C Gopinath

India’s virtually challenged universities

C. GOPINATH | Updated on March 09, 2018

Online education has opened up new vistas of opportunities. — S. Siva Saravanan

In the emerging era of the digital classroom, brick-and-mortar universities need to figure out how to stay relevant.

Students the world over complain about the expense of higher education and how difficult it is to get into a college or university of their choice.

Everyone desires to get into the best institution since that is perceived to be, if not a guarantee to a good job, at least a way to smoothen one’s chances.

The US is facing a crisis of sorts in the field of education. Tuition costs have often risen at more than twice the rate of inflation, making college unaffordable to many. Student loans continue to burden the borrower for many years after taking up a job and since 2010, national student debt has overshot credit card debt.

President Barack Obama has taken the stand that college education is not a luxury but a pre-requisite for jobs in the future. However, only about half of the high school graduates from the poorest 25 per cent of US families attend college.

Home-classroom flip

The impact of digital technology in the field of education in the last few years may perhaps hold the key to providing lower-cost access to learning. Online education has been around for a long time.

Universities first began putting their courses online with little change, making it just an easy way of disseminating material, as against the traditional postal correspondence courses. Then, gradually, synchronous methods such as chat rooms and so on began to make a difference to online learning.

Everyone knows about the big impact of Khan Academy on school-level math education. It has done so well that several school districts in the US have adopted what is now being called ‘flipped classroom.’

Instead of students being taught in a classroom and then doing problems and practice sets at home, they are now asked to watch Khan Academy videos at home and do problem sets in class where the teacher is available to help and guide. The ‘classroom’ and ‘home’ have been flipped.

The big development since about 2008 has been the emergence of the massive open online course, better known by its acronym, MOOC. At the beginning, individual professors grabbed the headlines when tens of thousands of students registered for their free courses from around the world. Sensing a big opportunity, organisations were formed to develop the idea further.

Three big players in this area now, Udacity, Coursera and edX offer courses in the sciences and humanities, theoretical and practical, and proclaim their belief that education is a basic human right and their objective is to provide access to anyone around the world to a world-class education.

This is no idle assertion, since they are also backed by some of the leading research universities.

Blended learning

Coursera, an initiative of Stanford University, California, claims to have reached over 6 million learners from 108 countries, offering 564 courses.

edX, a joint initiative of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also claims to reach millions. In addition, edX offers Certificates of Achievement at the end of a completed course, so you not only can claim to have the knowledge but also have a piece of paper to show.

Udacity, also with roots in Stanford University, offers courses at both the school and college level. While these organisations presently offer their courses free, supported by various foundations and philanthropists, this is not going to last. Whether they would monetise their ventures through fees or through advertising is to be seen.

What about the students’ perspective in this discussion? Low cost or free courses are always welcome although students who sign on to courses from top-ranked universities would also love to see a degree certificate with the university’s monogram.

That is still a longway off. However, learning benefits cannot be ignored. A US Department of Education report says that blended learning (where there is a combination of online and face-to-face delivery) offers the best advantage over either one alone.

A University of Pennsylvania survey of students who have taken MOOCs provides a valuable perspective, for it suggests that the reality may be at variance with the high ideals of the promoters.

For instance, it was found that most of the students were already well educated and looked to pick up new skills to advance their careers. Nothing wrong with that, but the courses are not reaching those who may otherwise skip college.

Moreover, students in poor countries were primarily from among the wealthy, perhaps because they are the ones who have computers and access to the internet. So the ‘access’ objective is yet to be met.

Also, what surprised me the most was that over 90 per cent of those who registered for a course did not finish.

A lot of people are still trying things out, perhaps the content is not what they really want, or the pedagogy may not suit them.

With several companies now offering skills’ certification, we may see a future where the demand for degrees falls.

All students need to do is to pick the skills they need for particular jobs and careers, and learn it at the minimum cost and get certified for it, rather than get a degree.

As an educationist, that makes me uncomfortable, for that’s not what learning is all about.

On cusp of new model

Perhaps we are at the cusp of a new model of higher education, especially in countries such as India with a shortage of qualified faculty to teach, across several disciplines.

An entrepreneur could set up campuses in smaller towns that provide good lodging facilities that meet the social and networking needs, a library, and computer labs with good internet connections so students can take online classes from around the world.

A few part-time tutors who can clarify doubts and questions are all that would be required. Coursera has already started an initiative of providing physical spaces called Learning Hubs in 10 countries with good access to the internet where students can come to learn.

Brick-and-mortar universities with expensive faculties are in for interesting times. They need to figure out how they can stay relevant and add value.

Published on January 19, 2014

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