The Central Library at BITS Pilani, Hyderabad Campus. Photo: Taufeeq Rahmani / Wikipedia

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused the educational infrastructure and machinery to shift from physical environments to digital ones. These virtual avenues, although starting more or less with a clean slate, fail to escape the influence of socioeconomic inequalities.

Access to these educational platforms and media is subject to a number of factors including favorable geographical location, digital literacy, and affordability of Internet service and hardware. But virtualization of education not only discriminates among social classes and groups but also among subjects, disciplines, and fields, because of their respective inherent natures.

On one hand, almost wholly theory-oriented disciplines such as mathematics, philosophy, history, and languages and other literary streams, whose core, essential pedagogies mainly consist of principles, tenets, discourses, dogmas and doctrines, are finding it easy to transition to the remote, digital mode of education.

Meanwhile, profession-based or specific role-oriented educational disciplines are struggling to adapt the holistic experience to the cyber habitat and to achieve the vital balance and concomitance of theory and practice.

As the Indian government has made it clear that it will be a good while before higher educational institutions resume operation, I interviewed a number of university students and industry-employed recent graduates from varied backgrounds to gain a nuanced understanding of how each technical academic discipline and professional educational field would be uniquely affected by the virtualization of the learning process.

I inquired about their belief in the faithfulness of conveyance of the classroom experience and learning delivery through digital means and how adaptable their discipline was to virtual tutelage. I also asked them to weigh in on the pros and cons of simulators in bridging the gap between theory and practice in these technical disciplines.

Subhendu Karmakar, a recent mechanical engineering graduate from a premier engineering institution, explained that the ground reality was that most recruiters in India tend to test theoretical, textbook knowledge, and most budding engineers receive the greater part of their hands-on, technical training after joining the company or organization, where they learn practical work specific to the entity.

During the course of engineering education, actual performance of experiments and trials in the heavy engineering laboratories is uncommon. Theory and practicals are more often than not out of sync, and modern-day relevant equipment and apparatus in engineering labs and workshops are scarce.

“I can learn more from YouTube videos than from the demonstrations in my university labs,” Karmakar said, insisting that it isn’t an exaggeration. “In India, every engineer from a first-tier college is a maintenance engineer,” he said, asserting that engineers only need to monitor whether everything is working smoothly and if something goes astray, ascertain where the problem is, not fix it themselves.

Hence, in his view, virtualization was unlikely to make much of a difference in employability, and simulators would not be a downgrade from the real laboratory experience.

It is important to note that this view likely owes to the fact that the creme-de-la-creme meritorious students who get directly employed as engineers or junior managers at the end of their education mostly take up overseeing, regulatory, and subordinate-supervisory roles, while the majority of the industrial labor force is constituted by those holding much lesser-valued simple technical diplomas.

The latter shoulder the brunt of the hands-on hardware work. It is they who handle the real-world nuts and bolts while the armchair-and-desk engineers chalk out plans, configure the automations, and trace out the flowcharts.

Shreya Sinha, a production engineer working in the steel industry affirmed that most of the heavy machines and equipment in colleges are outdated and out of order, owing to lack of maintenance and cost of repair.

She believes that machines are increasingly becoming software-oriented and that production engineers, especially those in managing roles, interact with machines through digital interfaces, and hence teaching using simulators would be fitting.

“The only thing is that the person needs an exposure with the shop floor. Students should have gone on multiple industrial visits, be familiar with the work environment, and understand the importance and nuances of safety considerations and standards.

“Shop floors are very different from the classrooms. It is being acquainted with the environment that is important while operation can broadly be taught virtually, as long as there are regular industrial site visits. These experiences help provide exposure and establish a general understanding of the special considerations and exceptions that may occasionally arise, that textbooks don’t tell you about.”

Harish Ramachandran, an engineer who specializes in simulations, design, and flaw-detection, believes that as long as a seamless digital and Internet access is provided, the classroom experience can be near wholly and faithfully reproduced digitally, as far as pedagogy is concerned.

He clarified that the feel of holding tools and operating machines can never be truly imitated by simulations and an entirely virtually trained engineer will almost always experience a great deal of hesitation, inhibition, and impediment and run into cumbersome problems when wielding or operating physical machinery for the first time.

He said, “Physical processes are way more complex and daunting than the processes depicted in simulations, and hence are meant to be taught physically. Take welding for example – watching several hours of welding videos wouldn’t prepare you for holding the flame for the first time and creating a flawless joint.

“As of now, virtual education can only give you a guiding path and set you in a general right direction but would not remotely take into consideration all real-life aspects with its ideal assumptions. It won’t prepare you for the all too common deviations from the expectation.”

Asked what her college juniors will miss with their education being remote-digitized, chemical engineer Anamika Sinha reflected that her experience in laboratories prepared her for imperfections and unexpected issues that are frequently encountered in the industry. The true scope of an engineer as a problem solver comes into play when things start to behave in a way that textbooks did not tell you about.

She opined that even the classroom teaching experience would never be that natural and considerate when imparted via digital media. She also underscored the importance of body language in pedagogy, as well as in recruitment interviews: “I have observed how digital interactions miss out on faithfully rendering and conveying these fine but important intricacies.”

She cited examples of students who interned during the Covid-19 lockdown and in lack of familiarity with actual industry were left to deploy the devices of their imagination to prepare reports and reviews and draft plans and suggestions.

Final-year architecture student Vidhi Jha discussed the severely detrimental impact, current and prospective, that the lockdown had on her line of education. “Everything in architecture education is site-oriented, and case studies are of utmost importance. We not only analyze but ‘experience’ relevant existing physical structures in our course of study to gain a comprehensive grasp of our concepts and get inspired for our final-year projects.

