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AIPH University shifts focus to hybrid learning


Published: 05th May 2020 10:28 AM 
By Express News Service

Hybrid Learning; Impact of Covid-19 on Education at AIPH University
Tarun Kumar, Dr. Dhiraj Nanda, Dr. Debasish Deb, Dr. Kalpana Panigrahi
AIPH University, Bhubaneswar
The Coronavirus pandemic and subsequent nation-wide lockdown had forced the schools, colleges and universities across the country to a sudden shut down. All educational institutions were caught off-guard in the midst of academic sessions in full swing. The AIPH University (AIPHU), Bhubaneswar was no exception with ongoing eight plus hours of instruction, faculty fully immersed in teaching the curricula, taking measures to support students in need of extra attention, and students fully occupied in preparations for taking the upcoming midterm examinations. With approvals in place from Graduate Research Committee and Ethical Review Board, the fourth semester Master of Public Health (MPH) students were ready to embark on their Capstone projects. The final semester MSc students in Biological Sciences, guided by their research mentors, were equally prepared and were looking forward to moving into the sophisticated research laboratory facility to start working on their research project, a requirement for their graduation at the end of the current semester. 

All of us were struck with uncertainty that was staring us in the face as the first news of shutdown started trickling in on March 14th. We at AIPH University, one of the two Public Health Universities of the country, could sense what was most likely to follow. We were aware of the havoc that this virus was creating in other parts of the world and were able to foresee that containing the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be a long-drawn battle which could take up to several weeks or even a few months. The faculty and students were anxious due to so many unknowns related to this unprecedented public health crisis and specifically, the imminent disruption in the academic activities of the university. Everyone, including the office and support staff, laboratory personnel, and the librarian felt deeply constricted. On any given working day under normal circumstances, one would find the university campus bustling with life. Unfortunately, everything had come to a standstill. Waiting and using the lockdown to rest was certainly not an option. We had to immediately come up with ways to mitigate the impact of Covid-19 on campus.  

The in-class instruction was at a halt and the students from hostels went back to their homes.  However, the faculty members immediately connected with the students and resumed academic engagement by sharing lecture notes and assignments in the form of PowerPoint presentations, pdf documents through Black Board, Google documents and Emails in the very next week after the lockdown started. Moving to this mode was a rather smooth transition as faculty and students were already familiar with these tools. However, this was in no way close to in-class, face-to-face interactions considering the small class size and personal attention from professors, a feature embedded in the university culture. 

During this initial phase of ambiguity and unease, a lot was happening in the background. The university leadership team was reaching out to their peers and vigorous consultations were going on with the overseas collaborators, who were confronted with the same problem in the hope of getting answers that could be beneficial to all. It was very clear in their minds that in the two-year postgraduate degree programs offered at AIPH University, a break of an extended period of no classes was not acceptable under any circumstances. They were also aware of the fact that the AIPH University courses were not designed to be offered online which turned out to be a limitation that they had to circumvent. Usually, it takes six months for a faculty member to convert a didactic class to online. This time factor was a big stumbling block to go over in the current situation.

We were in a totally unexpected and unprecedented scenario with too many questions but with no definitive answer. What are the pros and cons of different possibilities? What can some of our students in rural interior districts like Nabrangpur handle? How will senior professors, who feel amiss when their hands and shirts are not covered with chalk dust after every class, embrace the alternative? Are the junior faculty, well versed in technology, going to emerge as stars? How about laboratory and practical classes? Our Vice Chancellor was getting the feedback from his counterparts from other universities that the academic sessions will be delayed and subsequently examinations and graduation dates will be postponed. On the other hand, AIPH University with its reputation of conducting examinations and declaring results on time wished to continue this tradition and thereby help students save their valuable time.

The leadership team reviewed many proposals that were put forward for consideration; LinkedIn learning, Academy of mine, Udemy, Yu Ja, Filmora, CamStudio, Quicktime, Go Guardian and many more including Zoom and the old-fashioned Skype. Some of our faculty were using Google Class Room, Black Board for posting materials and timed quizzes. One adjunct professor had thought of Ruzuku to create a webinar some time ago. Finally, the discussion ended with a decision not to develop online courses, but to teach the same didactic courses online – something we named as “Hybrid Learning”.

There was a need to instantly bring a change in the modality of teaching. Using Zoom combined with Black Board emerged as the prime choice and within a day all students and faculty switched to this combination and were spending more than their assigned time to teach. Surely, there were some unforeseen hiccups such as complaints from a few students about the summer heat at home and requests to reduce the duration of instruction as they didn’t have the same comfort of the university facilities at home.  Such concerns were appropriately addressed and the decision continued to be in effect. Not only the delivery of course contents, but administering quizzes and discussion sessions were planned and started within days. Soon after, the selection pool of resources increased further as we became aware of the availability of YouTube live and online learning modules that were created by Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD), Government of India.  The aim was to make the most of the resources at our disposal in order to facilitate smooth flow of education. This virtual classroom setting allowed faculty and students to interact with each other, where questions were asked and answered immediately. The most noteworthy aspect of this arrangement was that all of this happened in real time and mimicked the in-class scenario because at AIPH University, we understand that nothing can substitute real-time interaction between the faculty and students. 

