Virtualization of higher education

In view of the available demographic dividend, this is an opportune time for the country to equip its young population with the best quality education so as to achieve excellence in education for becoming global leaders.

Technical education in the country had long ventured into online learning programme known as National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) in 1999. Gradually, the number of subjects covered under NPTEL increased and started making positive impact in supplementing the gaps of classroom learning of engineering students. Subsequently, the massive online open courses (MOOCs) were started in 2008 as assistive arrangement to the distance education. In a very short span of time the availability of wide range of subjects made it popular.

Today's upsurge of  online courses for distance learning is attributed to the weaknesses of the conventional education system.

The limitations of the regular teaching led to the popularization of online courses with the sole objective of supplementing the face to face learning process. Thus, it is evident that the availability of online content has been there for quite some time and the students have been using them as per the requirement.

The present usage of online content has been only for supplementing the deficiencies of the face to face teaching in the class room. At the post graduate level, in case of certain subjects not offered by the institution in regular mode, these online subjects are accepted mode of completing them for pursuing PhD.

At undergraduate level, total dependency on online learning of some subjects has been mooted by the regulatory bodies, but the academia had mixed opinion about their learning outcomes. A section of academics did not appreciate the objective behind some subjects getting covered exclusively through the online mode at undergraduate level.

Specially, when it comes to the laboratory subjects, it is incomprehensible to teach them as virtual laboratory classes. Laboratory subjects are primarily meant for learning by doing which will be completely absent in case of online laboratory classes.

Here, it is important to understand that there is a difference between the post-graduate level and undergraduate level with regards their age, maturity, exposure, sense of responsibility, understanding levels etc. The age of post graduate students make them matured enough to undertake self-oriented learning from the available digital content. While, the undergraduate students being new entrants to tertiary education system are not mature enough for self-oriented learning.

The absence of motivation and push for reading on their own leads to disadvantage of undergraduate students. The use of similar digital content by the undergraduate students while undergoing face to face learning with teachers brings notable improvement in their learning. Therefore, the efforts to supplement the regular class room teaching with digital content helps in quality gain but the complete dependence on self-learning by online mode is full of challenges.

The teachers create the environment, push factors and enablers for learning in classrooms irrespective of whether the teaching quality is good or not. The presence of peers in a class/institution empower students for being creative, inquisitive, competitive, and capable for undertaking the challenges without lowering of morale. The class room teaching cannot be compared with the distance learning through online content. However, the encouragement to use online content of good quality is inevitable for better knowledge.

The move to cover certain subjects through online mode points toward the virtualization of the higher education. The virtualization of the education complementing the conventional mode of education will create comfort zone for the institution, but may be detrimental to the quality of education. Looking at noteworthy implications of such unassisted learning by online content, it seems that it will usher the higher education institutions to reduction in the number of teachers and staff, reduced of student teacher ratio, lesser requirement of infrastructure, reduction in laboratory facilities, reduced financial liabilities etc. Quite likely, the reduction in requirements of teachers and supporting staff due to online mode adapted for certain subjects, there will be loss of jobs.

Let us also keep in mind that despite the distance education being offered since last six decades, the general perception about the quality of education in the distance mode has not been comparable with the face to face system of education. Distance learning is quite less demanding and facilitates the completion of courses with little rigour. Therefore, it goes without saying that the society perceives the conventional system of face to face education superior to the distance learning.

In a country with huge population and varying socio-economic conditions, the greater reliance on online education should be viewed with caution. The move for teaching some courses by MOOCs or other online content requires consideration of following major issues before it is forced upon.

1. Availability of internet, computer / laptop with the students and teachers

2. Availability of power supply and handling technological disruptions.

3. Lack of involvement, interest, motivation and passive attitude of the students

4. Lack of computer literacy and communication skills in the students

5. No face to face contact between teacher and students leading to absence of guidance

6. Freedom from time schedule yields lackadaisical attitude and shifting of focus in students

7. Influence of domestic factors on the learning environment for the students

8. Learning in virtual environment making it difficult to understand and integrate the issues.

9. Difference in the expectations of the students and teachers

10. Innovation in examination system and use of unfair practices in the evaluation system

11. Quality assurance of the online content

Thus, the virtualization of higher education may affect the quality of education and may create more impact at the undergraduate level as compared to post graduate level. A wholesome feedback from the students and teachers as key stake holders on aforesaid issues seems inevitable. In post lockdown period, the education system should focus on smaller class size maintaining physical distance and adherence of the norms for health & hygiene for mutual safety. The substitution of on campus teaching with online teaching could affect the quality of education adversely while supplementing the on campus teaching with online content of good quality will improve the quality of education.

In view of the available demographic dividend, this is an opportune time for the country to equip its young population with the best quality education so as to achieve excellence in education for becoming global leaders. The academic community in the governance should not forget own journey of getting educated in traditional way and handle the virtualization of higher education with great care. Technology should be used only  to supplement the quality of learning and knowledge sharing without sacrificing the teaching quality as available in human interactions. Let us handle virtualization of education carefully so that there is no shrinking of access, equity and quality in it and the journey of achieving excellence through good quality education does not impede.

First Published:May 29, 2020, 4:14 p.m.