Digitalisation and Indian Education in Corona Outbreak

It is well known that the Covid-pandemic has forced a global shift in the education paradigm. In India, with the closure of institutions, around 1,000 universities and 40,000 colleges are vying to shift to online modes of education, impacting over 14 lakh teachers and nearly 4 crore students in the higher education ecosystem.

The use of technology and digital education has been widely debated and advocated in India, even before the onset of the pandemic. The Government of India has taken myriad initiatives in this regard, with a special focus on using technological resources to make Higher Education accessible for all. The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) is seeking to bridge the digital divide through its three cardinal principles of access, equity and quality. The focus of this centrally sponsored scheme is to ensure connectivity to all colleges and universities, provide low cost affordable devices to students and teachers, and provide free of cost high quality e-content to learners across the country.

In addition to this, the Ministry of Education has also been facilitating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through SWAYAM, digital e-content through e-PGPathshala and the National Digital Library, accelerated hands on learning through Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Education (FOSSEE) etc. Recently, while announcing E-Vidya, as part of the covid-relief package Atma Nirbhar Abhiyan, the Government has proposed to allow the 100 top universities in the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) to offer online degrees.

Systemic challenges

While there are multiple interventions leveraging the use of technology in education, one must remain cognizant of the challenges and context in India. As of January 2020, only 7 Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) had received permission to run online programs. With the onset of the pandemic, therefore, a majority of India’s HEIs were unprepared to undertake the sudden shift to online learning. This under-preparedness is reflective of the systemic challenges in the sector, which exist on multiple fronts.

The rampant proliferation of digital interventions has created major disruptions in a sector that’s crippled with challenges of access. As per the 75th round of the National Sample Survey, only 24% of Indian households have internet access and only 11 % own computers (not accounting for smartphones). Even among those regions with internet access, people face issues with poor connectivity and limited bandwidth. Surveys conducted in premier institutes like the IITs or the Central University of Hyderabad, reveal that between 10-40 % of students could not access online education or learning material.

Equity concerns in terms of regional disparity and gender differentials also exist. Approximately, 42% of the urban population has access to the internet while only 15% of rural India has internet connectivity. Further, 65% of India’s internet users are male.

While institutions and students are grappling with issues of access and equity, teachers are struggling as well. Many are finding it hard to navigate the vast spectrum of digital education, using communication tools like Zoom or Webex, or learning management systems like Moodle etc. On the governance front, accreditation and quality remains a major concern. There is insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of online interventions in the Indian context.

Leveraging opportunities

Global research has shown online education to be most effective as a supplement to classroom instruction and not as a replacement. Here, personalized education holds potential as technology can help with increasing its scale and improving cost-efficiency. The realm of education extends beyond what can be done purely online – the process of learning involves classroom interaction, hands on experiential learning, fostering social relationships/peer learning as well as co-curricular activities etc. Therefore, blended modules of learning typically tend to be more effective than purely online modules.

With the gross enrolment ratio in higher education at only 26.3, there still exists tremendous potential to democratize access to higher education through blended learning. Our opportunities to engage and utilize this digital revolution lie in the massive scale of the target audience and also in low-data connectivity costs.

A futuristic blueprint

The real need of the hour is to develop a blueprint to enable a shift in the paradigm, from contingency remote teaching to effective online education.

The Indian higher education space should be transformed towards a globally relevant and competitive system with good infrastructure and high quality learning. Towards this end, an array of systemic solutions needs to be adopted.

First, we must have a national strategy for digital education which focuses on – universalizing access to infrastructure and connectivity; enabling high quality, relevant and proven software and content as the engine powering the education revolution; as well as building at-scale institutional and individual capacity to fulfill the promise of digital education.

Second, for digital education to be successful, there must also be set quality standards which provide an unbiased, rigorous, real time quality assessment of digital solutions, to be developed in partnership with leading academic institutes. Graded autonomy to run online education programs can be granted to well-performing HEIs, who have the capacity to advance research focus and enhance industry involvement. This will be critical to drive the adoption of online education.

Third, the higher education ecosystem must devise a mechanism to establish parity between different types of learning. Recognition to online and blended programs must be granted in a streamlined fashion. Multiple well-equipped accreditation agencies should be involved to ensure high-quality digital learning across HEIs.

Fourth, a credit bank could be instituted for students in higher education to allow credits to be accumulated from certificate courses, diplomas/ degrees, and facilitate seamless transition between programs and institutes within the country.

Fifth, online education must include a wide range of courses in liberal arts, humanities and even executive education. A job market demand-driven skill-mapping exercise should facilitate the creation of a course-menu to ensure critical skill gaps in areas of modern-technology like artificial intelligence, machine-learning and frontier technology are addressed. Further, India could also introduce accredited digital courses in areas where we have a competitive advantage – yoga, ayurveda, heritage and culture etc. Need-based teacher training modules could be provided as well.

Sixth, collaborations between Indian and top international HEIs must be encouraged and enhanced to unlock synergies and pool resources. International partnerships could even serve as avenues to promote and advance cutting edge research and innovation in online learning.
It’s very honored to It is well known that the Covid-pandemic has forced a global shift in the education paradigm. In India, with the closure of institutions, around 1,000 universities and 40,000 colleges are vying to shift to online modes of education, impacting over 14 lakh teachers and nearly 4 crore students in the higher education ecosystem.

