How Online Learning Is Transforming Education Paradigm In India

The first and immediate response to the crisis was universities shifting into a ‘business resilience mode’ and making attempts to simply replicate their traditional learning environment on the web.

Kevin Carey, in his book, End of College, suggested that the age-old structure of higher education, built on an archaic incentive structure and institutional logic, is unsustainable. We always knew that traditional education needed to be transformed to something that is always on, on-demand, on the go, online, on-site, on-job, gamified, collaborative, modular, competency-based, with stackable credentials and career aligned pathways – but nothing gained much traction all this while. Despite repeated calls for an education that was more flexible, affordable, practical and efficient, the traditional model, in spite of all its shortcomings, appeared to have prevailed. Unbundled models that obliterated and dispensed with many attributes of the college experience attracted few takers. And then, suddenly, a system, optimized for a singular environment, looks potentially incompatible in a drastically altered context.

COVID-19 has certainly been a major disruptor wherein a vast majority of Indian universities and colleges, struggled to get their foothold in this new world and made a rather abrupt shift; not more than 1% of the 55000 colleges in India had ever used any form of online learning till about a few weeks ago. In fact, the $100 billion-plus Indian education industry is suddenly online; yet 85% of India’s 1.5 million teachers engaged in higher education, have never taught anything online before. Indian policymakers approach, apathy and disdain towards online learning in India – that banned formal online programs in 2015, published regulations for managing online learning in 2018 and then licensed only 7 out of the 993 universities in 2020 - resulted in only about 25000 learners out of a total of 38 Mn university students learning online - throttling equity, innovation and massification of Indian higher education.

The first and immediate response to the crisis was universities shifting into a ‘business resilience mode’ and making attempts to simply replicate their traditional learning environment on the web. But, in the absence of proper infrastructure (learning platforms, secure virtual sessions, internet connectivity, integrated systems, online assessments etc), content (self-paced audio-video lessons, self-learning textual material, PowerPoint presentations, question banks..) and past experience (faculty training, student support, online interaction management, student orientation, engagement issues), most institutions are struggling to get their acts together. And with the semester-end examinations looming on their heads, most universities are trying their best to find out a solution to maintain academic continuity and promote their students.

Another stark reality is the fact that a large section of the students lacks digital skills or the necessary technology – several of them do not have access at home or even a quiet place to study.  Institutions need to be aware and help to mitigate those problems too so that no one is left on the side-lines – continuous communication being the key. From a cultural standpoint, many of the students and faculty, so resistant to change, still view this sudden widespread move as a temporary phenomenon and they can’t wait to resume their face-to-face sessions, that they are so used to, once the pandemic is over. The crisis has surely shown up inefficiencies in university business models, have surfaced their incompetencies to handle anything apart from classroom education and challenged perceptions about online learning. Ability to deliver online learning is not like shoe sizes that can’t be increased, but are like muscles that can be developed with some practice; as time goes on, universities will have to develop their competencies and offerings; although there will be some difficult experiences ahead, the response to the coronavirus will cause a “paradigm shift” in how higher education is taught.

Universities will need to get creative to adapt their curriculum to this new normal – resistant to change, many universities and educators have been using the same pedagogy for decades. After the global pandemic calms down, higher education should take several of these new learnings to create a new life form of education. With this new landscape, institutions should transition their physical spaces from lecture halls to learning labs for collaborative learning. Lectures can more easily be replaced with online learning technologies with the classrooms being used more for interactive debates. Either way, realising that such a calamity can again recur and that the students value the newfound flexibility and convenience, universities will need to discover new ways to continue teaching.

Many Indian universities don’t balance cost, quality, scale and employability because regulations stifle innovation. Spurred by the pandemic, as unemployment rises and it becomes harder to get a job, job seekers will turn to education to improve their chances. This trend will require universities to offer more skills-oriented education alongside traditional academic offerings − and online learning works well for this. To do this well, universities will need to think of innovative ways - rather than relying only on lectures, they will need to blend more learning-by-doing, work-based, apprenticeship-linked or competency-based pedagogies and collaborative projects which have a greater connection to career prospects. This proximity and partnership between the employers and the universities, powered by online learning shall be the harbinger for a new dawn for Indian higher education. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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