On February 1, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman made an important announcement in her budget speech.
“A digital university will be established to enable students across the country to access world-class quality universal education with personalized learning experience at their doorstep. This will be available in various Indian languages and ICT formats. The University will be built on a hub-and-spoke model, with the hub developing cutting-edge ICT expertise. The country’s top universities and public institutions will collaborate as a hub network,” she promised.
Three weeks later, Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated a webinar on “The digital university: making world-class higher education accessible to all” where he explained how it would solve the problem of the shortage of places in education. higher education and he urged the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the University Grants Commission (UGC) and the Ministry of National Education to speed up the process of setting up the digital university.
The remarks of the Director of Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, Dr. V. Kamakoti during the webinar are helpful in understanding the government’s vision of “digital university ecosystem” based on the hub and spoke model where the host of top technical and non-technical universities (spokes) come together to offer a multitude of courses under one roof digitally (the hub), something like what the National Program for Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) did when seven IIT alumni and the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore joined forces in 2003 to democratize access (via web/online conferencing) to top quality courses at these world-class institutions for all.
UGC is also easing regulations to ease the transition of higher education institutions from brick-and-mortar institutions to hybrid institutions where students enrolled in courses and degrees in online-only outnumber those in offline-only courses.
If the UGC’s proposed reforms are passed, hundreds of autonomous universities and colleges will be able to launch online-only courses and award digital degrees in them that will be treated the same as offline ones. It is enough to be a Class XII pass to study undergraduate (UG) courses and a UG pass to study in postgraduate courses in the digital university ecosystem.
Online degrees will also follow the same course curriculum, credit structure, a four-year undergraduate program with multiple entry and exit options, an academic credit bank, and other systemic changes envisioned in the national education policy. The UGC has also changed the rules to give accreditation to all higher education institutions in a phased manner.
Universities and colleges will be encouraged to collaborate with ed-tech platforms to develop courses to marry high-quality content by the former with the technological expertise of the latter in terms of animation, visual effects, games , etc
From budget announcement to actual policy details in less than a month, it shows the seriousness of the government. While the direction is certainly the right one and the speed more than satisfactory, it remains unclear how the government will ensure that the failures of the NPTEL project or the Swayam portal in particular and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in general do not not reproduce.
One problem with MOOCs is that they are massive, enrolling tens of thousands of students, but even large traditional classrooms have many drawbacks, not to mention digital ones. With the exception of a handful of bright and motivated students, the vast majority feel out of place and struggle to catch up. Personal attention, caring, sense of community, peer pressure to do well, finish homework on time, etc. are important ingredients for an effective program that are missing in MOOCs.
The second problem with MOOCs is that they are open to everyone and most students who enroll in a course do not even end up completing it. There is a huge difference between those who show interest and who end up getting certified. Data from NPTEL shows that there were 1,74,25,870 registrations, but only eight lakh achieved certification. Students do a lot of window shopping, but when something is readily available, they tend not to value it. No in-game skin, if you will.
The third problem with MOOCs is that they are also exclusively online, which compounds the two aforementioned problems of being massive and free for everyone. Thanks to Covid-19 induced e-learning over the past two years, people are now well aware of the downsides of exclusive e-learning. Even early enthusiasts are now accepting that the hybrid model that mixes online and offline modes would be better and is the realistic way forward.
It is hoped that the government will give serious attention to these issues and address them while preparing a new regulatory structure for the future where e-learning will become an important and unavoidable aspect. But it is clearly not enough to make quality knowledge widely available. An education that can benefit students is much more than that.