Out of all industries that had to adapt to working remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the education industry was probably one of the first to make a smooth transition. However, after almost eight months of online learning, a sense of fatigue may have crept in for both students and professors. In an interview with Dataquest, Aniruddha Kannal, academic council member, Atria University and CEO, Xcelerator talks about the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on institutions.
DQ: When it comes to online learning, do you think engineering can really be taught effectively, virtually?
Aniruddha Kannal: If you had asked me this question 3 months ago, I would have answered with an emphatic YES! The first few days during the lockdown were hard for all institutions and educators as they settled into the ‘new normal.’ But once they found their groove, the initial results were amazing. Some might even tell you that the virtual mode of delivery was better suited for some subjects. But, the tide has turned over the last couple of months.
We are all social creatures, and learning, especially, is a social exercise. Students are exhausted, and professors are thirsting for a boisterous classroom. I believe we will need a healthy mix of virtual and physical learning experiences. The digitization of content and delivery will continue, but the importance of physical learning spaces and human interaction will find new importance.
DQ: How much of an impact is the lockdown had on educational institutions?
Aniruddha Kannal: The lockdown and the pandemic have compelled educational institutions to digitize content as well as delivery. In many ways, it has helped push institutions forward by a few years. Educators were forced to reinvent. They had to rethink knowledge delivery, student engagement, evaluations, and even their roles! Institutions had to digitize support processes too. Adversity begets innovation. I think despite the economic hardships ensuing from the pandemic and the lockdown, the overall impact on the education industry has been quite positive.
DQ: How have you responded to the lockdown and how might it affect the way engineering is taught in the future?
Aniruddha Kannal: At Atria University, we have been in the process of digitizing our content and delivery processes. The lockdown created a level of urgency that helped us prioritize the initiative. At Xcelerator, we saw the lockdown as an opportunity to speed up the content and delivery modernization process at engineering institutions. We provided the platform for free to a large number of institutions in an attempt to help them deal with the lockdown.
As for the long-term impacts, I believe the overall impact is on the positive side. We have been forced to innovate. The education industry is traditionally slow to change but adversity of this scale has made us reinvent, innovate, and even reimagine what knowledge delivery might look like. Going ahead, I expect faster and wider technology adoption, focus changing from content to student experience, evaluations evolving to provide a true representation of what a student can do and better industry alignment of curriculum and content.
The Coronavirus has not just caused a health crisis but an economic crisis as well. With the job market being hit severely, do you think the courses students choose will also change?
The courses students choose have been changing for a while now. The total number of engineering admissions have been falling for the last few years. Large numbers of seats are left empty in traditional bastions of engineering like Andhra and Tamil Nadu. Alternate careers are emerging and private universities are doing a good job of addressing the market need. Parents are also realizing that forcing their kids to take on engineering will only lead to unhappiness.
As alternate career choices become increasingly viable in our country, alternate academic programs will also grow and prosper. Coronavirus will probably make the trend accelerate. If parents and students believe choosing engineering will not ensure financial stability, they will be more inclined to make different choices. It's easier to take an alternate path when the fear of missing out is low.
DQ: The post-Covid-19 world will require every organization to transform digitally. Will graduates require fundamentally different competencies?
Aniruddha Kannal: There’s absolutely no doubt about that. The nature of the workplace has changed for the foreseeable future.
Skills like communication, collaboration, curiosity, and self-awareness were always important but will become harder to master as companies transform digitally. How do you listen and empathize when you can't meet somebody in person? How do you collaborate with a team that you never get to meet? How do you resolve differences without having the opportunity to have a brainstorming session or a team outing? Graduates will need to be creative, and stay curious and agile through the learning process.
Apart from these, a new set of skills around working independently while understanding the big picture, understanding upstream and downstream dependencies, and taking ownership will become critical to an organization’s success.
DQ: The next biggest worry for students is exams, do you think that the examination and evaluation will change eventually?
Aniruddha Kannal: I sure hope so. Exams and evaluations as we know them were fast getting irrelevant. A large number of students with great academic records find it hard to perform in the real world. What does that tell us about our exams? They are an inadequate indicator of what the student is capable of. The industry expects exams and assessments to become better indicators of students’ capabilities. We are at a point of reckoning. If exams and evaluations don't evolve, they will become irrelevant.