Old is gold is a popular adage. But old giving way for new is a perennial reality. The traditional brick-and-mortar classroom-based education is now passé, at least among a large segment of the higher education sector, which have bet their money on online education. Till recently, this segment was perceived as an elite cohort, unrepresentative of the mainstream higher education players. However,  not anymore. The pandemic accidentally unleashed the power of online education by negating face-to-face classes for over a year, as all academic operations were conducted virtually. Online education is now at an inflection point and about to get massified any time soon.

The various advantages of online higher education is not the focus of this piece. The growth of online education is undisputable, but the moot question is its quality, which is debatable. More specifically, the quality of the teaching and learning process and the concomitant outcome. 

This article highlights the problems that beset online higher education and cursorily delineates ways to overcome them. The hindrances to quality in online higher education can be clustered under two categories: inadequacy of hard infrastructure and inability of soft infrastructure.

Inadequacy of hard infrastructure

India certainly is better placed in terms of its mobile connectivity and affordable internet or mobile data. It would not be an understatement to say that the education sector survived the onslaught of the pandemic due to the extant connectivity via smartphones and mobile data. But, the ubiquitous mobile phones cater only to the student end of the teaching-learning process, that too with certain glitches, but not to the other end i.e., the teachers. Despite the high mobile density and affordable mobile data, the quality of connectivity is still below par even in urban regions, which houses almost 40 per cent of the total colleges in the country. Free or affordable mobile data, as provided by by the Tamil Nadu government last year, will not make up for the poor quality of connectivity and erratic power supply. With these infrastructural gaps, students still suffer last-mile issues. 

A teacher cannot – and even if possible, ideally should not – make do with mobile phones for conducting classes. Interaction with and participation of students are two key ingredients that are insufficient in online sessions and mobile phone usage by teachers would only aggravate it. As per the latest data available, 81 and 86 per cent of the universities and colleges respectively have computer centres. But the operational efficiency of these computer centres is anybody’s guess. NKN connectivity, a high-speed internet connection, is available only to 55 and 23 per cent of universities and colleges respectively. The figures for NMEICT connectivity stand at 40 and 22 per cent. Unless investment is committed to strategically improving digital infrastructure, the quality of online education would remain elusive.

Inability of soft infrastructure

Teachers are either digitally conversant or digitally sub-competent. While the former can seamlessly and efficiently toggle between offline and online modes of teaching, the latter find it difficult to navigate through the digital tools. While the teachers may be conversant with the subject, they may necessarily not be so in delivering their knowledge to the students using the digital medium. They need to be oriented towards using technology in their academic endeavours. Or, in the words of the learned J Krishnamurti, the educator needs to be educated. Another challenge with online education is that a teacher has no space to mask chinks in his or her armour, as each session can be recorded, used and dissected later, many times over. Online education does not provide a platform to a teacher who is just an information provider, as many avenues are available online to do it. Online teaching requires a teacher to be informative, educative and also inspirational so that not just teaching, but learning also happens in every session. Every teacher, irrespective of her stature and experience, needs to attune herself to the requirements of the virtual model of education. To that end, a change in attitude among academicians is welcome and mandatory.

If people are at the heart of the soft infrastructure, the nuts and bolts of it are the processes they create. Even with adequate infrastructure, people cannot function well sans enabling processes. For elucidation, the case of curricular revision in school education during the pandemic needs to be studied. The swiftness seen in school education in terms of governments revising the syllabi taught to students and the changes in pedagogy were striking compared to the higher education sector. Despite having autonomy, not many universities revised their curriculum to make it amenable to the online system. What was meant for teaching offline was retained for online mode too. Both teachers and students went through the same rigmarole that was adopted earlier in the offline mode. What is taught and how it is taught in a face-to-face mode is different from an online mode. Different modes necessitate different processes. An immediate relook of processes is essential to enhance the quality of online or blended education.

Pumping in resources and creating digital infrastructure are necessary, but it is a long process. Comparatively, orienting academicians to adapt to online or blended teaching is relatively less time-consuming. Even less time-consuming is to effect changes in higher education policy commensurate with the requirements of the new method of delivery of educational service. This is the low-hanging fruit. The policymakers at the governmental level and educational administrators at institutional & departmental levels need to establish a conducive policy environment and facilitatory processes, which will form focus of the next piece.

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr M Saravanan
Dr M Saravanan
M.Saravanan has worked in public policy for over 12 years, focusing predominantly on higher education. Currently, he works as Deputy Registrar & Chief Finance Officer, Anurag University, Hyderabad. He has offered consultancy services to the Union and State governments, private organisations and educational institutions. He has a Ph.D. in development economics from the University of Madras. His areas of interest cover higher education, school education, skill development and economics. He had been a part of the editorial team of a journal and has published opinion pieces for Deccan Herald and Business Line.

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