuous evaluation. I have long believed that that assessment-evaluation patterns should be inverted with greater weightage to continuous assessment compared to summative end-semester examinations for ensuring more scope for assessing critical and creative skills in students. However, there are deterrents in the existing structure of academic governance that renders this inversion problematic.

First, the autonomy with which higher educational institutions (HEIs) function is diverse. Greater weightage to continuous assessment would necessarily afford constituent colleges affiliated to a great number of public universities more decentralised authority in setting questions, evaluating students and awarding marks to them. Having had some experience previously of working in one such constituent college, I understand there are enough incentives for such colleges to relax evaluation criteria and award unreasonably high marks to their students so that they may secure higher aggregates, along with the marks obtained in the university-conducted summative examinations. This is an expected strategy for such colleges to package themselves as a desirable package compared to the competition, especially in the immediate market consisting of colleges affiliated to the same university. Such decentralisation without putting adequate safeguards in place would only serve to further incentivise such malpractices.

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Second, having worked as an assistant professor for more than four years, I feel that the bare minimum of academic and administrative workload prescribed by the UGC makes for an unenviable job description. (It is no news that globally, teachers rank high on metrics of professional stress.) After 16 class hours per week (at the very least), associated paperwork, institutional assignments over a work-week that virtually leaves no weekends; barely any time is left for designing meaningful weekly assessments, and more importantly, to evaluate student submissions against those in a prompt manner. Further, the existing teacher-student ratio in most HEIs is far from healthy. I have been responsible for over 200 students in each of the last two semesters. Assessing that many students several times in a semester regularly without interrupting regular class hours can hardly be a workable option.

Flipped classroom

The draft concept note also discusses the modalities of introducing greater flexibility in the teaching-learning environment through combining the more regular face-to-face interaction between teachers and students with interactive methods of online instruction. The flipped classroom has already become a popular alternative to lecture-centric instruction with greater potential efficacy by allowing stakeholders to utilise face-to-face time for higher-order activities such as critical discussion and applied learning through creative assignments and case studies.

However, the flipped classroom method often requires the teacher to expend time for finding and even creating appropriate instructional material and to devise follow-up classroom activities. This time needs to be accounted for in calculating the teacher’s class load. In addition, the teacher-student ratio also needs to be rationalised if the teacher is expected to provide individualised feedback and therefore effectively facilitate a student-centric learning process in a truly interactive manner.

Online educational resources

The difficulties experienced in accessing institutional libraries over the past year have increased the significance and necessity of e-resources in the teaching-learning process. While open educational resources are assuming a seminal role in revolutionising education into a global phenomenon, there are limitations. Most quality academic material available online are paywalled. On the other hand, the proportion of academic books which are currently available in formats other than print is hardly adequate. It is equally important to ensure the availability of language-appropriate repositories providing access to material in audiobook, Braille and Indian Sign Language versions for the differently-abled. In this respect, the vision for inclusive learning expressed in the NEP 2020 (paragraph 6.11) needs to be replicated in the context of university education as an indispensable precondition for implementing blended learning.

The UGC concept note understandably focuses exclusively on capacity building in higher education. But, the task of building a student-centric ecosystem is not only a technological challenge but also a cultural one. Active learning requires the pupil to assume principal responsibility in deriving maximum value from lessons, which can be an overwhelming shift from the long dependence of passive lecture-based learning at the various levels of school education. The transformation of higher education cannot be successful without a holistic approach that builds the vision from the ground up. Instead of abruptly introducing the student to the alien methods of responsible and self-paced learning at the university level, the same must be phased into the school curriculum to make them higher education-ready by the time they cross the higher secondary threshold.

Ratul Das is currently an assistant professor of law at Xavier Law School, St. Xavier’s University, Kolkata. You can reach Ratul on Instagram @boiraagi.

Featured image credit: PTI