Introduction: Education during a pandemic

The spectre of COVID-19 has descended on the planet so suddenly that almost all spheres of human life have been caught off guard. And education is no exception. It has badly affected the global education landscape leading to the wholesale closure of the schools, colleges and universities. The highest ranked universities like MIT, Oxford, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Caltech, and Chicago are also laden with the threat COVID 19 has posed to education. The shadow of gloom caused by the apprehension of COVIS 19 contagion, the sudden discontinuity in academic life and the considerable uncertainty about return to normality are real disheartening experiences. And since there remains a slim chance to get rid of the situation before long, governments, educationists and the think-tank are grappling to work out a solution to the problem to help minimize the impact of the calamitous situation on education. They are looking forward to an alternative method of education in a bid to ensure sustainability in the academia. Most have come down in favour of virtual education in the state of emergency though the idea has been shot down in flames by many. Now what to do? Suspend all academic activities and count down to the day of departure of the pandemic, or try a viable alternative? If you say yes to the latter, what could the viable alternative be?

Pedagogical orientation in the ICT Age

We are living in an age of unprecedentedly high technological advancement. The fastest growing connectivity with unprecedented processing power, enormous storage capacity, unlimited access to information and emerging technology breakthroughs in the fields of Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, the Internet of Things (IoT), Autonomous Vehicles, 3-D Printing, Nanotechnology, and Quantum Computing are real mind-blowing experiences which have revolutionized the methods of current education and research.

Amazing Big Data facts 2020

Statistics show that about 4.5 billion people are using internet in the world; over 3.5 bllion Google searches are done per minute; every 2 days we create as much data/information as we did from the dawn of civilization down to 2003(5 Exabytes of information); 90% of the world's data has been created in the last two years and by 2020, it's estimated that 1.7MB of data will be created every second for every person on earth (DOMO's Report). We can easily make use of these ICT achievements in shaping and reshaping the teaching and learning strategies of the present time.

The Digital Natives: Two unique generations

Today's academia predominantly revolves around two generations: Generation Z, born between 1995 and 2009, are familiar with the internet, smartphones, iPads, smart-boards and other electronic devices since their schooldays, and Generation Alpha, born since 2010 till date, use digital devices as their cup of tea. These two generations have an unprecedented amount of information at their fingertips. They are known as digital natives, and comfortable with machines than men; with virtual world than the real.

Aims of 21st Century Higher Education

Experts have set the following three aims of 21st Century education in keeping with these brilliant ICT feats and global needs: a) To empower students/learners with transferable skills/ competencies to cope with the fast and constantly changing global landscape; b)To help students make the best use of the information readily available to them; c)To strive to prepare an entire generation of learners for the 21st-century workforce. The 21st Century innovative teaching pedagogies should be framed on the basis of these 3 principal aims.

The P21 Framework: Incorporating skills into learning

The Partnership for 21st Century Learning is a model for incorporating 21st Century skills into learning. It was developed by a Coalition of the US Department of Education and was first published in 2006 and is being continuously updated. The Framework has identified 4 basic skills for today's students/learners: a) Creativity/Innovation- uses information/invention in new ways; b) Critical thinking- analyzes information and critiques claims; c) Communication: shares information with others; and d) Collaboration-goes into partnership/ teamwork. The teaching pedagogies of 21st century should be innovated in view of achieving these four basic skills in the broader context of the Digital Age.

Teaching above the Line: The Digital Pedagogy/Techno-pedagogy/ Education Technology

Education and technology have beautifully combined to form an innovative pedagogy to impart teaching above the line. The SAMR Model is an example of the integration of education and technology. It is a framework created by Dr. Ruben Puentedura for selecting, using, and evaluating technology in education. SAMR Framework can be an effective way of assessing one's choice of technology for their modes of teaching. The model has four stages: a) Substitution stage-- replaces the traditional tools by technology with no functional improvement; b) Augmentation stage- also replaces traditional tools by technology but with functional improvement and significant enhancements to the student experience; c) Modification stage- is an actual change in the design of the lesson and its learning outcomes and d) Redefinition stage- represents the highest part of how technology can transform a student's experience. Substitution and Augmentation are considered as 'Enhancement' steps, and Modification and Redefinition are 'Transformation' steps. In crude terms, Enhancement is like the 'seasoning an old recipe' and Transformation is like 'creating an entirely new, original dish'. Susan Oxnevad, the US Educator and specialist in professional learning, innovation, and engagement referred to this movement across the spectrum as 'teaching above the line'.

