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Brick Meets Click: Digital Learning Reshapes Education

By Venguswamy Ramaswamy, Global Head, TCS iON | Wednesday, 19 Jul 2017, 05:43 IST

A new generation of learners and educators has emerged in the last few years. Welcome to the era of flipped-classrooms, outcome-led learning, Analytics assisted Learning, adaptive assessments, open text books and boundary-less classrooms.

If you look at people absorbed in their screens around you, can you tell who is doing what? You may assume that most of them are watching a movie, playing a game, and yes, tagging the latest post on Facebook. But, what if you found out that one of them could be learning how to fix a Mathematics theorem, one of them could be learning a new trend in embroidery, one of them completely engrossed in a hectic code-thon, and of them digging something in the alleys of medieval history.

As unreal as it may sound, that, in all probability, is actually what people and screens are up to. The Gen Y may be missing in the classrooms, the dedicated employee of yours may be skipping an office party, your own spouse may be assigning you a grocery trip, because, hey, they all are busy, learning. Where? Not inside a concrete wall structure, but on and around their devices. They are using the power of push-button revolution to study, learn, unlearn, re-learn, share, practise and experience education like never before.

Just a few years back, the concept of peer-based learning may have sounded outrageous or silly, but not anymore. Today, the very aspect of tapping a peer for amplifying fundamentals, seeking out clarifications, practising examples, discussing and debating together has given an action flavour to an otherwise dull classroom. Now, peers are as, if not more, important than the person on the other side of the table.

Blogs, online forums, communities have replaced libraries. Peers and self-assessment have taken over conventional pedagogy. Videos, demos, real-world simulations and other digital wonders have wiped out orthodox and obsolete modes. This new Gen Y, wants to go to a flipped classroom where using peers is more powerful than hierarchal system, where campus is not for teaching but for discussion, where they can find something that is convenient but at the same time cost/time friendly, and effective enough to show visible results and not just report cards.

A flipped classroom turns the traditional format of a class upside down in many ways. Here, a learner gets the content lined up in advance, the material is not a surprise element that will be revealed during a class but something the learner is pre-equipped with and all that remains is to actually understand and apply what the material teaches. This is a big transition towards outcome-oriented learning. In fact, the new generation of learners will not be content with just the syllabus unless it leads them to a purpose-led outcome.

This generation loves the idea of studying the material beforehand and using the classroom for discussion and sharpening one's insights. This is also the reason that now they want to assess themselves and do that as a starting point instead of a footnote because that approach helps to shape the outcomes they are striving for.

The job market has undergone a drastic change. Linkedin, a career platform, reminds that the top 10 job titles used by employees today (example: social media analyst, big data architect, cloud services specialist) were not around even five years back. People are also changing what they learn, how they learn based on why they want to learn - the kind of work they will sink their teeth into.) No doubt, Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) have become a familiar name today. No wonder, digital learning or cloud-based tools are now dominant waves.

If we pause and think as to what could be driving this sudden surge and interest in a virtual classroom or course module, we might discover many big shifts that are actually re-defining the way people learn, when they learn and why they learn. Learners have changed. There is no going back to the old ways. Their attention spans, devices, tools, mind-maps, and even the purpose of learning have changed tremendously. Nowadays, you have segments like lifelong learners or independent workers or personal-interest learners on the rise. How can education continue the same old way then?

People want to learn, they are not opposed to it but they want it to be self-paced, engaging, multi-dimensional, fast, outcome-based, and participative, accelerated, on-demand etc. Pew Research has noticed that 87 per cent of personal learners feel more capable and well rounded, 69 per cent opened up new perspectives about their lives, 64 per cent made new friends, 58 per cent say it made them more connected to their local community and 43 per cent got involved in volunteer opportunities.

Another Pew Research survey in 2016 found 73 per cent of adults now consider themselves lifelong learners with 74 per cent bracketed as personal learners. Such studies have reaffirmed the tide pointing that 43 per cent of those who did not proceed past high school have been tapping the Internet for a personal learning activity. Life coaching and self-help books, as industries in themselves, have already crossed marks like $2 billion and $11 billion respectively while the learning technology market keeps growing strongly.

This dovetails with Gartner's latest prediction on education sector that shows that senior education leaders are rethinking business models and considering a range of new technologies. At the last count, as much as $400 million had been injected into new-age learning providers like EdX, Khan Academy, Coursera, Udemy and many more.  

This is the age of exostructures, digital assessments, OERs (Open Reading Materials) and adaptive learning, which dynamically shapes up the way instructional content is presented to students as per their responses or preferences. Nothing can be left closed or mysterious anymore, the demand for openness is seen across all dimensions of learning.

In short, education is now turning affordable, accessible, continuous and experiential. With this impetus for what a learner actually needs, it is also becoming granular, contextual and pull-based so that it is designed from the perspective of a learner and not based on what the instructor wants or knows. Knowledge has ceased to be a stock asset for this generation. They have made it fluid, personalised, blended, inquiry-based and consistent. This is in tandem with an overall shift in the mindset of modern-age learners who are giving all the space and momentum to a new breed of classrooms.

I am reminded of MIT's motto here that best explains the shift that is happening: mens et manus (mind and hand). The new ways of learning blend cognitive and practical/experiential aspects tightly. Flipped classrooms, Outcome-and Peer-based learning, Gen Y approach: All this is too fascinating and surreal and it is shaping the way we think and work too.

Yet when it comes to credibility of a badge, or course completion status; a lot remains raw and immature. There are a lot of places where brick classrooms and digital ones have to complement and strengthen each other. Both sides would find gaps to fill in and a collaborative approach can equip both the genres strongly. We cannot just swipe away all the intellectual muscle, teaching think tank, legacy and experience that old-school formats have. We just need to find ways where the fork in the road ends.

Brick and Click have to meet on a mid way, and soon enough.

Venguswamy Ramaswamy
Venguswamy Ramaswamy, or "Swamy", heads the iON - a strategic unit taking TCS IT services to the SME segment. Swamy was instrumental in setting up the unit, and the main architect behind the cloud computing solutions it offers. Earlier, as the Director of TCS' Global Consulting Practice (GCP), he was pivotal in building the consulting organization. A Six Sigma Master Black belt, Swamy has an exponent of new ways to quality. His speeches in business forums are marked by ideas about new business models, often making innovation stand in subtle contrast to quality.

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