The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the adoption of technology in the education sector. India is the second largest market for e-learning in the world after the US. The EdTech industry was expanding even before the pandemic emerging as an alternate delivery mechanism owing to issues such as inequality of opportunities and poor quality of teaching. Now it is set to grow only faster bringing with it policy challenges along the way.

A Redseer Consulting report projected online education services across grades 1 to 12 to increase 6.3 times to $1.7 billion by 2022. Similarly, the post-K12 market is set to grow 3.7 times to $1.8 billion. We discuss the challenges for the sector in the days ahead, and how the government can act as a facilitator.

At present, three regulations govern the digital learning space in India:  the University Grants Commission (UGC) credit framework for online learning through SWAYAM (2016), UGC open and distance learning (2017), and UGC online learning and programme (2018).

In 2016, online learning courses are made available on the SWAYAM platform. Institutions recognised under the UGC can offer up to 20 percent (now expanded to 40 percent) of the total courses in a semester. Credits can be transferred on to the academic record of the students for courses done on the SWAYAM platform. This arrangement that endorses the government’s services as the epitome of quality education in India limits the student’s option to explore other innovative learning platforms. Credit mobility should also be extended to other popular MOOC (massive online open course) platforms, giving more choices to the students. This is also inconsistent with what the National Education Policy envisions about credit-based recognition of MOOCs.

The 2018 regulation allowed certain higher education institutions to offer courses online with UGC’s approval. The regulation permits only Top 100 NIRF Ranking or universities with NAAC grade of 3.26/4 to introduce online courses. Other platforms can be used only with the approval of UGC.

The intent to ensure the quality of online content is inadvertently also restricting expansion by disallowing colleges and universities to introduce online programmes.

With the rise in EdTech platforms in India, many potential collaborations between universities and established EdTech services are possible. Allowing more universities to offer online education can pave the way for more innovation.

Second, restricting the freedom to use a platform only through the UGC approval route creates regulatory constraints. In the two years since this regulation was introduced, only seven universities from the eligible list have ventured into online programmes. This begs the question of whether these universities would be able to sufficiently supply the ever-increasing demand of the learning community.

In the face of two conflicting policy goals — promoting innovation & competition versus the desire to control quality — the latter gets precedence in the form of more regulation. A vibrant mix of public and private institutions can eliminate quality concerns just by sheer competitive pressures. Competition will reduce cost and also offer variety catering to various sub-segments of the market. The government can review the functioning of online platforms through outcome-based parameters but give institutional stakeholders the freedom to operate.

Then, there are legal issues that the sector may have to face. Ambiguities remain regarding the treatment of EdTech services as “e-commerce entities”. The E-Commerce Rules (2020) say that any entity that offers services over the internet may be considered an e-commerce entity. This brings EdTech services within the definition of e-commerce. However, since all education institutions in India are strictly non-profit entities, there is ambiguity on whether online courses would be governed the same way. If the services are not considered commercial to be in the ambit of this legislation, a question arises on whether the government will step in to regulate fees.

Additionally, there are questions concerning the privacy of children below 18 years.  A substantial number of students enrolled in EdTech are in the K-12 category and by law, minors cannot enter into a binding contract. The present legislation around the privacy of children below 18 years is inadequate to safeguard their privacy in the digital age. Although the Personal Data Protection Bill, 2019 has mechanisms where services directed at children have to enter into a contract with parental consent, the fact that it is not a law yet gives EdTech companies certain discretion in handling the data.

Despite the emphasis on digital India, the budget outlays for digital e-learning decreased from Rs 541 crore in 2019-20 to Rs 444 crore in 2020-21. Digital learning without addressing the disparities in digital infrastructure will exclude a vast majority. There will be a need to prioritise budgetary allocation into areas that improve learning outcomes. Building India’s digital infrastructure is an important enabler to achieving this goal as the sector is likely to see a delayed resumption of classroom activities.Remember that only about one in four urban households have a computer; in rural areas it is one in 25. Only one in four households have an internet facility. In bigger households, students may face a shortage of electronic devices and/or internet data. Digital infrastructure needs to be augmented to truly democratise education and reach the remote and untapped segments of society.  Even post-COVID, a hybrid model of offline and online education will be the ideal template for the future of education. This presents the need to expand online learning and bring legal certainty to ensure the interests of all the stakeholders are safeguarded.

This article was published in Money Control on December 22, 2020. Click here to read

Nissy Solomon is Senior Research Associate and Akanksha Borawake is Research Associate at Centre for Public Policy Research. Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research. 

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