How digital learning can reshape higher education

A key advantage of the online education industry is the self-paced learning approach. The learners get the benefit of doing the courses at their own speed and according to their own schedules.

As per the draft of the National Education Policy, the target for Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) for the year 2035 is set at 50%. We are currently less than 30% in terms of GER. Currently, six Indian states — Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Karnataka — account for 54% of the total student enrolment in higher education. The college density in India stands at mere 28 per lakh population and there is a huge spatial diversity in terms of access to higher education.

The opportunity cost for higher education in middle India (household income greater than Rs 25,000 and less than Rs 150,000 per month) as well as for bottom India (household income greater than Rs 8,000 per month) is very high in terms of hostel and commute fees as well. We need holistic planning to get to the targets of GER in 15 years, and we need it right now.

The primary challenges today are access and cost as it is evident from the data above. This is where digital learning has its scope. The move to provide complete online degrees earlier this year was a welcome initiative. Restricting the initial base to top 100 colleges also made sense, since the quality wouldn’t be compromised. These programmes can bring down the costs as well for the students as you are not taking other overheads with respect to running an offline classroom setup. A lot of edu-tech players are capitalising on the wave as well to create positive change. They are typically known as OPMs or Online Programme Managers. They own any of these things — student recruitment, curriculum, career services, and the degree is certified by the college.

There are more than 50,000 higher education institutes in India. The cost of opening a higher education establishment can range anywhere from a few lakh rupees to crores, depending on the size of the institution. This cost subsequently then affects the cost of getting an education for a child. Apart from that, the cost of getting books, traveling, and other miscellaneous expenses that lead to education is one of the major expenses in a person’s life. This is where online higher edu-tech platforms have a huge scope, all you need to start learning online is a good Internet connection and a decent computer. A key advantage of the online learning industry is the self-paced learning approach. The learners get the benefit of doing the courses at their own pace and according to their own schedules. Sometimes the learning is supplemented with live classes, webinars, presentations, but usually, it’s very self-paced.

There is a big disconnect between the colleges and the industry. Even with the best of efforts, organisations have not found a comprehensible solution to bridge this increasing skill gap but a few edu-tech startups might be onto something. Upskilling and reskilling have now become an innate part of the edu-tech sector. A few of them have been able to find opportunities in the industry by introducing skill-based and realistic knowledge-based experience sharing type of learning, which has led to a decrease in the skills gap. The students need to take supplementary courses for specific skills apart from plain vanilla degrees even if they are enabled online to gain jobs.

Additionally, there are few challenges before digital learning as well. Not every student is the same and has the same level of self-learning motivation to sit through long hours of online courses, especially when their attention spans are also decreasing year by year. This has led to a low user engagement within online classes, some students are more motivated and some are less motivated. Every student is unique but the education sector has always struggled to treat students that way. More than a challenge, this is an opportunity to devise customised solutions based on individual learning goals and aptitude. Imagine a learning platform like Netflix, where your learning dashboard is unique to you and they’re based around your interests. Teaching practices will have to be innovated and evolved to make sure that the traditional “one-size-fits-all” approach to education is not continued.

 A classroom builds interpersonal skills in a student, whereas edu-tech is unable to do that. It’s impossible for technology to imitate the human aspect of schools, the friendships that blossom in school, the student-teacher interaction in schools, and more. These are the very real benefits of a school education, which are rarely spoken of, but which are perhaps the most important from the point of view of the psychosocial development of a young student.

Although the future does look interesting, there are few areas that need intervention while setting up a digital model of education While there are tonnes of tools for live video streaming, managing students, conducting tests, etc, a fact is that network latency in India is way too high as compared to the US and China, especially in rural areas. Imagine learning through an app where video buffering takes most of the student’s time. Our country’s technological infrastructure is not evolved enough to support this gap in the edu-tech industry. Although, there are a few ways through which these issues can be tackled.

The author is the co-founder of a career tech startup, Board Infinity.