... provided there is uninterrupted internet access and power supply. Web-based Swayam platform is ambitious but will face infrastructure challenges
Taru Bhatia | June 27, 2016
The Indian education system is dogged by poor pupil-to-teacher ratio (PTR). Although the Right to Education (RTE) Act recommends one teacher per 35 students at the secondary level, states like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh accommodate almost 60 students in a classroom. In higher education, it is around one teacher per 23 students as against one teacher per 15 students in undergraduate colleges and one teacher per 12 students in postgraduate colleges, as recommended by the University Grants Commission (UGC), a regulatory body for higher education.
The gap highlights the urgent need for more teachers in classrooms. The government, in the meanwhile, is working on an intermediate solution. The ministry of human resource development (MHRD) is working on a project to provide students, especially from backward areas, access to teachers via the internet.
In August, the MHRD will launch Swayam, a web-enabled platform offering 300 massive open online courses (MOOCs) of different kinds. The Study Web of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (Swayam) will be the country’s first integrated website for MOOCs.
The project is a sequel to the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) launched in 2009. The three main objectives of the mission are broadband connectivity to all colleges and universities, low cost access and computing devices for students and teachers and high quality e-content generation.
Swayam will offer a slew of free courses for classes IX-XII, undergraduate, postgraduate and engineering classes. The platform will cater to students, non-students and professionals who are willing to educate themselves with learning material available on the web. The ministry plans to make Swayam a web-based repository of up to 2,000 courses, including law and medical studies.
With Swayam, the MHRD primarily aims to connect rural areas to the best institutes for higher studies across the country electronically, thus attempting to raise “the overall standards of higher education in the country”.
Developed by All India Council of Technical Education (AICTE), an educational body under MHRD, with support from Microsoft, the US-based technology firm, the website is said to have a capacity to host up to three crore people.
Under this programme, teachers at centrally funded institutions like Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and central universities will offer online courses.
According to the MHRD, a fund of '100 crore was allotted to develop the platform in the last year’s budget. However, the project didn’t start off immediately. This year, the ministry said it would spend '50 crore for its implementation.
The action plan
Swayam will have video lectures, downloadable e-content, self-testing mechanism like quizzes, and a discussion forum where students can put their questions to virtual teachers.
“This platform will bridge the gap between average and premier institutions. Almost 1,000 top professors are working across the country to build the platform,” says R Subrahmanyam, additional secretary, technical education, MHRD. Students who are not satisfied with the quality of teaching at their institute can educate themselves with notes from top Indian institutes via Swayam.
“For a student it means getting choices of where to learn. Not getting stuck with a teacher or if there is no teacher at all; getting access to best teachers if not satisfied by his or her institution’s teacher,” Subrahmanyam says. And so, he feels, this platform might motivate “lousy teachers to perform better”.
He adds, “It will provide supplementary materials to students as well, meaning that a student can take only notes from the e-class without taking exams.” Anyone who takes an e-course on the Swayam platform will get a certificate from the respective institute after passing a test on the completion of his/her course. The exam will be conducted at a nominal cost, as per the ministry. But it won’t be an online exam. The students will be allotted centres where they can appear for the test.
Moreover, students will get an opportunity to transfer their marks obtained from online courses on Swayam to their total academic marks obtained in their parent institute.
To accommodate this plan, UGC has formulated a set of regulations called ‘credit framework for online learning courses through Swayam’, under Section 26 of the UGC Act. As per the regulation, students can attain only up to 20 percent of the total marks through Swayam courses. Therefore, the institutes will need to modify their programmes to include Swayam e-learning as an option for some subjects – though this is not yet made mandatory, as per the ministry.
For teachers, the platform may be used for blended learning, says Subrahmanyam. That is to say, teachers can use the digital platform as a supplement to their teaching material. In other words, they can include e-lectures from the Swayam platform to teach students in the classroom.
This would require an institute to have internet connectivity with basic infrastructure like computers, projectors and regular electricity supply. And of course, there has to be a teacher with basic computer knowledge. Without these factors, the idea of blended learning for enhancing teaching in classrooms, will be of no use.