At times, the AIPH University was essentially adopting a flipped classroom approach, an academic style in which the conventional notion of classroom-based learning is inverted. Here, the students are introduced to the learning material before the class, enabling classroom time to be used to get their doubts cleared up, deepen understanding through discussion with peers and problem-solving activities. Thus, we were able to successfully implement the incorporation of a hybrid teaching-learning pedagogy, in which whenever required students learnt the conceptual knowledge by getting exposed to the learning material beforehand followed by in-depth discussions of the topic in a virtual classroom setting. Interactive students added up to the success of the whole procedure as answering their questions either directly during the class or in the online platform’s chat section, makes the faculty members aware of the fact that the students are actively participating in the process and are making sincere efforts to grasp the subject.

There were genuine issues encountered such as the digital divide between the urban and rural students, asymmetrical quality of Internet connectivity based on type of connection and location, performing live practical demos for few science subjects and most importantly how well and quickly the students would adapt to the new learning environment. Each one of us had waited to learn the outcome of our unconventional practice with bated breath, but to our great relief classes had gone smoothly with minimal hitch and almost 100% participation from students. This was indeed an accomplishment!

We must acknowledge the advantage we had in having prior familiarity with the digital teaching-learning process of our faculty and students. Additionally, the ubiquitous smartphones have made Internet accessible even in the remotest part of the country. The most gratifying experience in this endeavour was to find enthusiastic participation with full cooperation and support from faculty and students.

For laboratory-based classes, AIPH University started using the Virtual Lab developed by Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India http://www.vlab.co.in/ and other. These Virtual Labs cater to the needs of students at the undergraduate, post graduate level as well as that of research scholars. Through the web portal, any interested person can open an account with a valid email ID and enter into the virtual laboratory developed related to biological sciences among many other subjects. This tool was found to be very interactive in connection with online practical demonstration. Beside this, the real experimental videos uploaded by various scientists/educationists on YouTube were made use of as demonstration of live experiments. The instructors also identified and made use of numerous relevant educational internet sites that they were not aware of prior to the pandemic. 

Teaching without assessment is incomplete and the faculty members geared up to give online quizzes and offline assignments. Right about this time came the disturbing news about security issues with Zoom. We gathered that the home department of government of India was looking seriously at the serious security lapses when participants join a meeting and had issued an advisory. We also realized that the Computer Emergency Response Team of India (Cert-In) had already raised red flags about the security issues. Moreover, employees of big corporations like Google and SpaceX were asked not to use Zoom for official work.  Just as everyone was settling in and accepting this hybrid model to be as good as our didactic classes, came this bump on a more or less smooth road.  Fortunately, all our faculty and students had become quite resilient by now. They made sure to use the “waiting room” feature of Zoom. Also, at this time our faculty have recognized many features of the platform, Google Class Room, most notably that it enables the use of mobile phone to join audio and laptop for sharing presentations. It improved the connectivity remarkably and is now being used in conjunction with Zoom. These platforms have not taken away the old-fashioned emails, and Whatsapp from the AIPH family to stay connected. 

Overall, the aim of our elaborate yet simplified shift to this hybrid learning platform, made wholesome with real-time interactions, quality material and connectivity between educators and their students, was to enable the university to circumvent the disruption due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We at AIPHU recognize the importance of the study of science, especially in such testing times, and deem it our duty to ensure that no student is deprived of the platform to enhance their abilities.  It is extremely heart-warming that the faculty and students have come together as one to get past the unprecedented hurdles of the current time, making it possible for the university to continue its mission of imparting public health education – critically essential for our safe and healthy future. 

As a public health university, students and faculty understand that lockdown is the only way to contain the disease. While the number of Covid-19 cases are low compared to what several other states are reporting, and the doubling time of the number of cases in Odisha is longer than many other states, new cases are still emerging. We are prepared for hybrid learning over coming weeks and if required over months till universities are safe to reopen. At the same time, we cannot wait to welcome new students to our campus in person, and our students are planning for their welcome and farewell ceremonies in August.  We are humbled by witnessing the devastation a pandemic can bring to the world, to the rich and poor countries alike. Not only did we not stop or slow down, but also came together as one united strong force to uphold the quality of education and reach the target. We learnt a lot, became more resilient, adapted to the need of the hour and most importantly, didn’t accept the status quo. Our faculty started engaging with our students on Monday, 16th via the internet and shared course material. On April 1st, swiftly within two weeks after accepting the unforeseen lockdown, we resumed full speed. Later on, UGC provided guidance on online resources, and last week (April 21st), the Odisha State Higher Education Department issued a circular to institutions to start online instructions. We value every minute of our citizens’ time, we recognize how health and education form the pedestals of economy and development in any society. We are preparing the next generation public health experts to serve our state and country during and after the current Covid-19 pandemic and many other issues and epidemics affecting population health that may follow in coming decades. The six weeks of student time we have saved during a two year active learning period at AIPH University is priceless to us. 
Please write to [email protected] to learn from our experience and any assistance you may need to shape the future of students at your institution.

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