Bring higher education to Gen-Next’s doorstep
Guest Column | Digitalisation is a prerequisite for democratisation of higher education; institutes unable to keep up with technological advancements will cease to remain relevant
“Can we be equal and excellent at the same time?” John Gardner, former United States education secretary, had asked back in the 1960s. Since then, access, equity, quality and affordability in education have been widely debated.
An all-encompassing education system should provide knowledge seekers quality and affordable education at their doorstep to create effective learners endowed with domain knowledge, soft and hard skills and the ability to communicate across cultures, time and space.
The student community, especially in India, is a heterogeneous group with diverse needs, and requires different paces of teaching, formats, and styles of learning among other associated forms of flexibility.
Keeping up with technology
Information and communication technology (ICT), which is bringing innovative disruptions in higher education and creating new narratives of learning, can help a great deal. However, technological advancements in the modern world are so prolific that higher education institutions (HEIs) unable to embrace the changes taking place in teaching and learning processes will lose relevance.
Digitalisation of higher education plays a crucial role in this context as it helps create a responsive administration, multidisciplinary curriculum, and facilitates experiential learning and real-time performance evaluation in commensuration with learning outcomes, effective communication, availability of e-learning resources even in remote rural areas, innovation, entrepreneurship, collaboration and outreach. Moreover, digitalisation will help learners who cannot come to the classroom, and those who are differently abled.
Digitalisation avenues in India
Digitalisation in Indian higher education began with production of quality e-content and courseware by electronic and multimedia resource centres (EMRCs), and their dissemination through 24x7 Vyas Higher Education television channel and 32 Swayamprabha DTH (direct to home) channels.
Over the last decade, the ministry of education has accelerated the digitalisation process through several initiatives related to access to online courses, quality digital academic content, academic research, and institutional administrative practices.
For online courses several options – including access to online massive open online courses (Moocs), national programme on technology enhanced learning, e-PG pathshala (curriculum-based interactive e-content), e-acharya (a portal to host all e-content developed through projects under NME-ICT), Fosse (free/libre and open-source software for education) and Sakshat (a one-stop education portal) – are available.
There are several databases and tools available for academic research such as e-Shodh Sindhu (consortia for higher education e-resources), e-Shodh Gangotri (digital repository of thesis and dissertations), Shodh Shudhhi (plagiarism detection software), and National Digital Library (repository of academic content).
Virtual skill development
To facilitate skill development and innovation in science, engineering, technology and design development through a virtual learning environment, students can peruse e-yantra (labs for training in embedded systems), e-kalpa (digital learning environment for design), virtual labs (web-enabled experiments designed for remote operation), spoken tutorials (IT application), SOS Tools (software and simulation packages), text transcription of video contents, Oscar (open source courseware’s animation repository).
Besides, Vidwan (a digital database of experts) allows expertise sharing and collaboration among academics and institutions.
Easy academic management
The National Academic Depository through DigiLocker ensures round-the-clock availability of students’ awards in the digital form; Baadal, a NME-ICT cloud orchestration and virtualisation management software speeds up development and deployment of e-gov applications for academic needs; and Samarth project is improving the efficiency of administrative, financial and evaluation-related activities by reducing response time.
All these efforts have made a solid foundation for creating an ecosystem of digitalisation in higher education, which will help establish the proposed digital university on the University 4.0 model.
With the coronavirus pandemic compelling HEIs to resort to online teaching, it is evident now that higher education will witness an extensive use of digitalisation in course design, practice-driven teaching, research, assessment, and all other aspects of teaching and learning to create a next-generation learning environment.
For learners, digitalisation-powered flexibility, adaptability, and personalisation make learning a joyful enterprise, in both online and traditional classroom learning. Through technology-enabled classes, virtual reality sessions, virtual labs, digital models and simulations, gamification, e-documents, e-text and reference books, online assignments, apprenticeships and vast and open educational resources, students can have engaging learning experiences.
To facilitate the impending transition, HEIs need to use technology for building a credible ecosystem that improves learning outcomes and provides personalisation. This can be accomplished by using ICT, embracing hybrid learning models, building industry associations and developing 21st-century life skills and competencies. HEIs continuously need to upgrade their curricula, course contents, teaching methods, evaluation, integrate problem-solving research with academics, conduct research in the digital environment with peers across the globe and adapt modular models. HEIs also need to turn to learner-centric approaches revolving around soft and domain-specific skills crucial for enhancing learners’ employability. They need to embrace hybrid learning models comprising offline, online, on-labs, onsite platforms and include industry, skill-hubs and unorganised learning centres in rural India by building industry-academia collaboration and outreach activities.
The National Education Policy, 2020, cannot be implemented without digitalisation of higher education. Capacity building of faculty members in digitalisation technologies is essential to empower them to embrace the advancements in the teaching-learning process.
Funding, an obstacle
However, funding will be a barrier in effective digitalisation of higher education since large-scale investments in hardware, software and providing high bandwidth internet connectivity in remote and rural areas are needed to create a robust digital architecture required for an all-encompassing, all-inclusive and flexible learning ecosystem. Overcoming these roadblocks will ensure that the screen-savvy tendency of Gen-Next is harnessed in earnest and their dwindling memory span is enhanced. Educational planners and leaders need to take responsibility for the digitalisation of their respective institutions.
(The writer is vice-chancellor, Central University of Punjab, Bathinda. Views expressed are personal.)