Event ReportsPublished on May 26, 2020
Online Higher Education in India during the COVID-19 pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many sectors to shift their bases online including education, where numerous schools and colleges have started teaching their students through online platforms all across the world. In India, however, the story in terms of online education tends to vary as compared to rest of the world. The different reasons contributing to how the Indian system differs from the other countries and if we are ready to shift to online mediums are some of the questions addressed by distinguished panellists on the Webinar hosted by ORF’s Mumbai Chapter around the topic, “The explosion of online education in India during the COVID-19 Pandemic: What have we learnt?”. Sahana Murthy (Professor, Interdisciplinary Programme in Education Technology, IIT, Bombay), Shakila Shamsu (Former Officer on Special Duty (New Education Policy), Department of Higher Education, Ministry of Human Resources Development, GOI), Ashwin Fernandes (Regional Director – Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, QS Quacquarelli Symonds and CEO, QS IGAUGE Rating) and V. Sridhar (Professor, Centre for IT and Public Policy, IIT Bangalore) were the speakers for the webinar. The session was chaired by Leena Chandran Wadia, ORF’s Senior Fellow.

UNESCO has estimated that around 1.26 billion children or 70 percent of children around the world have had their education interrupted because of the pandemic and a large number of these children are from what UNESCO calls the “low tech or no tech” phase, with India contributing 300 million of the 1.26 billion children. Given this backdrop, Professor Sahana Murthy explained the context behind the surge of online education in India as the idea of “Emergency Remote Teaching”. She asserted, however, that there is a difference between emergency remote teaching and effective online learning. She explained that for online teaching, along with the requirement of tools such as online platforms, one needs access as well as trained teachers. She concluded her opening statement by emphasizing on the importance of changing the mindsets of th teachers as well as students  since online teaching only limits to a through a face-to-face lens. One way in which this could be implemented is through the LCM Model, which focusses on a “learner-centric approach towards the designing and conducting of online courses.”

Dr. Shakila Shamsu shed light on the use of technology for education should not be seen as an outcome of the pandemic, but as an idea that has been continuing for several years. She corroborated this point by outlining the efforts of the National Mission on Education Through ICT which was a strong recommendation of the 11th five-year plan. She explained how the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment in the 1970s and educational broadcasting that happened over the radio were ways in which technology was used in the field of education, giving “equitable access” to all those learning through those mediums. The Union HRD Ministry had launched a TV channel for students to take online courses and at present 15 million students are enrolled with it. It also launched a subsidiary direct-to-home channel in 2019, called Swayam Prabha. The number of viewers have been doubled compared to its parent channel. She believed that the reason India is not able to transition swiftly from face-to-face education to remote learning is the lack of institutional preparedness and accessibility by students to the new mode of delivering classes. She also suggested that “higher education institutions should begin to construct an academic plan of action.” Therefore, there is a “need to guide institutions, faculty and students to repurpose e-content in a manner that fits into the curricula for achieving the desired learning objectives of that particular course”. She concluded her opening statements by saying that to reach a larger audience, it is essential e-content should be made available in regional languages.

Dr. Ashwin Fernandes pointed out that COVID-19 brought a “second wind to higher education in India.” He believed this is because of three main reasons. Firstly,the increased use of technology for various ideas, especially for education, has “instilled confidence for users” Secondly, India has tried to follow the footsteps of UK, US and UNESCO models of online education and lastly it depends on  how both these factors “level the playing field for Indian universities.” Discussing the survey conducted by his organisation which focussed on whether India was ready for a digital transformation, he revealed that more than 80 percent of India’s population use their mobile hotspot for accessing the internet. Out of which, 96 percent of students who used mobile hotspots to gain access to educational resources had problems with internet connectivity. This, according to him, could be happening because of the low cost of internet in India, as it led to the overloading of systems. He believed that India is currently in Stage 1 of the transition from face-to-face learning to online education, where classes have begun to be taken online. Stage 2 of this transition is where there is “100 percent course delivery online (assessment, grading)” and Stage 3 is where there is “complete delivery of course credit online (online degrees).” He concluded by suggesting that, for India to make an effective shift to online platforms for education, it needs to address the power supply issues as soon as it can, enable a shift in mindset towards online teaching and learning and conduct robust training for faculty and students on ed-tech tools.

Dr. V. Sridhar explained the “Taxonomy of Online Education”, which includes “Learning Management”, “Course Delivery”, “Assessment and Evaluation” and “Sync Course Conduct.” Agreeing with Dr. Fernandes on the overloading of network connections leading to the poor connectivity experienced by students in online education, he suggested a few potential solutions. Firstly, we should record for later reference and providing internet connectivity through DTH or cable networks or give internet connection through landline infrastructure. Another roadblock to online education, is the monitoring of online assessment. In order to improve internet connection in remote areas, connections could be taken from cities or places with a possibility of higher internet connection and access.

In conclusion, the panellists agreed that the education sector needs solutions from the access front, pedagogy angle, the teacher-training front and the collaboration angle to effectively tackle the problem of providing education through technology. There is also the need for more tech-savvy educational institutions to “handhold” lesser tech-savvy ones, putting in place a proper plan-of-action for students, teachers and institutions as well as the ensuring teacher-training in the use of technology for education. The institutions should collaborate to improve the quantity and quality of education provided through technology. The government must provide better internet connections to its citizens, while educational institutions must move on from just online classes to 100 percent online delivery and assessment and also complete online delivery of course credits. India should try and use the current opportunity to improve its education base with lower costs.

The discussion provided many higher educational institutions with a way forward if not for some solutions to the problems they would be facing because of the pandemic. Educational institutions should begin to collaborate – as the problems they would be facing would be similar – to try and reach a more fruitful amalgamation of educational sector and technology.

This event report has been compiled by Ananya Koppikar Murthy, Research Intern, ORF Mumbai.

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