Teaching Pedagogy and Fourth Industrial Revolution: The Flipped Classroom Model

With enormous advancement in ICT, humankind has arrived on the brink of a new revolution called the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). The first Industrial Revolution used steam, the second electricity to mechanize production and the third used electronics and information technology to automate the manufacturing processes. Now the Fourth Industrial Revolution is emerging from the 3rd in the wake of the digital revolution over the last few decades. It is a fusion of technologies that combines the physical, digital and biological spheres. It is developing exponentially and affecting almost every aspect of human life. It may completely change the way we live, we work and we connect with each other. However, we have yet to fully understand how we will deal with such a transformation humankind has never ever experienced before. However, one thing is for sure, the response to the Fourth Industrial Revolution must be very comprehensive and well-coordinated. And hence we need to develop creative skills, cognitive agility, problem-solving skills, critical thinking skills, and lifelong learning skills which are subject to acquisition through learning. And the flipped classroom model is considered a better approach to this learning. It shifts the emphasis from teaching to learning and creates an active and collaborative environment enabling students to demonstrate their creativity, innovation, problem- solving and other skills that never existed before and are needed for their life and living.

The New Normal in Education: Finding an alternative in a state of emergency

The new normal means anything done in the society to meet the immediate needs in an out of the ordinary way. Not fully dependent on the long-borne educational legacies- classrooms, rows of desks, face-to-face instruction, chalkboards, dewy decimal library, heavy bags, mass lectures, and public exams, the new normal brings about a paradigm shift that includes: a) Shift of focus-from teachers to students, from teaching to learning; b) Shift of learning space - from public space to personal space; c) Shift of teaching methods --from conventional classroom teaching to virtual or remote teaching; d) Shift of responsibility in the teaching and learning process - from institutional people to the households; and e) Shift of students' assessment - from summative to formative. We have to redesign our education technology for emergency in consonance with the principles of the new normal.

Tools to support online teaching-learning

Students/learners should try various online tech tools for different teaching and learning purposes. The tools are effective for collation of ideas and development of collaborative responses. They can facilitate the acquisition of different 21st century skills, boost students' engagement and interaction with the process of learning and bolster their sense of innovation. Discussion forums, chat groups, learning forums and many other learning management tools can be useful in this regard. For individual and collective work, the students can be given opportunities to deliver speech, teach their fellow students, hold seminars, do pair work and give presentation individually and collectively.

The challenges of implementing virtual learning strategies

The implementation of virtual teaching strategies is sometimes impeded by: a) Teachers' lack of experience and skills in handling online tools; b) Students' lack of opportunity i.e., financial crisis, inadequate tech tools, lack of motivation and knowledge of virtual learning etc.; c) Inadequate Internet connectivity and power outage; d) Lack of digital learning resources; and e) Institutional inability. Mention may be made here that exclusion of any students from the system may create 'an inequality of opportunity' and dampen their spirits which could be a deviation from the Sustainable Development Goal 4 (Ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all) and UNESCO's Education for All (EFA) movement. However, the challenges can also be seen as the source of opportunity as suggested Albert Einstein, "In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity."

Boosting Students' interest

To boost students'/ learners' interest, confidence and morale mostly depend on teachers/trainers/facilitators. Geoff Stead, the noted US digital learning expert in his keynote speech at the Cambridge Summit of Education 2019 has rightly said, "In the digital world, learners only engage if you can really make a real connection with them." The famous Benjamin Franklin dictum-'Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn,' should be the real spirit even in case of virtual teaching. In the learner-centered education of the new normal scenario, we need to ensure that the basic physical, social-emotional, and psychological needs of students are met before they go for any alternative.

Conclusion: Mainstreaming virtual learning

Universities are like bicycles. If you don't ride and keep pushing the paddles, they will fall. So, whatever happens, they need to be kept functional. We have to think up and implement education strategies in view of this whole spectrum of natural, environmental, social, political, cultural and other related issues. And to this end, we welcome any modes of education that offer a much greater degree of flexibility in the way the crisis can be managed. Against the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic, online learning is gaining a foothold across the globe. Most of the institutions are in favour of it at this moment in time to minimize the impact of the pandemic on education. It is the need of the hour. To replace a conventional mode of education with a viable alternative in emergencies and to gradually mainstream it is sure a viable option.

Dr. Rashid Askari is a writer, educationist, columnist, fictionist, translator, media personality and vice chancellor of Islamic University Bangladesh. Email:

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