While it is true that Internet access has to improve, statistics tell a different story. In 2020, the Internet penetration rate in India is 50%, and is rapidly increasing(AFP)
While it is true that Internet access has to improve, statistics tell a different story. In 2020, the Internet penetration rate in India is 50%, and is rapidly increasing(AFP)

It is time to move India’s higher education online | Opinion

The criticism does not hold. The digital divide is being bridged; antiquated classroom practices can be buried
By M Jagadesh Kumar
UPDATED ON JUL 23, 2020 06:26 PM IST

Education plays a dominant role in addressing the challenges a country faces and coming up with possible solutions. This has the potential to make a country self-reliant and resilient. While we understand the need for a greater share of public funding for supporting education, a country such as India needs to evolve innovative methods to spread mass education within the available resources. Undoubtedly, there is an increasing social demand for accessible, affordable and good quality higher education as the increasing gross enrolment ratio (GER) indicates.

Covid-19 has given us the opportunity to reflect upon what should be the structures of higher educational institutes (HEIs), and in what forms we can ensure accessible education during and after the pandemic. Those who question the need for adopting online education even post the pandemic should look no further than the non-equity in most of HEIs’ admission policies, which are based on elimination rather than selection.

I see two arguments advanced against adopting online education. One, the issue of the digital divide. This criticism is not as reliable as it may first appear. While it is true that Internet access has to improve, statistics tell a different story. In 2020, the Internet penetration rate in India is 50%, and is rapidly increasing.

The good news is that the National Broadband Mission (NBM) is progressing fast enough to provide access to every village by 2022. NBM is expected to enable all rural and remote areas to have equitable and universal access to broadband services. In the near future, three million km of optical fibre cable will be laid and the towers are expected to increase from the existing 565,000 to one million. The speeds are expected to reach 50 mbps. Therefore, broadband Internet connectivity will not be a hindrance in providing online education in the future. In India, mobile data charges too are at least 30 times lower than the global average, making it cheaper to access digital content.

The second argument is the belief that we cannot recreate the physical classroom experience. Therefore, some critics say that the online mode of education will dilute the quality of education. Unfortunately, the dilution is already embedded in the physical mode of teaching, with most students playing only a passive role in the classroom. This is one of the reasons why the teaching-learning outcomes in many HEIs are not up to the mark. The lack of student engagement and positive interactions through discussions in the classroom has led to the present situation, leading to increased absenteeism and poor performance by the students. We need to set this right before we criticise online education. Further, we should not import the bad practices of the physical classroom to the online classroom. And this is the right time to do it correctly by redressing the shortcomings of the past.

When we shift to online education, more attention needs to be paid on how we impart it. Online education can happen in two parts. First, at their own leisure and pace, students will go through the digital resources made available to them. Second, students can interact with the teachers in real-time live online classes, discussing what they have already studied from guided online resources.

It is in the second part that, teachers can play an important role. The teaching can be made enquiry or discovery-based, through inclusive and active involvement of students. Moving to online classrooms gives us the opportunity to create “non-didactic flipped classrooms” as students are expected to attend these after having gone through the pre-lecture materials. This is what we also call blended learning. We could have done this in the physical classrooms too but we missed the bus riding on outdated practices. But nothing stops us from implementing a flipped classroom in online mode.

As many people assume, HEIs do not necessarily need to possess state-of-the-art technology and lecture recording systems to be able to offer online courses. There are many educational technology companies which can provide the technologies for recording, editing, hosting online courses and arranging proctored evaluations while HEIs can work on pedagogy, curriculum, teacher training and improvement of the quality of education. This is also an opportunity for public-private partnership (PPP) in higher education.

HEIs must embark on offering skill-oriented online degrees, diplomas and certificate programmes. This is where prospective industries can join hands with the HEIs in designing the curriculum and offering job guarantees to the enrolled students provided their performance record crosses the desirable threshold. Being funded by non-governmental resources through PPP is the best guarantee for academic and financial independence of HEIs.

The Institutes of Eminence and other HEIs with top National Institutional Ranking Framework scores should mandatorily offer skill- oriented online programmes at a moderate tuition fee. This way, online education has the potential to enhance the social mobility of those who could not easily access quality education from premier HEIs. Covid-19 has provided us the opportunity to be flexible in higher education replacing the ineffective educational practices that we have clung on to for too long.

Maintaining quality in online programmes is important, but this should be done through appropriate mechanisms within HEIs rather than one-fits-all regulations. The greater the initiatives in online education from reputed HEIs, the more likely these will be accepted by students, teachers, parents and employers. In India, the time has never been better for HEIs to re-invent themselves.

M Jagadesh Kumar is vice-chancellor, Jawaharlal Nehru University
The views expressed are personal
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