NEW DELHI: A year of learning in 'smartphone class rooms' and appearing for 'WhatsApp exams', virtual campus tours to Zoom placement drives and ultimately massive increase in 'screen time', the last academic session will go down in history as beginning of the "new normal" prompted by coronavirus-induced lockdown.
No packing up of bags for first day at school, cancelled sports day or farewells, no shared lunches and massively increased screen time, marked the 2020-21 academic session, which was about to begin just a week after the COVID-19 lockdown was announced last year.
Smartphones and laptops, which were not allowed in classes and meant for restricted usage at home as well, became the backbone of education throughout the year as COVID-19 pandemic prompted a 360 degree shift from classroom teaching to the online space, including YouTube lectures, Zoom classes, WhatsApp exams and online quizzes.
While students miss going to schools or colleges, experts say the "new normal" has opened doors for blended learning which is going to stay in the future and is not just a "stop gap arrangement".
The new normal also exposed the digital divide in the country where students, parents and teachers scrambled to find ways for those who did not have access to internet or digital devices.
"My son was supposed to start primary school. He was excited and so were we, but there was no waving him bye for the first day at school because everything happened online. From colouring activities to clay modelling assignments, everything happens online and we help him out in that, but what worries me is that he now may take time to gel with his classmates when he goes to school this year or may be next year," said Pragati Dev, a software engineer, who has been working from home throughout the year.
While the sudden increase in exposure to smartphones, laptops and internet became an issue of concern for parents, the Ministry of Education swung into action and framed guidelines for schools for online classes, detailing what should be an appropriate "screen time" for different age groups.
"When the lockdown first began, schools started replicating the school hours in online classes. They were also not at fault, this had not happened in the country before, they had no clue how to approach it, the only goal was to keep the classes going. We then framed a committee to work on guidelines for such classes which were aimed at ensuring that there is no learning gap but also students' mental health is not affected," a senior ministry official said.
Launching radio lessons to dedicated DTH channels for classes were among the efforts made for students who did not have laptops and smartphones.
Reaching out to students on neighbours' phones to sharing assignments on social media messaging platform WhatsApp, the pandemic also changed the role of teachers from traditional classroom set-ups.
The shift to online classes was not just limited to schools, but also higher education sector which was more prepared for the move.
However, from open book exams to proctored tests, universities and colleges had their share of catching up to do too.
"I was in class 12 last year totally engrossed in preparations for board exams and college admissions. While our farewell was cancelled in view of COVID-19 guidelines, the exams were postponed mid-way and then began the endless wait for the remaining exams and delayed college admissions."
"There was no merit list by board, no excitement for first day at college, no freshers party. I was disappointed with everything, but satisfied that my family was safe," said Nisha Bhardwaj, who scored 99 per cent in CBSE class 12 exams.
Prestigious institutions like IITs and IIMs faced the challenge of not letting the much sought after placement drives be affected.
"Traditionally, the benefits of Blended Learning strategy were reduced time and being more cost-effective than traditional classroom training. Blended online learning removes location restrictions and eliminates travel costs. We have learnt new lessons and we believe that these lessons should be taken forward post the pandemic rather than treating them as stop gap arrangement for now," a professor at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Mandi said.
A nationwide lockdown was announced in March last year to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.
While schools continued to remain closed till last October when partial reopening of the educational institutes was left to states, universities and colleges continued to remain close for months and are reopening now in phases.