India’s FY21 budget had a slew of announcements for the education sector. The most radical (and prescient, given today’s situation) was that the government allowed the top 100 universities (as per India’s National Institute Ranking framework) to award fully online degrees to learners in the country.
This is a big leap from the previous stance where universities were allowed to offer only 20% of the degrees online, because of unanswered questions on quality and limited mechanisms for oversight.
The education sector — especially companies operating in the ed-tech space — have welcomed these initiatives, as they have long been advocating the benefits of using technology to learn online, and make quality education more accessible and affordable for all.
Accessibility: Universities can reach out to a much wider audience since learners don’t need to be physically present in a classroom. This also gives learners a chance to interact with faculty and others from across the country. Universities can think of launching programmes for different sections of population, which can be conducted at times convenient for learners; theoretically offering universities a chance to be open 24×7 and reach out to the largest possible number of learners. With geographical boundaries no longer being a constraint, learners can get access to high-quality education from the best institutions and faculty across the country and possibly even the world.
Imagine a scenario where people who hold jobs can work and earn a recognised degree because they are able to learn for a few hours every day after their shift ends. Or someone who is physically unable to travel to a classroom now gets the benefits of a university degree without having to worry about how to get there daily.
Affordability: As online degrees scale, the costs associated with delivery will also come down, leading to high-quality education being more affordable. This, in turn, makes it more accessible to a larger section of our population.
Quality: Having no geographical constraints will lead to more competition among universities and force them to invest more in their learning material, motivate faculty to deliver better learning outcomes and focus on delivering a world-class education.
Making the shift
Going online requires effort and understanding of what makes a truly transformative learning experience. A key component is technology and use of data and machine learning to ensure effective delivery and meaningful learning outcomes for all. It is not enough to just put out hours of video lectures and expect learners to magically learn.
While the basic technology exists, there is a need to simulate a classroom experience, and also take care of doubt resolutions, assignments (submission and evaluation), provide additional learning material, and a permanent forum for discussion of concepts and much more.
In addition, online learning, when delivered effectively, also provides solutions to drawbacks of the classroom-only model — evaluate how learners are understanding concepts almost real-time, take feedback from learners at a session-level enabling universities to course correct almost immediately and even use data to predict how likely a person is complete the course based on his/her interaction in the first few sessions.
With the Indian government warming up to the concept of online degrees, the quickest way to forge ahead is for universities would be to partner with ed-tech players who have the technology and years of experience in this domain. The time is right for Indian universities to provide high-quality, affordable education not just for Indian learners, but for all citizens of the world.
The writer is Co-Founder of the ed-tech company Great Learning.