For 28-year-old Divita Singh, a professional in the field of public relations, the restrictions of the Covid pandemic also gave her a chance at a new trajectory in her career. Singh signed up for an eight-month PG diploma in digital marketing. She had completed an undergraduate course in sociology and an MBA earlier, and the diploma was to help her progress further professionally.
She took the course, Singh says, because “You need to update yourself about the changing dynamics in your own profession.”
What appealed to her was the affordability of the course, the lack of travel and that she had the convenience to go over the study material as the lectures were usually recorded. “It was convenient to manage while working. I could rewind if I did not understand a particular concept and replay the entire thing when I needed to revise, ”said Singh.
Several other students and professionals can now relate to Singh’s experience with online education. Two years of lockdown have meant that schools and colleges have had to move completely online. In parallel, online courses by e-education platforms have seen tremendous growth.
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But for some students, online education has not been as promising. Lakshita K decided to follow up an undergraduate degree in mass communication with an online course in advertising and communication, but the experience has not been ideal.
She says that while the curriculum was informative, connecting to the professors was difficult.
“If we had doubts we would have to post them on the message boards and the responses would come quite late. Most of the time we would only have access to recorded lectures, not live ones. So asking there was out of the question. From time to time we would also have Zoom sessions with the professors, but these were few and far between, ”she recalls.
Communication on study topics was limited and the students were encouraged to grasp concepts on their own, she says. The entire experience has left a bitter taste for her.
Keeping in mind the changes brought about by the pandemic, the Union government plans to make big strides in the online education space. During this year Budget, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the setting up of an online university to deal with issues of accessibility and quality. The university, named ‘DESH-Stack portal’, will be in accordance with the Indian Society for Technical Education standards.
In addition, the higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) plans to come up with modified guidelines for online education in a few days.
Currently, there are three major regulations on online higher education. These include the UGC (Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through SWAYAM) Regulation, 2016, the UGC (Online Courses or Programs) Regulations, 2018, as well as the UGC (Open and Distance Learning) Regulations, 2017.
For technical courses, the All India Council for Technical Education (Open and Distance Learning Education and Online Education) Guidelines Amendment 2021 takes care of distance learning, including online modules.
In an interview with DH, UGC chairperson M Jagadesh Kumar says that as part of the reforms of the National Education Policy 2020, the Center is releasing modified guidelines for online education within a month.
“Some of the changes on priority include providing students an opportunity to access an additional wide variety of courses. So, as per the changes, up to 40% of their academic credits will have to come from other institutions, ”says Kumar.
He said that institutions in the top 100 National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) rankings (a government ranking system for higher educational institutions) and those with a NAAC grading of above 3.26 will be eligible. Institutes can either be universities or autonomous colleges.
“What we have also done is eased the eligibility for joining online courses. Usually, universities ask for a cut off in the undergraduate or Class 12 exams. We have removed the eligibility criteria, anyone can join these courses, ”says Kumar.
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Additionally, top universities that do not have the means to share their intellectual resources can collaborate with any EdTech company, he says.
The goal, he says, is to increase the Gross Enrollment Ratio. “We hope to increase it from 27% to 50% in 10-12 years or so.”
While online degrees on their own might not hold much value at this time, certificates from reputed universities add to a person resume.
The need has propelled globally recognized universities with the likes of Oxford University, London School of Economics or Massachusetts Institute of Technology to start massive open online courses (MOOCs), diplomas and certification on a variety of courses.
But educators across a range of disciplines are apprehensive about the prospect of having to continue teaching online, particularly given the mixed response online teaching has received so far.
Kritika Sharma, who is part of the Department of English at Delhi University’s Hindu College, says the switch to online learning was daunting for both students and teachers.
“One has to keep in mind that during these changes what was unfolding in the background was the pandemic and the trauma it brought. Most students did not have the cameras on, and at the end, it was pretty much like teaching to air. It was very frustrating for us. I can safely say that my students are unequivocally happy to be back in classrooms, ”she says.
Troubles of lack of space at home and patchy internet connections were a constant problem. Some students have complained of health issues such as headaches and eyesight problem, she says.
“The bigger loss was losing the sense of community. Among teachers, too, we felt the whole experience very isolating, ”says Kritika.
The Delhi University Teachers’ Association is opposed to the idea of making online education mandatory and there are protests planned.
An educator from a UGC-funded institution, who did not wish to be named, said that several teachers are opposed to the idea of making online learning in higher education mandatory.
“We are now barely managing offline teaching. Clearly this is a bid to promote EdTech companies. This is veiled privatization and a big push to coaching institutions, ”the professor said.
There are other concerns as well: Educators believe that this will make teaching staff redundant and that teaching methods will suffer immensely. Teachers have noted how, under the lockdown, their connect with the students became negligible.
There is also growing concern about the quality of these courses. The complaint from students about a lack of communication in the case of recorded classes point to a direct impact on learning.
While digitization seems like the plausible future in the education sector, the lack of access to technology and the internet will be the big hurdle. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation conducted involving 1,522 teachers, 398 parents and 80,000 children revealed that almost 60% of school children cannot access online learning opportunities. In addition to that, more than 90% teachers said that meaningful assessment of children’s learning was not possible in online classes.
Krishnan Balasubramanian of the Department of Mechanical Engineering of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who is also the in-charge of the Gopalakrishnan Deshpande Center, says that while the pandemic may have led us to adapt to online learning methods now, several global universities have done this for ages. For instance, he says, the US-based Phoenix University has over 100,000 students.
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The benefits, he says, is the flexibility. “You can record, scale, replay and have it on-demand. Students can go over it again and again, ”he says.
Online teaching has also come in handy in practical classes, he says. “We can do animation and videos, scalability, and we can give students individual assignments. Right now bandwidth is a limitation, but in the coming future more and more digital classes will happen, ”he says.
But like other teachers, Subramanian says, that what is missing in online education is the connection with students.
“In a class I get a good feeling of who I’m connecting to and I can make slight changes and do improvisations. In online education, it is not possible in a classroom of 60-70 students. Evaluations are trickier, too, ”he says. While he says that online education is feasible in higher education, especially for specialized training, the method should not be applied to school children below Class 12.
Among a population of 1.38 billion, 825.30 million Indians had a phone with an internet by end of March 2021, data by the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India shows. With 40% of Indians without any access to the internet, online education can come at the cost of education for millions of aspiring students, if made mandatory.
(With inputs from Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)
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