“Google Earth fails to convey myriad nuances such as orientation, lighting considerations, adjacent movements, and so much more. Ambient dynamics and processes, specific weather phenomenon, and other factors are crucial considerations in our design process.

“Consider the fact that we built a perfect structure referring to satellite images and other available data but built the window on a side that is blocked out by tall adjacent buildings leading to a dark, shaded residential space. There is so much that can go wrong, and just one of them is enough to completely spoil your intricate design and render all your efforts useless.

“We have very few theory papers and most of our credits are for practical papers but because of Covid-19, everything was thrown into disarray. Most of our evaluation is the live evaluation of our ideas, concepts, and designs, a one-to-one interaction and two-way feedback where we are continuously reviewed, retrospected and graded.

“We are unable to convey our thoughts clearly to our professors on video calls. We have a jury for our evaluation too, now that too is rendered unfeasible. We do not have the materials to make physical miniature models and a great communication rift between the students and professions has materialized.

“Simulators will take a long time to adapt; even the teachers will have to invest a lot of effort in working with them, given that the general digital literacy is so low that most teachers and students struggle with even video calls and chatrooms.

“Architecture has both technical and artistic facets and hence involves creativity and inspiration as much as measurements and principles. Tours and field trips were the best part about our course, and when I visited a historical monument, I came to realize that there were certain crucial aspects of its design that I had never taken notice of, no matter how many different-angled high-resolution pictures and videos I had seen of the same.

“My juniors will be missing on a lot, even what we learn from local site visits, let alone from countrywide tours. We learned so much from construction workers and laborers such as masons and bricklayers that texts or the Internet never tell you.

“Videos and visualization aids are but supplementary materials. They are quite helpful but aids cannot serve as replacements.”

I wonder how safe it would be to entrust architects and civil engineers educated entirely online, with building structures as bridges as apartment complexes that support thousands of lives.

The medical and pharmaceutical sectors are obviously the most essential areas today but the pandemic is likely to most adversely compromise their foundations by restricting essential hands-on learning.

A postgraduate pharmacy student at the prestigious BITS (Birla Institute of Technology and Science) Pilani, Ishan Moitra, explained that in order to adhere to the various national and international regulatory guidelines that govern pharmacological preparation, one needs to be there at the site and perform various carefully designed and detailed tests.

“There are multiple standard operating procedures and protocols that need to be followed, for which you need to be physically present,” Moitra said. “Moreover, one needs to meticulously record all details and every little parameter and data of the system and surroundings in order to get approval for their formulation or preparation.

“Manufacturing needs to be monitored in order to ensure that vital protocols are being followed. Simulations cannot account for every little detail, and even if they reach the level where they can, their comprehensiveness needs to be proven, approved and constantly scrutinized. I wonder whether it’s feasible or ethical.

“Even in basic processes such as the creation of an emulsion, there are always small but significant variations in each manufacture, even if every manufacturer – here the student or instructor in the laboratory – gingerly abides by the same protocols.

“At most, simulations will enable classroom teaching but cannot substitute lab teaching. Real-life results almost always vary, fluctuate, and depart from those obtained in simulators, especially with in vivo processes, because each patient or test subject being administered the drug has their own unique set of metabolic rates, enzyme presence, and other specifics, making it very risky to give sweeping generalizations.

“That being said, because of ethical restrictions on animal testing, the advancement of simulations shall undoubtedly serve to facilitate a lot of research in the area. But with the current level of simulation that can be called coarse at best, we need extensive experimental verification and standard guidelines governing simulators to ensure their reliability.

“Docking softwares that simulate and check general molecular interactions, vital for understanding enzymatic actions, are already pretty refined but physiological simulations are still quite tricky to accomplish dependably. Simply put, the chemistry part of pharmacy is better rendered for virtual study while the biological aspects and quirks need to be specifically dealt with.

“Drug hackathons and cross-institution collaborative efforts will go a long way in contributing to this development, and virtual data analyses need to be extended to the undergraduate level as well.

“However, clinical trials, which anyway are mostly not required to be conducted by pharmacy students rigorously until their final years, mandate physical presence. All in all, pharmaceutical chemistry can be favorably virtualized, pharmaceutics selectively virtualized and pharmacology only sparingly so.”

A final-year medical student, K J Shruthi, fears that without hospital visits, the entire chain of theory-practice-visits-internship-practice would break down. She delineated the apprehension of thousands of budding doctors: “Even the study of first-year subjects [such] as anatomy would be adversely affected.

“The carousel of department service that regularly rotates between various departments used to give a holistic experience and exposure has come to a grinding halt. It’s not like the apprentice’s transition was ever smooth, but the environment familiarity always helped when we held the equipment for the first time under the pressure of rapid response, ready awareness, and quick action.”

Virtualization has certain merits, such as the ability of the instructor to be present at multiple places at once, facilitating guest lectures and visiting professorship, and in general enhancing accessibility and erasing hard boundaries. Simulators can help promote free thinking, stoke curiosity, and foster practical tinkering, as unlike laboratories they consume no material resources or significant energy and there is no risk of accidents or wastage.

Trials can be run repeatedly, with veritably indefinite frequency, at any place and any time, without the requirement of physical infrastructural provisions.

Nonetheless, most existing simulations are still quite limited and coarse-grained. Students enrolled in professional courses ought to have some ideal early on of how lives, besides their own, depend on their education, proficiency, and experience. This is the single greatest source of discontent with the virtualization of professional education.

Pitamber Kaushik

Pitamber Kaushik is a columnist, an independent journalist, a writer, and an amateur researcher. His writing has appeared in more than 60 outlets in 30 countries.