Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Advocating for quality, blended education

Professor Dheeraj Sharma, Director of the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak, gives an outlook on the future of higher learning in India

Published: Nov 9, 2020 11:15:29 AM IST

Advocating for quality, blended education
1.  You have taught as a professor in institutions across the world. Today, as Director of the Indian Institute of Management Rohtak, what varied experiences are you bringing to the table.

In my career spanning more than two decades, I have been privileged to work in a unique setting in Europe, Asia, and North America. I have made my honest efforts to give my best to the institutions that I was associated with and have tried to impact the lives of the people around me to the best of my ability. When I took charge at IIM Rohtak, I envisioned to provide the highest quality management education of an Institute of National Importance (INI) to the largest number of students. My view is to make high-quality education available to the maximum number of deserving students from various student groups, including undergraduates, graduates, working professionals, and researchers. At IIM Rohtak, we have endeavored to provide this opportunity to the maximum number of deserving students by introducing several new and innovative programs for the student community. I feel proud to have been able to increase the students’ strength of IIM Rohtak from about 300 to 1100 approx. and no. of programmes from 2 to 7 in a span of 3 years. I would continue to bring more and more opportunities for various groups seeking higher education in the coming years.

Advocating for quality, blended education
2.  The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted education all over the world. What challenges does it pose to higher learning, considering the delay in term reopening and the possible effects on the current generation of under-grads?

COVID – 19 created the largest disruption to the education system in history, affecting over one billion learners globally. Even today, the COVID crisis and the education disruption is far from over. However, the immense efforts made in a short time period to respond to the challenges in the delivery of education remind us that the change is conceivable. The solutions that seemed to be impossible are being implemented in the most innovative way possible. Educators across the world have been compelled to embrace and leverage technology to do things differently. The crisis has also changed the role of the educator. The educator’s role has become more of a facilitator. Educators are expected to be guides and coaches who attempt to provide students with opportunities for holistic development. Although in the short term, COVID has had a drastic impact on education, in the long term, it will bring much-needed innovation in the education sector and redefine the role of schools and colleges. Education would be much more accessible and will reach all sections of society.

3.  Apart from a classroom-learning environment, what other learning styles and models are being followed to make up for lost learning time if any?

If we take a philosophical approach to education, then attempting to read, acquire knowledge, and do something during this unique context of COVID itself is educational. I wonder why we believe that 12 years of education is the only modus operandi for an individual to pursue higher education. COVID situation, coupled with New Education Policy (NEP) can help us redefine what has been the format, content, and methods of delivery of education. At IIM Rohtak, we have adapted a continuous assessment methodology wherein students are assessed on their daily learnings to facilitate the constant learning process in online mode. We have also adopted simulation-based learnings to make the students better decision-makers. Our faculty and staff have done a great job in harnessing technologies and leveraging it and using it to impart education in new and innovative ways. For example, some of the online platforms allow break rooms, which are an excellent way for students to get a chance to put forth their ideas and engage in meaningful discussions. We have dedicated sessions just for discussion of concepts and ideas.

4.   Can you elaborate on the impact the COVID-19 crisis will have on present and future education?

The pandemic has hit the traditional classroom model of education, but the optimism in this current crisis comes from the fact that the information technology advancements and the fourth industrial revolution have given us the tools to combat such a crisis effectively. Though some proponents of the classical model will deny the role of online education models, one thing is profoundly clear that it has already opened a plethora of opportunities to educators and learners. The systems developed by the institutes and corporates are helping the students learn in an inclusive ecosystem. Earlier, physical classroom and personal interactions were the only effective and right way of education. However, in the post COVID environment, we will witness a massive shift towards online learning and self-learning. I believe the ideal will lie in blended education. Specifically, a combination of online and offline is probably the future of school education. Also, believe blended education, which leverages technology, can also allow institutions to expand without significant infrastructural constraints. Further, technology can also increase the reach of Indian institutions to access global educators. In the post-COVID scenario, we will witness the increase in blended learning models, which encompasses traditional and online learning methods.

