The flip side of higher education online: it's neither economical nor effective

Over-regulated but under-governed, higher education in the country is poised for a slide in quality following unbridled enthusiasm for online education. There is really no substitute to the classroom

Representative Image
Representative Image

Furqan Qamar & Sameer Ahmad Khan

Correspondence courses, distance learning and remote teaching may be traced back to the late 18th century when individuals and institutions in the UK and Europe started offering skill enhancement courses through correspondence. Such courses often came as a great relief to women who wanted to better themselves educationally but couldn’t as they were bunkered down with domestic duties and household compulsions.

Advancements in information communication technology ushered in newer ways of delivering education remotely. Radio broadcasts and TV classrooms were also tried out on a commercial basis. They however neither proved to be effective nor commercially viable.

Covid-19 compelled closure of schools, colleges, and universities and forced them to resort to remote teaching; classes went virtual, lectures were delivered online and campuses were deserted. Social media came as a handy tool for interaction between the students and teachers.

The Covid-19 experience has strengthened the belief that digital technologies are the future mediums of offering education. Technology enthusiasts are busy writing obituaries of brick-and-mortar universities. They spread of internet and network connectivity, they argue, would metamorphose the mode of delivering knowledge.

Technology enthusiasts are busy promoting EdTech start-ups in the hope that students would not want to suffer physical campuses once they have experienced the comfort, convenience and freedom of online learning. But there are others who are sceptical.

The central government has announced the establishment of a digital university which would have academic, professional, and technical higher education programmes across a broad spectrum of disciplines with no limits on their intake capacity. While many believe digital learning would be a game-changer, there is no dearth of people who seriously suspect the efficacy, effectiveness, and usefulness of such initiatives.

A good number of people feel that the digital delivery of higher education is inevitable, the need of the hour and a game-changer with transformative potential. These very people, however, also point out that tighter regulation, stricter standards, and an effective quality assurance mechanism would be necessary to ensure that students do not end up getting a low grade, poor quality higher education. Many of them feel that a national level exit examination needs to be conducted for all students graduating through online/virtual/digital mode to ensure uniformity of standards of the outcome.

Those representing EdTechs and technology companies have wholeheartedly lent their weight to the idea, almost unconditionally. To them, it is an idea whose time has come. They are vociferously advancing the argument that ‘whatever education can be delivered digitally, must be delivered digitally’.

Open, distance, digital, online, and virtual modes of delivering higher education are assumed to be economical and cost-effective. In reality though, the quality online programmes are expensive and requires massive investment in developing the needed infrastructure, content development and delivery.

Digital divide and skewed access to data, device and network connectivity further restrict access to those who need such higher education the most. While digital penetration in India appears promising with 749 million users, a large number of users may not necessarily be digitally literate, a prerequisite for digital learning. Further, going by an Oxfam India study, even in the urban areas, half the parents complained about internet speed and signal strength while a third were finding it difficult to afford the cost of the Internet.

Digital delivery of higher education is also held out as a panacea for solving seat and capacity constraints. In reality, India has the distinction of having the single largest system of higher education found anywhere in the world. The country has created excess capacity in most disciplines.

The real problem lies in the dearth of quality institutions and programmes. Unless we invest in improving the overall quality of higher education across the country, the problem of seats will not get addressed. Will the digital university and digital delivery of higher education meet this need for quality? But most digitally delivered programmes are of low grade and fall in bottom of the pyramid category.

Online education could prove useful and up-skilling courses offered by platforms like Udemy, Coursera, edX, Udacity etc. may well receive positive responses. They may also offer an effective alternative to various kinds of coaching to crack competitive examinations for admissions and jobs. They could also prove to be a boon to working people and those who cannot spare time for full-time learning.

Digital delivery however requires quality content. We would end up being consumers of knowledge if we choose to borrow or buy content from elsewhere. We must, therefore, develop our own content, which would be possible only if we have adequate number of qualified teachers. Content development requiring altogether different skills than teaching, they will have to be trained on a large scale to become quality content creators. In the process, the system would get saddled with a huge mound of poor-quality content which would be of little use.

Providing world-class study material may not be the biggest challenge for the government. Everything available on the Internet can be accessed by people from anywhere as long as they have access. If borrowing materials from top-notch universities could solve the problem, by now everyone would have been able to access world-class higher education.

Quality, however, needs closer classroom interactions, discussions, question and answers sessions, debates, co-curricular and extra-curricular activities and the overall ecosystem. They all contribute to the holistic development of the student, which is not possible through online mode of education.

Finally, regulation of higher education in India has been notoriously ineffective. The National Knowledge Commission said in 2007 that higher education in India was over-regulated but under governed. The National Education Policy 2020 strongly argues for a light but tight regulation in higher education.

Unable to reform the regulatory framework so far, the gate-keeping continues to be as ineffective. It is, thus, feared that the digital space in higher education would get filled with unworthy and low-quality educational institutions. How long will competition-led market correction take to weed out low-grade poor-quality programmes, as expected, and at what cost remains one of the unanswered questions.

(Furqan Qamar, a professor in the Faculty of Management Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia, is a former Advisor (Education) in the Planning Commission. Sameer Ahmad Khan is pursuing PhD from the Faculty of Management Studies of Jamia Millia Islamia. Views are personal)

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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Published: 06 Jun 2022, 12:00 PM