India’s rush to digital learning is too much, too soon

Unreliable internet connections and underdeveloped pedagogies will blunt the potential impact of online options, says Mukhtar Ahmad 

March 29, 2022
A frustrated Indian computer user
Source: iStock

As part of the implementation of India’s new National Education Policy, newly appointed University Grant Committee chair M. Jagadesh Kumar has announced a major relaxation of the rules governing online degrees.

From July, institutions that have twice been ranked in the National Institute Ranking Framework’s top 100 over the last three cycles or that surpass a certain threshold (3.26) in the National Assessment and Accreditation Council’s grading system will be allowed to offer online degrees.

This follows a move in March 2021 to allow 37 Indian universities to offer fully online degrees. Previously, standard universities were not allowed to offer more than 20 per cent of their degree programmes online.

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Kumar’s appointment has also seen the UGC conduct an about-turn concerning the involvement of edtech companies in degree and diploma courses. In February, the regulator described this “outsourcing” as a clear violation of norms. And, in January, the chair of the All India Council for Technical Education, Anil Sahasrabudhe, said edtech companies could not be allowed “to delve into areas that are not their domain”, such as degree courses.

Why there has been a change of heart is not clear. But, whatever the reason, it could spark confrontation with teachers and students. Edtech’s commercial imperatives mean that its charges are likely to be high. Moreover, while online degrees are considered inferior to normal university degrees, their proliferation will result in almost no new physical universities being opened by the government. Hence, the demand for standard degrees will have to be taken up by more expensive private universities. Either way, poor and rural students will lose out.

One consolation might be the country’s first centrally run digital university. This was proposed in February’s budget, which allocated higher education a 6.6 per cent funding hike. The announcement follows state governments’ recent establishment of two digital universities, the Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology, set up in January 2020, and Rajasthan’s Fintech Digital University in Jodhpur, announced in February 2021.

Details about the national digital university are scarce, but the plan seems to be for various universities to come together and form it in a hub-and-spoke model, with course delivery locally tailored. Anyone who has passed their final-year high school exams will be able to enrol.

The aim is to increase access to “world-class” higher education by expanding the provision of virtual labs and high-quality e-content that was initiated by the pandemic. But while no one in the post-Covid world can deny the importance of online education, India’s digital ambitions seem to be a case of too much, too soon.

For a start, the success of digital education depends on access to high-speed internet. However, this is decidedly patchy, both for individuals and institutions, outside India’s main population centres. Only 4.4 per cent of rural households have a computer and only 14.9 per cent have internet access, compared with 23.4 and 42 per cent of urban households respectively, according to the latest National Sample Survey. Moreover, in rural areas, the service is often unreliable, so even parents that can afford it may decline to pay for it. Hence, again, it is likely that digital universities will mostly cater to urban learners.

Another problem is that while the global, Covid-impelled experiment with online teaching provided engagement for students and teachers when colleges were closed, digital teaching largely remains inferior to in-person learning. It allowed teachers to incorporate a number of digital tools, such as videos, PDFs and podcasts, into their lesson plans, but students complained that interaction was less effective online, and the whole experience was demotivating and socially isolating. Educational attainment appears to have declined.

It is clear that a digital university requires an altogether new curriculum and pedagogy, alongside specially trained teachers. Hence, at this stage, it would have been better to push blended learning. This still allows students to use digital tools, but also gives them the accountability, focus and motivation of face-to-face learning.

When teachers and students are familiar with digital teaching, and course material is designed to suit the curriculum, the transition to a digital university will be simple.

Mukhtar Ahmad is retired professor of electrical engineering at Akigarh Muslim University, India.


Print headline: Too much online, too soon?

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