Unshackling higher education from campuses through Digital University in India:

Recent pronouncement to set a Digital University to impart world-class quality education is likely to kick off a paradigm shift in the higher education of the country which boasts of successful Gurukuls and Ashrams for residential education in ancient times. However, the legitimization of digital education had nucleated sometimes back with UGC (Open and Distance Learning Programs and Online Programs) Regulations, 2020 coming into force. Though it may not be possible to critically evaluate the novel concept till the envisaged University becomes functional, but macro-level introspection is quite possible.

Undoubtedly, the digital access to seek education in virtual mode may liberate higher education from the brick and mortar campuses of institutions to a certain extent. Thence the principal issues of accessibility, quality, and cost of education in the incipient digital university and fast pervading online education culture need guesstimated.

Assessing Accessibility:

It is ubiquitous that the Covid induced disruption of education started profuse offering of online education. During the lockdown, the barrier-free ingress through the internet came as a savior, and information technology helped in continuing education activities. Nevertheless, the digital divide and socio-economic condition of our society remained a deterrent to effective education delivery for all, and deprivation of students from the poor financial background cannot be ruled out. Since then, there has been an exponential increase in the use of online interaction platforms for meetings, discussions, presentations, evaluations, services, etc. This infused confidence and taboo of remote interactions using virtual platforms went to hindquarters.

It is worth mentioning that the country has already conceptualized and set up central open University (IGNOU) and similar open Universities in many states for imparting education in distance mode without any restrictions of age, place, etc. Open Universities addressed the larger issue of accessibility of higher education with meagre reliance on digital interactions and tendered a wide range of study diploma / degree programs in distance mode at the doorstep. Howbeit, open Universities can be enriched by increasing the diversity of programs offered in all domains. Considering the option of distance mode of education, the accessibility of education does not seem concerning even today. Yet, the National Education Policy 2020 calling for raising the current gross enrolment ratio of 27.1 to 50 in higher education by the year 2035 necessitates significant capacity building.

Higher education in the digital framework will certainly be offering universal education without dislocation, provided the concerned learners are equipped for digital learning. This in turn means that there has to be good internet bandwidth, computers, laptops, electricity, etc. for uninterrupted participation in educational activities. Unfortunately, the country has a significant digital divide and limitations like flawless internet connectivity, lack of computers, inadequate electricity, etc. are still visible and digital education may also not be within reach of those living in such unserved areas as well as with poor economic conditions. Apprehensions of the new model of education remaining confined to well-off sections of the society warrant necessary interventions for incessant inroads to online education.

Quality of Education:

A cue can be had from the reasonable hesitancy in the prevalent massive open online courses (MOOCS) under NPTEL, SWAYAM, etc. despite being offered by the premier institutions of the country. Feedback indicates that the students opt for these courses only in case of their unavailability in a regular manner in the institutions of their study.

Despite initiatives for increasing online learning footprint for quite a long and recognizing the online learning certifications at par with face-to-face learning mode, the choice for getting education in offline mode in educational institutions is not getting completely faded. There is a strong perception about utilizing the online education content for supplementing the classroom knowledge. Society’s reticence towards parity between any online course with the similar offline course in institution campuses is obvious. Another reason for this reluctance is the difficulty in passing courses under MOOCS from premier institutions as compared to it being offered by some other institution.

With the upcoming digital university on the hub and spoke model, the students will be facilitated to the best institutions offering online courses, and the same may also fetch additional revenue to the institutions. Moreover, the large number of students interested in a few preferred courses of select institutions will impose the handling limitations and the dichotomy between quantity and quality will be apparent. Also, the institutions engaged in providing online courses will have to make separate arrangements for such teaching content creation and dissemination, else the quality of teaching-learning processes offered on their campuses will be affected adversely. Besides, the roping in of a large number of institutions with varying integrity in their functioning in offering digital education may culminate in loss of rigor and dilution in the standard of education.

The quality of education in digital mode is one of the big concerns, and a swarm of students descending on it will eventually pose a serious threat to sustain and upgrade the overall standard of higher education.

Cost of Education:

Looking upon the current cost of distance learning in open Universities of the public sector being very reasonable, one can perceive that the cost of digital mode of education from public funded institutions should not challenge affordability. Nonetheless, the instances of the high cost of online education offering from self-financed private sector institutions are concerning.

The methodology adopted in online education offerings in the past shows that it shall be comprising of student enrolment, sharing of online / offline digital study videos of the course (s), evaluation and assessment, result declaration, and release of the pass certificate / diploma / degree as per prescribed framework. In each of these activities, there is a recurring expenditure of maintaining digital connectivity on the student side. At the same time, there will be cost-saving from their no displacement from native places. Ostensibly, given no overhead expenditure on students, repeatability in the use of learning content, a lesser requirement of course instructors, the institutions will be spending less on online education. Consequently, the cost of digital education must be significantly lesser than campus-based regular education.

Therefore, the conceptualization and execution of formal online education and freshly ideated digital University in the country must take care of genuine concerns on the standard of education, integrity of processes, ease of reaching out to the target audience, and minimal cost of education. Approbating virtualization of higher education is a double edged sword and embedded with conflict between managing quantity and quality.



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Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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