The use of technology and digital education has been widely debated and advocated in India, even before the onset of the pandemic. The Government of India has taken myriad initiatives in this regard, with a special focus on using technological resources to make Higher Education accessible for all. The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) is seeking to bridge the digital divide through its three cardinal principles of access, equity and quality. The focus of this centrally sponsored scheme is to ensure connectivity to all colleges and universities, provide low cost affordable devices to students and teachers, and provide free of cost high quality e-content to learners across the country.

In addition to this, the Ministry of Human Resource Development has also been facilitating Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) through SWAYAM, digital e-content through e-PGPathshala and the National Digital Library, accelerated hands on learning through Free/Libre and Open Source Software for Education (FOSSEE) etc. Recently, while announcing E-Vidya, as part of the covid-relief package Atma Nirbhar Abhiyan, the Government has proposed to allow the 100 top universities in the National Institute Ranking Framework (NIRF) to offer online degrees.

Systemic challenges

While there are multiple interventions leveraging the use of technology in education, one must remain cognizant of the challenges and context in India. As of January 2020, only 7 Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) had received permission to run online programs. With the onset of the pandemic, therefore, a majority of India’s HEIs were unprepared to undertake the sudden shift to online learning. This under-preparedness is reflective of the systemic challenges in the sector, which exist on multiple fronts.

The rampant proliferation of digital interventions has created major disruptions in a sector that’s crippled with challenges of access. As per the 75th round of the National Sample Survey, only 24% of Indian households have internet access and only 11 % own computers (not accounting for smartphones). Even among those regions with internet access, people face issues with poor connectivity and limited bandwidth. Surveys conducted in premier institutes like the IITs or the Central University of Hyderabad, reveal that between 10-40 % of students could not access online education or learning material.

Equity concerns in terms of regional disparity and gender differentials also exist. Approximately, 42% of the urban population has access to the internet while only 15% of rural India has internet connectivity. Further, 65% of India’s internet users are male.

While institutions and students are grappling with issues of access and equity, teachers are struggling as well. Many are finding it hard to navigate the vast spectrum of digital education, using communication tools like Zoom or Webex, or learning management systems like Moodle etc. On the governance front, accreditation and quality remains a major concern. There is insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of online interventions in the Indian context.

Leveraging opportunities

Global research has shown online education to be most effective as a supplement to classroom instruction and not as a replacement. Here, personalized education holds potential as technology can help with increasing its scale and improving cost-efficiency. The realm of education extends beyond what can be done purely online – the process of learning involves classroom interaction, hands on experiential learning, fostering social relationships/peer learning as well as co-curricular activities etc. Therefore, blended modules of learning typically tend to be more effective than purely online modules.

With the gross enrolment ratio in higher education at only 26.3, there still exists tremendous potential to democratize access to higher education through blended learning. Our opportunities to engage and utilize this digital revolution lie in the massive scale of the target audience and also in low-data connectivity costs.

A futuristic blueprint

The real need of the hour is to develop a blueprint to enable a shift in the paradigm, from contingency remote teaching to effective online education.

The Indian higher education space should be transformed towards a globally relevant and competitive system with good infrastructure and high quality learning. Towards this end, an array of systemic solutions needs to be adopted.

First, we must have a national strategy for digital education which focuses on – universalizing access to infrastructure and connectivity; enabling high quality, relevant and proven software and content as the engine powering the education revolution; as well as building at-scale institutional and individual capacity to fulfill the promise of digital education.

Second, for digital education to be successful, there must also be set quality standards which provide an unbiased, rigorous, real time quality assessment of digital solutions, to be developed in partnership with leading academic institutes. Graded autonomy to run online education programs can be granted to well-performing HEIs, who have the capacity to advance research focus and enhance industry involvement. This will be critical to drive the adoption of online education.

Third, the higher education ecosystem must devise a mechanism to establish parity between different types of learning. Recognition to online and blended programs must be granted in a streamlined fashion. Multiple well-equipped accreditation agencies should be involved to ensure high-quality digital learning across HEIs.

Fourth, a credit bank could be instituted for students in higher education to allow credits to be accumulated from certificate courses, diplomas/ degrees, and facilitate seamless transition between programs and institutes within the country.

Fifth, online education must include a wide range of courses in liberal arts, humanities and even executive education. A job market demand-driven skill-mapping exercise should facilitate the creation of a course-menu to ensure critical skill gaps in areas of modern-technology like artificial intelligence, machine-learning and frontier technology are addressed. Further, India could also introduce accredited digital courses in areas where we have a competitive advantage – yoga, ayurveda, heritage and culture etc. Need-based teacher training modules could be provided as well.

Sixth, collaborations between Indian and top international HEIs must be encouraged and enhanced to unlock synergies and pool resources. International partnerships could even serve as avenues to promote and advance cutting edge research and innovation in online learning.

At the end of this decade, India will be home to the largest working age population in an era dominated by modern technology. In order to reap the true potential of our demographic dividend, higher education must be inclusive and be able to effectively leverage technology for real, relevant and lifelong learning. As the Covid-19 crisis spurs a tectonic shift in higher education, it is time to use the opportunity to build a stronger system that serves as a lifeguard for the future
It’s very greatfull to say that our New Education Policy draft has accepted all these futuristic Ideas, the only need is implementation.

At the end of this decade, India will be home to the largest working age population in an era dominated by modern technology. In order to reap the true potential of our demographic dividend, higher education must be inclusive and be able to effectively leverage technology for real, relevant and lifelong learning. As the Covid-19 crisis spurs a tectonic shift in higher education, it is time to use the opportunity to build a stronger system that serves as a lifeguard for the future.

About the Author:

The Author is a student in Jawaharlal Nehru University.

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