With Over 40,000 Colleges Shut, Can India Demonstrate Digital Resilience?

Most countries are leaning on online platforms for continued learning through the COVID-19 challenge and Indian colleges are moving right with the world in their response.

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This pandemic will pass. But the solutions the country embraces now will define its socio-economic growth trajectory post the crisis. As the world scrambles to contain the spread of COVID-19, one of the fallouts has been an abrupt rewiring of the way students learn - 37 million students out of campus can hit the country hard. With campuses closing almost overnight, universities across India are regrouping to respond to this unprecedented crisis. College students are particularly vulnerable. Many are on the cusp of entering the workforce, but uncertain of the future given the looming threat of a recession.

This, however, could be a watershed moment for higher education. Colleges have an urgent impetus to upgrade their tech infrastructure, embrace online learning to minimize disruption through this uncertainty. For institutions, this is an opportunity to leverage newer technology and platforms to deliver an uninterrupted learning experience online – forced experimentation that has parallels to the Y2K crisis, when institutions were compelled to act concertedly to avert the risk of systemic failure. The good news is, Indian colleges are primed for this upgrade, given India’s wide-spread smartphone penetration, low data costs and rising internet user base, even across rural India.  

According to UNESCO, most countries are leaning on online platforms for continued learning through the COVID-19 challenge and Indian colleges are moving right with the world in their response. On 12th March, when Coursera opened up its platform to help colleges deliver courseware online at no cost, the response in India was instantaneous and continues to surge, over 700 colleges have signed up on Coursera till date. The shift to online learning isn’t just an immediate bridge, but also gives students entering the job market shortly an advantage.  

Ensuring continuity in education  

The current priority for universities is to move rapidly to online learning, so students are not hit by the lockdown. However, colleges and universities must not just apply band-aid solutions. It wouldn’t be viable for colleges to develop online courseware from scratch in the near term. A timely approach would be to curate or integrate high-quality online courseware from the world’s top universities, available on online learning platforms, that meet their course objectives.  

Over a longer period, colleges in India have to shore up their digital capabilities to insulate their institutes from future emergencies. Universities could create their own courses online, or adopt hybrid, blended models of campus learning, offering cutting-edge online courses from the world’s best universities, alongside their own campus curriculum. They could incorporate the best elements from a physical classroom online with technology apps that enable live classroom sessions, allow real-time feedback, group-based collaboration and immersive experiences. Universities could also benefit from creating a ‘shared learning ecosystem’ with pooled resources, that could solve for sudden breakdowns like this.  

Boost employability, close the skill gap 

The talent pipeline from colleges and universities could be severely impacted by this crisis. Colleges have to look at ways to boost ‘employability’ skills, so students graduating in the near future emerge job-ready in a difficult job market.  

Lakhs of engineering students in India, for instance, could upgrade their skills across high-demand domains online with potentially greater relevance over their current curriculum, on online learning platforms. They can access industry-relevant courses coveted by employers and created by universities and organizations that are at the research frontier of new technologies. 

There is a lot at stake for our students, and for us as a country. Unless we can frame a response that is relevant and seamless through this crisis, our demographic dividend could be under threat and an entire generation of students will fall behind. The good news is, what started as stop-gap measures to ensure education continuity, could evolve into the digital transformation of higher education, creating a more robust system for millions of students in the country. 

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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