In March, when the number of COVID-19 cases in Italy was around 60,000, one of my friends in that country, a professor in Milan, told me that he was teaching live from home. Around 150 students had connected to the online class and they asked him questions via chat. In fact, all the classes of the Politecnico di Milano, having 40,000 students, became virtual since the second week of March. His wife, an elementary school teacher, is also teaching from a distance, but mostly not live.
One of the worst hit by the Covid-19 pandemic has been the education sector. The closure of schools, colleges and universities around the world has affected over 87% of all the world’s students, according to a UNESCO report. Classes have been suspended and exams at different levels postponed. Class X and XII exams of various boards, and important entrance exams like the IIT joint entrance have been delayed in India. Different boards have already cancelled the annual exams for Classes I-VIII, and some also did that for Classes IX and XI as well.
The semester exams scheduled in May, in universities across the world, are now all set to be suspended indefinitely. And the chain of academic events and the academic calendars will be jeopardised if those are not completed in time. There is a serious threat that this academic year will eventually be shifted by a few months all over the world. Certainly, the students in the final years of a course will suffer the most.
Those midway might see different sorts of adjustments in the next semesters. Boston University in the US, for example, has already announced that it may not resume live classes until January 2021. Several experts believe that the US may have to endure social distancing measures, such as stay-at-home orders and school closures, until 2022.
In the meantime, digital education has emerged as a clear winner during this pandemic around the world. We, at different universities and institutes in India, are also trying to teach our students by various online modes. And yes, several schools and even private coaching centres and music schools have entered into the business of online teaching. It’s encouraging as there is no certainty how much regular classes will take place in this year or semester afterwards. An online “freshers’ welcome” was organised for Class XI students in my daughter’s school. One of my neighbour’s kids, studying in Class V, is also attending online classes for hours, and a kindergarten child of another neighbour is learning alphabets through an online app—both conducted by their respective schools. Such engagements may even be good for the psychological health of the students, who are locked up in homes during the lockdown period. And it’s a rare chance for such schools to exhibit how advanced they are technologically, and they’re up to grab that business opportunity.
However, there is a serious apprehension from different corners that such online teaching might create a digital divide among students as many have limited or no internet access, and many students may not be able to afford a desktop computer or laptop in their homes. The lockdown has hit poor students hard in India, and about 86% of them are unable to explore online learning according to reports. This might thus enhance the rich/poor and urban/rural divide.
Will COVID-19 lead to a revolution in the dynamics of teaching? Is the style of teaching changing forever? Will AI be taking over from human teachers in the near future? The main question, however, is much broader. The future career of millions of students is at stake as it’s already predicted that hundreds of millions of people might lose jobs due to the pandemic. Many Indians might return home after losing jobs overseas. Hence, our present-day students who are likely to enter the job market shortly might find it an uphill task to get suitable employment. Many students who have already got jobs through campus interviews or otherwise may not be able to join those jobs eventually. And a highly shrunk job market along with the crowd of people losing jobs during this pandemic might keep on haunting us for a few years at least, if not a decade. And, in effect, it might affect a generation, and society as a whole—not only in India, but in other countries as well.
Again, due to the type of economic and social COVID-19-blow the US and other first-world countries might face eventually, I’m afraid they might not be in a position to offer scholarships or even welcome the flow of foreign students in their universities for a few years at least. Thus, students all set to go abroad this year, and those aspiring for the same within the next few years could severely be affected by the pandemic as well.
The shrinking job market might create social unrest. Public universities will be over-crowded in the coming years, for obvious reasons. And many private educational institutions, whose USP lies in their capacity of placement, might even be shut eventually. Certainly, I’ve portrayed an utterly dystopian future for our students, our next generation, and our society as a whole. I’m personally quite afraid as well—some among my loved ones will enter the job market within the next few years. I’ll be more than happy if my prophecy is proven to be false, or at least exaggerated.
Professor of Statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata