The whole world has now been forced by COVID-19 to go online for education, work, business, and all other activities necessary for survival. When I retired from IIT Bombay in 1994, reputed institutions such as IITs, NITs, BITS Pilani, and also large number of private institutions offered chemical engineering specialization, several of these with inadequate faculty, teaching, curriculum, facilities, etc. I thought it may be a good idea to create computer-based chemical engineering courses, based on my experiences at IITK, Texas A&M, and IITB, for the benefit of students, to supplement classroom teaching as well as for teachers for their own use. Only a few platforms such as Toolbook, Authorware were available in 1995, and I selected the ‘Toolbook’ platform to create five (5) ‘self-learning, interactive computer-based modules’, primarily in text form without any audio or video material ( Very few people were interested in computer-based learning (e-Learning) in late 90s. I guess we were too early to introduce the change in the learning process!

In early 2020, online education as principal mode of learning is still in its infancy. Online courses are available and used extensively by people around the world, for example from Coursera, EdX, Khan Academy. Attempts have been made to offer blended learning but is still in an experimental stage. Various models of blended learning are being explored. Most of the universities around the world still believe in traditional mode of offering education and learning, hence the progress on accepting online education has been slow.

All this is now going to change fast. We are currently seeing the future of how we deliver education & learning to our younger generation. The Corona virus/COVID-19 pandemic situation is speeding the process and providing us an excellent opportunity to experiment and optimize the entire on-line learning process and experience – hardware devices & software platforms, learning material, delivery, effectiveness, absorption, assimilation, tests & evaluation, and its overall impact. Online learning also facilitates self-learning and self-renewal through life-long learning, so very important in the era of rapid technological changes & obsolescence.

Of course, for all of this to happen and happen seamlessly, we need to provide reliable, stable, high quality, accessible broad-band high speed internet infrastructure and facilities to each and every Indian across all localities throughout India and tablets, laptops, mobiles at affordable costs.

Some envisage that, in the future, employment and degrees may be decoupled. Others disagree, because a degree is a representation of the knowledge and skills an individual possesses. Does a degree, implicitly or explicitly, imply that students are equipped with competencies such as critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities, work ethics and application to real-life problems? Can we perform lab experiments, teach hard skills on machines and online effectively, through modeling & simulation, virtual & augmented reality? My personal experience is that labs are much less effective online than in person, and one has to ‘dirty’ her/ his hands using different machines for experiential learning.

Will traditional brick and mortar universities be completely replaced by on-line universities or will online education and learning complement & supplement traditional learning in the future? We must not forget that, in a traditional university, education and learning also take place outside the classroom – through the experiences of living on campus housing (Hostels/ Dorms), sports and physical activities on the fields, and during extra-curricular activities, etc., with diverse groups of students.

Going to college is more than merely taking classes; it is a totally new experience for most young individuals where they transition into independence, learn how to take care of themselves and how to add to society. Campus life offers in-person experiences, face-to-face interaction leading to improved social skills, hands-on learning, and real-world experiences. Such experiences would prepare students better for future careers and lives. In a nurturing school environment, there are teachers, peers, friends, and staff who push a student to thrive. This community feeling is a large factor in education, and it is easily achieved in a classroom and campus setting. This campus culture, encouraging and nurturing environment are difficult to achieve online.

Will we be able to provide education in the future at affordable costs as opposed to today’s expensive education model, where students graduate with loans and debt that they can’t pay? This may be possible if universities switch completely to high quality holistic online education. Affordability and accessibility to a university is currently based by and large on a student’s socioeconomic status. This creates an obstacle for bright students with tremendous potential. Online education & learning is a possible answer.

The current problems of student learning as ‘one model fits all’ does not work because individual student learning speeds & styles, motivation, and preparation are different. This problem may also be true with online learning. Personalized learning is the way forward. Online learning meets that requirement. However, one finds that online learning necessitates self-motivation, self-learning, self-discipline, commitment, regularity, and more. The online learning environment is full of distractions such as phone, email, tv, social media, etc. and students are often much less motivated to learn. I believe people will retain less information learning online as opposed to in person, similar to how writing with pen and paper is better for retention than typing on a computer!

Online networks, chat groups, dedicated groups comprising slow, medium and fast learners with a teaching assistant, counselling sessions may address the situation to some extent. Supplementing ongoing hands-on curriculum with remote lectures/talks from experts may be particularly useful for schools and institutions that cannot afford to hire top-notch faculty. Accessibility to seminars/ webinars/ conferences around the world are only a click away. In general, online learning may work better for graduate programs than undergraduates.

It is also assumed that online teaching will be of high quality both in terms of teaching material with emphasis on concepts, applications & problem solving as well as instruction. Such quality teachers need to be trained in the new mode of online instruction.

What about the evaluation of learner and instructor? Is there a superior scheme for evaluation of learner’s extent of learning and application to real life situations? I believe proper testing can be done online, it will require teachers to put in extra effort and rethink how testing should be done and focus more on concepts than memorization. What about a ‘honor’ system with free availability of internet and cut-and-paste options?

We need to critically examine the success of a learner in both modes of education – in person and online, while continuously improving the online mode in all respects. We believe a learner is more comfortable with the traditional mode where interactions with student-student and student-instructor are face-to-face rather than in the online mode where they are virtual.

Opportunities & challenges are therefore available to experiment with online-to-on campus blend to be varied and optimized for individual students and/or for socio-economic groups. The optimal blend may need to be thoughtfully crafted to account for the relative advantages and disadvantages that are prevalent between students from different socio-economic groups. Factors to consider will include the home environment, pre-K to high school schooling, geographic location, and other variables. The question is – what and how to design for a holistic education experience.

Humans are social creatures and online isolation is not as enjoyable and productive as being in a physical classroom. People want the interactions, the discussions, the “social and personal noise.” I personally favor an optimum blend of both, supported by ‘online academic, professional, and social gatherings’, as an effective model for education and learning for the future.

Welcome to the bright new world offering creative and exciting opportunities and times ahead for educators worldwide, startups, mobile apps, and for innovative solutions!

(With input from my grandchildren in high school and college)