In a nutshell, the platform intends to help students having poor teaching faculty, teachers, professionals, school or college drop-outs, and anyone who wants to gain knowledge of subjects of their interest virtually.
The ministry has appointed six national coordinators for the Swayam platform who will look after every area of education including schools, open schools, higher studies and technical studies. The coordinators will “appoint best teachers [as content providers] and select, supervise and certify courses on the platform,” says Subrahmanyam.
Online education is certainly not a new thing in India. There are a number of websites hosting courses from various streams of education. Coaching centres for higher education too are facilitating students with e-content. The MHRD is already funding the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a collaboration of seven IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) that is providing web-based learning material to students of engineering and science. (The MHRD plans to merge NPTEL with Swayam later.)
The market for e-learning is surely big but its reach will remain limited, unless there is a strong education system on ground level and universal internet connectivity.
India lags behind when it comes to internet perpetration, which is only 29 percent (going by a Confederation of Indian Industry report of 2015). As the MHRD aims to connect backward areas with quality learning via internet, it needs to ensure that those areas are connected with both internet and electricity, and have working computers as well as teachers.
Osama Manzar, founder of non-profit organisation Digital Empowerment Foundation, wrote in his column in the Mint newspaper last year that 19 of 25 schools in 12 states, including Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand,
Assam, Meghalaya, Delhi and Chhattisgarh, “had no computer lab and out of those six schools with computer labs, only two are functional”. Moreover, 24 schools didn’t even have internet connectivity.
“If courses are available online, students can have access to best of lectures, materials and inputs. But facilities are not yet available. Access to internet is not easy in remote areas. Schools and other institutions need to ensure that basic infrastructure for e-learning is there,” says JS Rajput, former director, National Council of Education and Research and Training (NCERT). If the facility is available, then online learning would be a big boon for the education sector altogether, he adds.
Acknowledging the challenge of digital divide that the country is facing, Subrahmanyam says that to reach to the non-connected regions, the ministry is launching 32 satellite channels as well. “So whatever content is on the Swayam website will also be broadcast on 32 direct-to-home (DTH) channels,” he says. However, students learning through these channels will not receive any certificate on completion of a course.
As for making it interactive, he says that the channels may be linked to call centres. “A toll-free number to call centres can provide teaching assistance to students,” he says.
However, when asked if the MHRD would extend its support to states to help them build IT infrastructure in their secondary schools so they can utilise Swayam platform for improvised teaching, a ministry official says there are no such plans yet. Instead, the official says building IT infrastructure in schools that include broadband connectivity, computer labs, trained teachers and projectors won’t cost much, and thus they are not expecting states to seek help from the Centre for this.
The MHRD is however working with centrally funded universities and institutes to build internet connectivity, under the National Knowledge Network (NKN) project, launched in 2010 with National Informatics Centre (NIC) as its implementing agency. Under the project, the government is bearing 75 percent of implementation cost and the rest comes from colleges, says the MHRD official. “Horizontally, we have connected almost all centrally funded universities and institutes through MTNL and BSNL. Our next plan is to go vertical by connecting all colleges linked to these universities across India through Wi-Fi. For this, we are also seeking private players’ contribution through their CSR funds,” the official says.
While connectivity is one challenge, learning capacity is another. With Swayam, blended learning may be a good option to enhance teaching quality inside classrooms. However, not many young Indians are able to get themselves enrolled for higher education. The gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education was only 21.1 percent in 2012-13, as per the MHRD annual report for 2014-15. But India needs to have at least 30 percent GER by 2020 so that it can provide skilled workforce to the world market, as per a report by the Symbiosis Centre for Distance Learning in 2014.
This is an important factor. If an individual seeks to self-educate with an online course, having basic knowledge of a course is fundamental. Hence, to make Swayam a productive platform, the MHRD needs to ensure that young Indians are at least getting formal education, before they can supplement themselves with online education.
“Online education can only be an add-on to formal education. Students have to be in classrooms. They need to have established courses and they need faculty. Only then can they benefit from online courses,” says professor Madhu Prasad, member of the All India Forum for Right to Education
(The article appears in June 16-30, 2016 issue)
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