Can Online learning replace the Offline University Ecosystem?

Contributed By: Yash Pratap Singh

An unprecedented crisis in COVID-19 has dawned upon the world. More than 8 million confirmed cases globally, fatalities touching almost half a million, it is a crisis that evokes no recent memory of a parallel event. The only closer ones are the Spanish flu or the Great Depression. The crisis, along with ravaging the economy, has also induced some permanent changes within the systems. As people say, ‘the World is in for a big reset.’ One of the active discussion of this reset is about the online education paradigm.

  1. Do we need the campuses to impart knowledge in today’s time?
  2. Can we skill and educate the youngsters of today while they sit at their homes, perhaps enjoying a cup of Dalgona coffee staring at their screen?
  3. Can we ride on the digital infrastructure and get the best-in-class teaching activity across the board and make it reach even the remotest corners?

There are pertinent questions, and there are diverse sets of opinions on them (check them here, here and here). 

Let me focus my attention to universities and especially business schools (as I am part of one of the topmost business schools in this country). Most of them are debating about their next terms. Viral news did hit a lot of WhatsApp chatboxes a few weeks back about Cambridge University shifting online for the entire year. Albeit, only that Cambridge issues an update that didn’t receive much attention (sensationalism sells, tabloid media thrives). Even institutes within our holy land are debating about the next semesters being online. When such news hit me, I did some thinking about it. 

I have been an early adopter of technology. It was in the late 90s when I was still in my Kindergarten that I started using computers. Full-time internet access was something that I got acquainted with when I joined by the BTech program in 2012 at one of the IITs. From someone who has been an early digital adopter yet opposed to the idea of online education is a paradoxical situation in some sense. 

And when I tried to find answers to that opposition, I went back to revisit my learnings from a university setting. I am not even talking of infrastructural challenges and digital divide here that exist in our country or the precarious power cuts that happen despite being a power surplus nation. Infrastructure is a solvable problem in the coming years. But, does solving infrastructural issues mandate a shift towards online education? My opinion is not. To an extent, I tilt towards the view of the current director of IIM Udaipur, where he talks that for Tier – 1 institute, “tech is more an enabler than a replacement.”

In my opinion, top universities don’t just shape the graduates by the content they offer. Top universities develop the graduates by the ecosystem they offer. Today we live in an information abundance era. Almost everything is available online, and some people are making good use of it. Exceptional quality MOOCs are available that stream courses from the likes of the Harvards and MITs of the world. With such content availability, the universities should have become redundant by now, or at least an indication towards that trend would have been visible. But that hasn’t happened. I believe the strong reason is the ecosystem and the holistic experience that a university beholds, and that shapes its graduates.

When it comes to business schools offering MBAs, I used to wonder often: What do these institutes (the likes of IIMs/ISB/HBS/etc.) do in those one or two years that the graduates find the entire span transformational. The only answer that I could find out in at least one year of that experience is that they imbibe ‘leadership skills’ along with ‘managerial acumen.’ That managerial acumen is the direct part of the academic courses, the leadership an indirect outcome of the ecosystem. The classes of accounting, to managerial decision making, tend to build a theoretical foundation of that acumen. But that is just one part of the jigsaw. The practical application aspect of it and the leadership are the other parts. It [leadership] is built by the social capital that you get when you become part of the illustrious networks. It is created by various extra out-of-the-classroom activities that we try out. 

The out-of-the-classroom discussion with peers ranging from diverse backgrounds is what develops the character of leadership. The diversity of culture, work experience, educational knowledge, perspectives, thoughts when discussed over tea or coffee is what enables the ability to become holistic leaders of the managerial world—the last-minute hassles of completing the assignment in its best form, to debating ideas for projects under the close guidance of the professor. The extra strive to raise money for college fests to network and finding out an entrepreneurial partner for the next venture. All these experiences shape an individual. How can online stand and replace this social cohesion and capital that peer interactions brings in is still unanswered. That being said, it forces me to think whether online education can replace in-person teaching and build an ecosystem that university campuses offer. I am still looking for answers.

As Ellen Glasglow, an American novelist, said, “All change is not growth, and all movement is not forward” maybe it is time for us to think more in-depth on this change that we perhaps are witnessing. The global pandemic, for sure, will induce some changes (maybe even permanent), and we will have to adapt to some of them. However, we have to be careful and investigate whether online can offer the perks of offline, especially when it comes to creating leaders and inspiring learning ability among students. 

Yash is a student of PGP 2019-2021 batch of IIM Bangalore.

Media Cell IIMB is the student run outreach and communication committee of IIM Bangalore dedicated to form the bridge within the student community and the outside world.

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