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Post-COVID 19, higher education faces a unique challenge. While the transition to digital delivery has been seamless in most courses around the world, even with the wide offerings found in a liberal education curriculum, we are staring at another question. Perhaps, an even more fundamental question: what makes liberal education different from the on-line experience.

First things first, the speed at which the online transition happened was a testament to the power of other infrastructures that existed to make remote learning possible. Digital networks, Learning Management Systems and the readiness of learning communities to adapt to this challenge made the swift switch possible. While such a quick adaptation is a function of infrastructure and stakeholders such a model still needs to be distinguished from actual online learning. Remote learning is not the same as online learning --as often this delivery was prefaced by real face-time between students and teachers and the entire framework had already been set up for in person classes.

What we think of as online learning has been in existence for almost a decade with the rise of Coursera, Edx, SWAYAM and many other public and private platforms that premised the learning experience on a totally virtual experience, much differently than what we practice in brick and mortar classrooms. If anything, the experience of remote learning made us nostalgic for our old classrooms. What we had by way of human nuance when face-to-face in the classroom, was often severely challenged by the limited understanding of learning as the delivery of content. As glad as we were to finish our semester on time at FLAME University, we were also aware of a feeling of unfinished business-- the missing warmth of human engagement and the liberty of spontaneous response. Clearly, this wasn’t and will never be our first choice and remote learning was but a stand-in for the real thing.

Again here it is important to mention that the offline classroom experience wasn’t a 19th century version of a blackboard and a sage on the stage either. Many courses already incorporated electronic forums, responding to film clips or other video instruction and also an element of digital creation. So, if anything, 21st century higher education has always existed as a blended model and this has preceded the Corona pandemic and its disruptions.

What is interesting now however is the challenge to the financial model of the supposed value proposition of higher education—specifically in terms of the high price of liberal education. If MOOCS and other certifications can essentially enable the equivalent of delivering a college degree, why go to college at all? Coursera offers over 3000 courses, Edx around the same, and Future Learning is approaching the 1000 mark. With so much choice already available, it is now apparent to those who are living in lockdown that presence needs to be distinguished from online participation. Distancing and social isolation have made us now intuit what makes face to face learning so unique, so essential and ultimately necessary to a transformative human experience.

The fact is that liberal education is premised on experiential learning. That is to say that to really learn something, the transformation has to be experienced. Aha moments might not be as frequent in rote learning styled MOOCs as they are in seminar-based discussions so frequently found in liberal colleges, and this is exactly the differentiation between virtual and real environments.

In our initial experiment with remote learning, what we found at FLAME was that higher education is so much more than the delivery of content. 90% of our classes at FLAME University have less than 20 students for the precise reason—even though it is an expensive model, it is effective pedagogy to have a small class size. This reality was also borne out in the experience of remote delivery. Unlike MOOCs that can have 1000+ participants (or as in the case of Stanford’s Machine Learning course, a million plus enrollments) the focus for liberal education is not just a focus on delivering content or skills. It is the relationships forged through teaching, the process of mentoring that builds confidence, strong lifetime bonds like that which once emanated from a guru-shishya experience, peer-learning that is enhanced by a residential environment and the network of relationships that is constituted by alumni and placement networks. None of these translate to an online experience alone. Just as online friends don’t often translate to offline friendships, a virtual classroom may often not translate into a real learning community. With remote learning, relationships established in the real world migrated into the team dynamics in a virtual environment, but the truth is those dynamics existed in the first place.

Though we have learnt much about harnessing the potential of digital tools from this disruption, our yearning remains for the real world—and the teaching and experiences we also receive from the school of life. Many students and faculty continue to express a longing for the way things were and we do hope that we will emerge from this lesson a whole lot savvier about virtual classrooms –but also a lot more appreciative about immersive and experiential learning that liberal education has always been premised on.

What makes liberal education different from the online classroom is the totality of human experience that accompanies it. We might enhance learning with technology, but we learn through our peers, teachers and experiences. Locating where the jobs are is a challenging question to answer in a volatile world. How we can become the kind of human beings who rise to future challenges with creativity, endurance and imagination is a question that has as its answer, liberal education.

- Prof. Maya Dodd, Associate Professor – Literary and Cultural Studies

*Views expressed are personal.


Bio: Dr. Maya Dodd received her Ph.D. from Stanford University and has had post-doctoral fellowships at Princeton University and the Centre for the Study of Law and Governance at JNU, India. At FLAME University, she has chaired the Centre for South Asia and teaches Literary and Cultural Studies in the Department of Humanities and Languages. Her research interests include Digital Humanities, South Asian Studies and Cultural Studies and her teaching is focused on the digital classroom and archiving practices.