Coronavirus: As Institutions Switch to Online Education in India, Who Gets Left Behind?

The sudden closure of university campuses across China and elsewhere has necessitated the virtual delivery of vast numbers of courses. And while there have been inevitable teething problems, observers are wondering whether the future might just have become the present. 

The COVID-19 outbreak has affected 2,069 people and killed 53 in India till now and if the WHO is to be believed, it is far from over. At a time like this, when the entire country is under lockdown and a majority of them are at home, students are opting for online classrooms and courses. The EdTech sector is booming and coming up with more wholesome experiences. But do these actually help? Can you actually recreate a classroom on the internet? We spoke to Nitish Jain, President, S P Jain School of Global Management, an Australian business school — which extensively leverages the power of the internet as part of their teaching methodology — with campuses in Mumbai, Dubai, Singapore and Sydney, to find out more about this. Excerpts from the conversation:

Privatisation of the education sector has been a talking point for many years. Do you think the sudden compulsion to shift to EdTech platforms or using them to deliver the study materials will make a good case for the private players?
Yes, I think so. That is because (usually) private players are faster to adapt to new technologies as they are willing to invest and take the risk in case the technology fails. And technology does fail more than 50 per cent of the time. Hence, education institutes invest in several technologies at big capital cost and stay with the winning ones. But we all know that technology has won most battles in all industries and education won’t be any different. Edtech includes some very powerful learning tools that include pedagogy, online tutoring, AI-driven models to assess learning styles, newer forms of assessment, etc.

Homeschooling is not something Indians are too comfortable with but as an educator do you think that helps? Is it a better option?
In western countries, homeschooling is a familiar concept, and many choose the same over sending their children to schools. In India, the ancient Gurukul system was also different from conventional schools. However, over a period of time, we have got used to conventional options. A complete and sudden shift to home-schooling might be farfetched, but we can adapt a model which includes both, online and offline learning to ease into the process. At our school, students have the option of selecting a module that is a combination of both, depending on their needs and comfort. For students and professionals who are working, courses that can be available in the comfort of their homes might serve as a better option. Homeschooling could also be a solution to rural India’s low literacy rates, wherein most children cannot attend school as they work to support their families or due to gender biases, as is in the case of a girl child. With online education and homeschooling, students can learn anywhere and at any point in time that may be a viable answer to the problem.

How much of our curriculum can we finish over online platforms? Is it a viable solution for a country like India?
It’s a question of using the right technology and having the right mindset. Not all online technologies are the same. Some are downright ineffective, not engaging and pain to sit through. Our school’s proprietary technology — Engaged Learning Online (EOL) — on the other hand, is a full classroom experience delivered using the latest sophisticated technology. The right mindset simply means having an open mind to receiving learning from home. COVID-19 has forced students to learn online and once they of got used to SFH (study from home) they have begun to enjoy the experience.

Many universities cannot vacate their hostels at times like these neither can they compel staff to work more to help the students. As someone who takes care of an institute what do you think would be the right solution?
Most colleges have called off lectures and have asked students to vacate campuses to ensure the safety of its students. However, in certain cases where this might not be possible, it is more viable to adopt a “prevention is better than cure” approach. Colleges can start by cancelling classes, seminars, conferences or any other activity that may require a large group of people to assimilate. Regular sanitisation of the premises and a provision of soaps and hand sanitisers for students and staff can also help prevent the spread of the virus. There should be a serious effort for social distancing. Not more than one per room. Staff must be accommodated at the campus itself  so they don’t need to travel. In these tough times, we need everyone to cooperate through gentle and empathetic counselling.

India has the third largest higher education system in the world, but it is marked by significant disparities in access to high-quality institutions. Official figures put the current enrolment rate only at about 25 per cent, and the student body is largely dominated by people from urban areas and higher income groups.

However, internet access is more widely distributed; cheap data costs mean that more than 40 per cent of the population are already online. With rural aspirations for a white-collar future increasing, conditions are ripe for solutions that can democratise knowledge and skills, and pundits are optimistic that online education can deliver that.

India’s edtech market is projected to be worth $2 billion (£1.5 billion) by 2021, based on 9.6 million users, according to a 2016 report by KPMG and Google. In 2016, it was worth $250 million, with 1.6 million users. A 2018 report on Indian edtech start-ups by industry body NASSCOM and consultancy Zinnov found that 3,000 edtech start-ups had been incorporated in the previous five years, backed by venture capital funds and other high-profile investors, such as the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

So far, the industry is dominated by apps that supplement school-level education or offer professional reskilling. The latter reflects India’s demographic dividend, with working-age people making up 62.5 per cent of the total population; industry experts predict 10 million enrolments in online/distance courses by 2021, with high demand from semi-urban and suburban areas.

Other rapidly growing market segments are preparation for undergraduate and other competitive exams, such as the GMAT (used in MBA admissions), civil service entrance exams and professional engineering exams.

There is obvious further scope. A 2019 report by Indian employability evaluation company Aspiring Minds claims that 80 per cent of Indian engineering graduates lack the skills for the knowledge economy. However, while edtech platforms such as Udacity and India’s own Unacademy and DIYguru offer courses on future-facing subjects such as AI , EV and data science, prohibitive pricing limits access. A self-paced certificate on AI can set a student back over £600: a lot of money for a young graduate from the suburbs. An online MBA from Amity University costs more than £6,000.

Moreover, online education and edtech in India is still not integrated into the mainstream education system for the most part. There has been significant push towards online education by the government, which runs a slew of online courses on everything from languages to cybersecurity through its premier higher education institutions. And, in 2018, the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulatory body, finally approved new rules that allow all colleges and universities to offer fully fledged online courses, subject to meeting certain quality criteria. Proposals for new online degrees have also been solicited from other universities that fulfil those criteria, so more can be expected to start offering such programmes. However, such offerings are yet to take off on a larger scale.

Hence, while the emergence of edtech is undoubtedly a significant development in a higher education system which, by and large, still swears by traditional pedagogies, the jury is still out on how much it can actually deliver in terms of increased equity.

Challenges in the existing adoption
In the country which has the highest number of Internet shutdowns in the world, an online-only system is bound to have some challenges, even amongst the people who can afford broadband connections and laptops. But even beyond that, many parents are skeptical as they see the additional screen time that this requires as a bad thing.

Amity’s Dr. Arora however disagreed with this and instead said that the students would end up on screens anyway, even if they weren’t studying.

April 3, 2020

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