Making higher education count

Massive online open course (MOOC) systems can finally get rid of India’s age-old problem of taking quality education to every single doorstep


R Swaminathan | October 17, 2014

No names are needed here. Recently a top academic who heads one of India’s premier educational institutions recounted an experience that painfully highlighted the yawning gap in the quality and quantity of faculty members and the number of students in higher education. He had gone to a college, which will remain unnamed for obvious reasons, as the head of a certification and accreditation team and was appalled to find that the institution, authorised to give degrees and diplomas, had three teachers and over a hundred students. And the icing on the cake? The most experienced teacher had all of three years under his belt.

For the next case being brought to the fore identities can be safely revealed. The ministry of human resource development (MHRD) set up a task force in 2010 to figure out how seriously India is caught up in the higher education trap. The report submitted in 2012 astounded even the most cynical of policy makers. Most Indian colleges and higher educational institutions faced a faculty shortage of 54 percent, and in some departments of top educational institutions the teacher gap was as high as 67 percent. Prime minister Narendra Modi wants high value and technology industries to take root in India, revive the manufacturing sector, set up a high-end electronics research and production base and skill India, all simultaneously.

None of this seems possible in the light of dismal numbers being unearthed. The higher education conundrum, in fact a worsening crisis, is a three-way gap. The chasm between quality educational institutions, quantity and quality of faculty members and the quantity and quality of students is increasing so rapidly, almost as if caught in a vortex of centrifugal forces, that there is a real danger of all wheels coming off the wagon.

Going about setting it right the traditional way, which involves infusing massive doses of funds and people, hard and soft infrastructure, incentives, teacher training and corporate involvement, is going to take a lot of time. That’s how things have to be set right in the long term. But India may not have the luxury of time. So, is there something that can be done in the short- to medium-term that can bring about a transformational change? Can the seemingly bleak future of higher education in India be made brighter by the right infusion of digital technology?

That’s the question that needs a serious debate straightaway. There are four challenges that need to be taken into consideration for arriving at the right digital answer for the burning question called Indian higher education.

The first challenge is specifically technological. It is to create the right kind of platform that’s appropriate not only for the kind of content being hosted, but also for being integrated with a learning engine, interactive modules, online certification, real-time chats with professors and specific domains and log-ins.

Critically, the platform also has to be based on open standards and protocols and preferably use open source and open licence software. There are successful examples of online learning platforms and systems that are used in the US, several parts of Europe, Singapore and, nowadays, China. There are two kinds of online learning platforms being used for what is now commonly referred to as massive online open course (MOOC) systems. The first are proprietary systems like Udacity and Coursera that are based on a subscription or a software licensing model. The second are open-to-everyone systems. The most popular, and arguably the most robust, is the MIT eDX system, whose source codes have been used freely to evolve other customised open-to-all online learning systems.

Creating the right kind of platform, however, is not just a function of typical software architecting that’s found in the information technology industry. There are specific pedagogic principles associated with creating an online learning system, depending on whether the model being considered is for aggregation, repurposing of content, remixing of modules or feeding forward, which essentially means to share with multiple participants while integrating their real-time inputs and feedback.

The second challenge relates specifically to content, which includes course curriculum, reading material and notes. This can take three forms. The first is what is called legacy content, which refers to existing books, lecture notes and guides. For this to become part of any online system it needs to be digitised. Unlike other forms of digitisation where converting a physical document into either a PDF or scanning it is usually sufficient, digitisation for online learning systems requires the use of the optical character recognition (OCR) software, meta-tagging, keyword insertion so that specific lectures, modules and course curricula are made easily searchable as per standard keyword parameters or by date, month or year.

The second is repurposing. This is a technology- and labour-intensive exercise where existing content is first sliced and diced into workable formats and then transformed into interactive modules with the addition of marked quizzes, videos, graphics, multimedia components and, of course, end of lesson/modules/course exercises. The third is creation of new content, which is relative easier and these days involves a lot of video lectures, real-time chats with peers and professors, mentoring frameworks and monitoring and assessment systems.

The third challenge relates to information architecture (IA), user interface (UI), user acceptance testing (UAT) and user experience (UE). All the four are inter-related. One of the foundations for creating a successful online learning system is to understand how information (read content) has to be layered in a hierarchical manner so that there is a consistent, self-perpetuating and an almost intuitive logic for the user. An accurately mapped content schema leads to a friendlier interface, which is the first step towards acceptance and adoption of the system by all stakeholders concerned. The system, without any doubt, has to be continuously upgraded, almost like how car models are continuously revamped, so that the customer experience is always world class.

In India, often, online platforms are exclusively conceived as technological interventions. Far from it, digital interfaces and systems have to be always about the consumer and the end user. It is in this context, the companies focusing on developing robust online learning systems have to put content and user experience always on top. The technology architecture will have to be secondary.

The fourth challenge is shockingly basic: electricity and high quality broadband connection. The biggest problem facing all of Digital India plans is neither hardware nor software. Lack of quality electricity connection is the biggest hurdle. It’s here that the Modi government has to really think out of the box and bring in a diverse mix of solutions, ranging from micro-hydel power plants, solar grids and wind power and, maybe even allowing panchayats and villages to generate their own off-grid electricity. The broadband issue is well on its way to getting resolved, with plans to lay optic fibre network to 2,50,000 panchayats well on their way, quality of connections improving drastically and the cost of private broadband connections dropping sharply. It is expected to go down even further after the launch of 4G services. But for MOOC systems to function and effectively deliver high-definition multi-media and video content, a minimum of 2mbps sustained connection is required. So, in that sense, there is still a lot of work to be done.

On the policy front, what should the government do? First, it has to free India’s top 50 institutions across all disciplines from the iron grip of UGC and AICTE. The institutions must be given the freedom to devise their own course curricula. After all they have the best subject experts. Second, the ministries of HRD and information technology together have to facilitate the creation of subject expert groups in a virtual environment from across the country to help generate the necessary content for the MOOC system. Third, the government must allow premier institutions to recruit the best software architects, animators, multi-media experts and UI and UX experts at corporate level salaries. Fourth, the government must encourage private companies, and maybe even give incentives in the form of a CSR mandate, to allow them to invest in digital learning systems being rolled out by institutions like IIT, IISc and TISS. A networked and always on online learning system across the country has the potential to change our higher education system. Imagine an engineering student sitting in a faraway Aizwal getting his life lessons every morning from the best engineering minds sitting in IIT Kharagpur. That, for sure, is an excellent food for thought.



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