5.  What steps are being taken to mitigate the ill effects of the pandemic on education?

The UN Policy brief on the impact of COVID on education suggests that around 24 million school students globally have dropped out due to COVID 19. With more considerable attention given to the use of technology to ensure continuity in the students' learning process, there must be an expanded understanding of the Right to Education by including digital access and connectivity as an entitlement to all. We need to ensure that all students, irrespective of their social status, learn with the changing methods of digital learning. Educators and students need free and open source technologies for teaching and learning. Thus, the government needs to step forward to develop open education resources, inexpensive devices, and digital essay access. PM eVidya program is one such initiative taken by the government to promote digital education and make e-learning assessable for students and teachers. Under this scheme of ‘One Nation, One Digital Platform’, school students will be provided with e-content and QR coded energized textbooks. Another milestone initiative which can promote digital accessibility infrastructure development can be under the CSR Act. Organizations covered under CSR act can help in development of such infrastructure through mandated CSR activities.             

6.  Do you foresee any ill effects of online learning and learning during COVID situation?

The isolating effect of lockdown may have impacted the mental health of students. This needs to be addressed adequately. Hence, institution must engage with students through the student representative and faculty to make them feel better. Some funding support may be provided to institutions to set up 24 hour counselling phone lines to support efforts for generally mental well being. Particularly, school teachers must regularly interact with students and take counseling sessions apart from the regular knowledge sessions to provide psychosocial support.

To ease the financial burden on the students, government has directed banks to allow restructuring of the students' existing loans and granting some moratoriums on payments. Also, many banks are providing concessions in their loan rates for the students joining programs in top level higher education institutions. I am sure this will help students get requisite financial support to pursue education. Furthermore, I have noticed that there is a rise in availability of government scholarship to the needy students.

Finally, several NGOs are supporting digital education to the marginalized sections of the society with help from state and central governments by providing access to digital infrastructure and devices. The government must expand the network of digital hotspots in villages where digital education may be delivered. Digital Chaupals is probably one way of giving village chaupals high speed internet connectivity for education.

IIM Rohtak was the first institute to start its academic schedule well on time since it already had the required technological infrastructure ready to start the curriculum via online mode. We hope that we will give our student exposure to the industry and its practices in online mode. We are organizing regular webinars, leadership lectures, and field visits in virtual mode.

7.  Considering the technology-reliant and automated future, how will managerial skills change and what can students do to thrive in tomorrow’s environment?

Expectations from management students are never a set standard. It keeps evolving with the need of the hour. The expectations at the time of the global crisis have increased multi-fold and management scholar shall lead the way out of the global COVID crisis. Employers want students with impeccable domain knowledge, resilience & adaptability. Organizations in every sector are trying to create a digitized, automated, and AI-driven business environment. Hence, there will be a huge demand for a workforce who is more trained in analytical thinking, decision-making, and being informed of the industry's latest trends and requirements. One must be focused and must create self-goals to imbibe this information and adapt to the business's ever changing needs. Students must also motivate themselves to learn new skills continuously.

While the race to be the best has gotten a lot more intense, our students have been continuously adapting themselves. As classes, projects, assignments, group activities, and even birthday celebrations happen over video conferences, the students are always adapting to the ever-changing environment. Moreover, all the students’ activities are being conducted online, where students learn the dynamics of virtually working in teams. They learn to understand the scope of work and coordinate with their peers virtually to schedule activities, conduct tasks, manage teams, and create a continued peer learning environment among students. I see a greater sense of self-discipline emerging out of working online.

8.  Your primary research interests are concerned with ‘relationships in business domain’. Do you see these relationships changing in light of how the office-going workforce has had to adapt to working from home? What critical skills will be expected from students in this light?

The COVID situation has made us reflect on finding new ways of working and achieving superior work outcomes using alternate methods of working. Earlier reports have suggested that remote-work opportunities have benefitted organizations with telecommuters being more happy, significantly more productive, and less likely to quit their jobs than those who work in traditional office set-up. Telecommuting will require people to have a better work-life balance. Relationships are fundamental to the functioning of any organization. These relationships include ones with superiors, co-workers, and families. The key to balanced relationships is communication. The organizations must develop evidence-based remote work programs for their employees that will enhance their ability to communicate and build work relationships with their peers and superiors more effectively. Several alternate engaging activities like virtual team celebrations, virtual company-wide events, and reward ceremonies, online message boards, virtual lunches, etc. can further support relationship building.  It may be important to examine the impact of telecommuting on work-family and family-work conflict in Indian context. I am sure the students of IIM Rohtak are appreciative of difficulties and challenges of new work environment. This will help them adapt and navigate any challenging situation at work.

Disclaimer: The views, suggestions and opinions expressed here are the sole responsibility of the experts. No Forbes India journalist was involved in the writing and production of this article.