Co-authored by Apoorva Shankar*
Going by IMF and UNESCO figures, to double the ratio for higher education enrollments in the country (currently around 24%), the investment required to build the requisite number of brick and mortar institutions will be about US $100 billion (or roughly ₹7800 billion). An alternate viable strategy may be needed to take care of India's educational needs. Offering education online may be one way to tackle the challenge of scale.
Think about this—the world has land, energy and many other resource crunches. How many physical campuses can possibly be built to solve the education challenge? Globally, around 3.2 billion people are on the internet, out of which 2 billion are in developing countries. In India alone, there were around 331.66 million internet subscriptions, as on 31 December, 2015. Given that currently the total population of India stands at around 1.3 billion, the internet penetration rate is only 26%. Considering the fairly high average growth rate in internet subscriptions, there is a lot of scope for internet services to expand and reach a large section of the population, before it starts tapering. Due to this trend, many industries, including education, are experiencing a digital transformation.
Students in India's higher educational institutes have been subjected to outdated and irrelevant curricula for generations.
It all started with the rise in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Many traditional institutions are increasingly offering web-facilitated courses or blended learning, i.e., partly online and partly in classrooms. MOOCs are online courses that are usually free and made available to a large number of people at the same time. The content is centralised. Many students are also enrolling in some form of full-time online learning. Over 35 million people have enrolled in online courses in the last four years. The United States is leading this movement with about 32% of its higher education student population taking at least one course online, i.e., more than six million people. In fact, the pace of increase of enrollments in online higher education outpaced those in higher education as a whole. Online students increased by 10% as opposed to a 2% increase overall, between 2010 and 2011. India, China, United Kingdom, etc, are some of the other countries leading the change towards online education.
There are several reasons why education has begun shifting online. One of the biggest advantages of the internet as a medium to impart education, when compared to physical campuses of learning, is its easy availability and accessibility. This is possibly why 10% of higher education students in the US were found to be exclusively taking higher education courses online, in 2012. About 13% were combining online and face-to-face classes.
It is, however, important to note that when an innovation happens, it usually begins as something simple—like just making content available online and thereby, simply providing access to it. In the mid to long run, experience trumps access and the focus now amongst most online education providers is to create an amazing learning experience, and not just provide access.
[N]ew online models of learning do a better job of preparing students for the workforce. They encourage more innovative pedagogical models.
Technology represents a way to overcome rural and urban disparities and bring content-rich resources to under-served areas. Education online can be consumed like any other digital content—on demand anytime, anywhere. In India, low enrollment at the national level isn't the only indicator of poor access to higher education. Enrollment figures vary across states and are as low as 17% in West Bengal and Odisha, and 13% each in Bihar and Jharkhand, reflecting massive disparities in access to higher education, based on geographies. The internet transcends these barriers and manages reaching remote areas, provided there exists a workable internet connection. With the digital transformation that mobile phones and smartphones are fuelling in the country, goods bought and sold, and services offered online are becoming a norm.
One popular estimate states that 50% of subject-knowledge acquired during the first year of a four-year technical degree, is outdated by the time students graduate. Students in India's higher educational institutes have been subjected to outdated and irrelevant curricula for generations. The vice-chancellors of some of these universities themselves have admitted this and expressed dissatisfaction at the adaptability of their curricula. The inability of traditional universities to adapt inevitably affects the relevance of their teachings. To stay relevant, the programs being offered in higher education institutions must also be flexible and evolve to suit the needs of industry and students by equipping them with employable skills.
Harvard University, among others, now encourages the listing of online courses completed by applicants/potential students while applying.
The internet is the fastest changing medium and often provides the pathway for further change for markets and industries. This very nature presents a major opportunity for online education providers. Programmes offered online have the ability to adapt in real-time without making significant investments to do so. It has also been said that new online models of learning do a better job of preparing students for the workforce. They encourage more innovative pedagogical models.
International initiatives are also showing acceptance of education slowly moving online. For example, Harvard University, among others, now encourages the listing of online courses completed by applicants/potential students while applying.
Education impacts all our lives, directly and indirectly, and it is important to get it right. Online education turned out to be disruptive and is breaking barriers. Understanding and exploiting online education, in ways that traditional education could never be, can act as a catalyst to reap countless individual and societal benefits.
* Apoorva Shankar is the head of content marketing at UpGrad.