With the unprecedented disruption to the academic activities due to the lockdown followed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the education sector has been thrown into an inadvertent experiment in online learning. As the second-largest market in the world, India’s online education sector was poised to balloon up to US$ 1.96 billion by 2021. Numerous big-ticket players like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative have profoundly invested in the Indian market. Though this makes the future look bright, it is inundated with challenges like high dropout rates, absence of apt broadband infrastructure, lack of standardisation of online courses, etc.
India has been plagued with the challenge to provide affordable, accessible and quality education for all. With a Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) of merely 26.3 per cent (2019) in higher education, the government is left to plug the demand-supply gap in the system that abandons a large segment of the eligible population unable to pursue higher education.
A report by KPMG on Online Education in India (2017) highlights that with 0.5 million paid users, the “reskilling and online certification courses” is the largest category in the Indian market. This further corroborates Coursera’s analysis of its database that states 48 per cent of Indian learners are employed full time. This shows that these online portals are an important medium for reskilling and upskilling. On the other hand, the same analysis by KPMG places ‘higher education’ as the smallest category in the Indian market with only 55,000 paid subscribers.
Technical modules, notably on Artificial Intelligence, are the most in demand as per Coursera Learner Trends. Coursera India has observed a huge spike in uptake with 3,63,000 new learners and 700 new educational institutions signing up during the lockdown. There has been a significant month-on-month growth in enrolments for public health content. Globally as well, Coursera has received increased enrolments for epidemic or pandemic related modules.
With 0.5 million paid users, it is hard to fathom why India has been so cautious to let online learning flourish. In an attempt to stop fly-by-night platforms, the government banned online degree courses in 2015. While the same predicament exists within the traditional education structure, there have been no bans, only listings by the UGC as “fake university”. Distance learning from recognised institutions was allowed but only through extension campuses or learning centres. With some terms and conditions, this ban was reversed in 2018 but none of the 35 institutions that had submitted applications for a licence got one. Against this backdrop comes the 2020 Union Budget announcement that—further liberalises India’s online education policy—based on the National Institute Ranking Framework, the top 100 institutions will be offering full-fledged degree courses online.
A fundamental reason for the failure of the earlier policy was the requirement to set up learning centres in cities where the institution does not have a physical presence. This criterion failed to comprehend the disruptive nature that online learning could yield, instead it tethered distance education with the brick-and-mortar system much like the traditional arrangement. The Draft National Education Policy (DNEP) plans to encourage Type 1 as well as Type 2 institutions in facilitating online learning programmes. With online portals like Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds (SWAYAM), ePathshala and eBasta, the government aims to further accessibility for quality education to all. As institutions rush to teach online to push ahead with the academic calendar, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) has vigorously promoted its online learning initiatives to help cater to the need. VidyaDaan 2.0, a national programme launched by the government is inviting contributors to develop e-learning content. Is this enough to enable the industry to take off?
MHRD has announced that traffic to its online learning platforms has tripled since the lockdown was implemented. To cater to the abrupt spurt in demand, broadband operators and services providers are proposing new plans. However, it is ambiguous whether the existing infrastructure can cope with this surge in traffic. While government interventions have enabled momentum in the online education industry, lack of accessible broadband infrastructure has been a pestering issue. The Network Readiness Index (2019) positions India at 79 attributable to lacking digital bandwidth. NSSO (2015) found that merely 27 per cent of Indian households have a member with Internet accessibility and only 47 per cent of the said households own a computing device. With the broadband network scarcely connecting 600 corridors, rural India is left with a dismal digital network.
The need of the hour is to increase broadband penetration through interventions like ‘Digital India’ and ‘BharatNet’. The creation of a national IP backbone of this scale requires radical shifts in regulations. Sanjay Dhotre, MoS for Communications, Human Resource Development and Electronics & Information Technology, responding to a query in Lok Sabha, disclosed that merely 2.5 per cent of the goal set by BharatNet project has been achieved (2020). Robust models of a public-private partnership must be pondered upon to create the desired broadband highway.
However, private sector operators have hitherto seen little value in expanding broadband infrastructure beyond the top cities. To enable the creation of the required framework, policies must foremost expand spectrum assets. Optimising its accessibility by issuing unlicensed spectrum, amending existing allocations, permitting sharing and trading of the resource could immensely improve infrastructure creation. With the Defence Ministry releasing some spectrum, India has taken a few steps in the right direction. Nevertheless, it still requires a progressive and comprehensive spectrum policy. Trailing behind numerous emerging markets w.r.t per capita availability as well as the cost of spectrum, policymakers must prioritise maximising spectrum usage. With the new normal, access to the Internet is an essential requirement for all and countries around the globe are trying to tackle this. Millard School District in Delta, US has created hotspots by enabling wireless Internet routers on school buses. This enterprising ‘internet-on-wheels’ system may just be the solution we are looking for.
Online learning could bring in the much-needed paradigm shift to ensure access to quality higher education. However, with the low Internet coverage and lack of computing device ownership, India is unable to ensure education to its eligible population. Although expanding spectrum assets and amending education policies are welcome moves, these long-term strategies cannot solve the crisis at hand. Therefore, device ownership and access to the Internet must be surmounted at the earliest, without which India cannot learn online.
Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.
Committee for Draft National Education Policy. 2019. “Draft National Education Policy.” Ministry of Human Resource Development. https://mhrd.gov.in/sites/upload_files/mhrd/files/Draft_NEP_2019_EN_Revised.pdf.
KPMG. 2017. “Online Education in India.” https://assets.kpmg/content/dam/kpmg/in/pdf/2017/05/Online-Education-in-India-2021.pdf.
Ministry of Human Resource Development. 2019. “All India Survey on Higher Education 2018-19.” http://aishe.nic.in/aishe/viewDocument.action?documentId=262.
NSSO (National Sample Survey Office). 2015. Annual Report 2014-2015. New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation.
Portulans Institute. 2019. Network Readiness Index 2019. Portulans Institute. https://networkreadinessindex.org/nri-2019-analysis/.
Sharma, Samrat. 2020. “Thousands of Village Wi-Fi Hotspots Installed under BharatNet, but Check How Many Actually Work”. Financial Express, February 21. https://www.financialexpress.com/industry/thousands-of-village-wi-fi-hotspots-installed-under-bharatnet-but-check-how-many-actually-work/1875175/.