If there is an area where the Covid-19 pandemic has shown we can succeed in multiple ways, it is education. All over the world, including in India, drastic steps were taken – schools, colleges and universities were shut down to fight the pandemic, and online learning became the order of the day.
India has 35 million students enrolled in higher education contributing to a small gross enrolment ratio (GER) of 26 per cent. China with a larger population has a much higher GER of 51.6 per cent. If we are to achieve the target of 50 per cent GER by 2035 as envisaged by the new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020, we have to give prominence to online learning. Besides, the NEP’s studied provision of multi-point entry-exits and credit banks will only be feasible if they are adequately facilitated for adoption in an online environment.
All subjects that do not require hands-on skills will go the online way. Others that require competency-based skills need a blend of both online and offline modes. In the early days of open and distance learning, about 85 per cent of the lectures were covered through material sent by post and the remaining through face-to-face lectures delivered at centres in the university’s jurisdiction. In the online learning system, if some lectures are also done face to face for some specific requirement, the mode is hybrid. Apart from the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), all other open universities had to operate within the boundaries of their respective states. Gradually, with the strengthening of the information technology (IT) infrastructure, the postal method was supplanted by online teaching. Online examinations too are getting rapidly accepted because they are not only proving to be an effective tool for assessing a student’s knowledge quickly but also resolving issues like handling question papers, answer scripts, exam room scheduling, arranging invigilators, coordinating with examiners, etc.
Whereas the various Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) require no approval, all programmes leading to the award of degrees have to be approved by the regulator, that is, the University Grants Commission (UGC). One of the mandatory conditions is that the course has to be a mix of online and face-to-face lectures. The other players in open and distance learning are IGNOU, state open universities and the Ministry of Education. Engineering like medicine involves hands-on experience and therefore has been kept out of the purview for degree purposes, though add-on e-content like National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) created by the Indian Institute of Technologies (IITs) for engineering students is hugely popular.
One of the major reasons for slow growth in online learning degrees has been the cautious approach of the education ministry and the UGC for fear of commercialisation and entry of fly-by-night operators. Some major traditional universities like Mumbai and Pune have twice the number of registered ODL courses than their regular programmes. While this may sound encouraging, the UGC needs to streamline its regulations and, above all, remove the artificial distinction between ODL and online learning programmes, especially since the postal method is almost extinct and most of the content is provided online.
Virtual university and AI
Online learning is also fast becoming the order of the future, with the world now moving towards virtual universities (VU), which means no concrete campuses and no physical presence of staff. Everything is organised online including experiments that are conducted through remote labs and haptic devices. This would spell death for the idea of a traditional brick-and-mortar university as we know today. Artificial intelligence (AI) would also make education personalised by taking into consideration each student’s strengths, shortcomings and interests. Instead of treating all students in a class as one, it segregates slow learners and provides additional material as per need. The use of hologram technology, which has now become a reality, will enable eminent professors to deliver lectures across the world in different languages simultaneously.
A futuristic aspect of the Narendra Modi government’s Budget 2020 was the announcement of National Digital Educational Architecture (NDEAR) “for administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, automation and delivery of educational courses, training programs, or learning and development programs”, which could lead to a learning management system. LMS is driven by AI, supports delivery of online learning and acts as a platform for online content and courses, both in synchronous and asynchronous modes. LMS also includes intelligent algorithms to make automated recommendations for courses based on a user’s skill profile as well as extract meta-data from learning materials in order to make such recommendations even more accurate.
TV is more relevant for India’s poor than smartphone
The effects of school closures and the lockdown in response to the Covid-19 pandemic has been trying for all, but it has been extremely harsh to the children and the parents belonging to the most disadvantaged sections of the Indian society. The Ministry of Education could play a crucial role in making online education affordable for all by promoting the use of TV and DTH rather than just smartphones as envisaged in the scheme National Mission on Education in Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) but unfortunately shelved in 2014. India has more than 200 million TV sets covering 70 per cent of the population against just 30 per cent by smartphones. Instead of depending only on expensive smartphones, this scheme rides piggyback on the country’s satellite-linked enormous television network. The only ‘cost’ the student has to bear is to adjust her family’s TV viewing time to that of the classroom hours, while the rest will be taken care of under the scheme.
Every dark cloud has a silver lining. Online education used to be an outlier until the Covid-19 pandemic placed it at centre stage. With this, the countdown to the withering away of the traditional brick and mortar education system has begun. All now depends on how bold and imaginative the world can be and to what extent it is willing to take online learning forward.
Ashok Thakur is the former Education Secretary, Government of India. Prof S.S. Mantha is former Chairman of AICTE. Views are personal.
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