Online education in time of corona and beyond

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Online education in time of corona and beyond

Monday, 23 March 2020 | Sharad Mehra

Unforeseen disasters can sometimes unleash the unimaginable situations, albeit unwittingly. Today businesses, economies, nations and human lives are reeling under coronavirus’ impact. Globally, the education of 300 million students has been disrupted. Almost every hour there are reports of shutdowns of educational institutions and schools.

But there’s a flip side to this dismal development: Online education businesses are registering a spike worldwide, and carbon footprints have dipped significantly as people are working out of homes and corporates are offering free online courses for employee upskilling. It’s new-age-education in the time of Corona!

Nearly 600,000 students travel overseas for their higher education every year. With COVID 19 the prospect of that happening anytime soon, is bleak.  Online education be their savior at this critical time when the Coronavirus scrounge ravaging geographies.

There are some key challenges in the online education segment that cannot be resolved without active participation of all stakeholders—state and central governments, academic experts, industry, students and faculty. Some key developments include: Ensuring robust online access to faculty and students with live streaming facility, outsourcing, collaborating with apps and tapping into in-house technologies to facilitate online learning. The other factors include adapting courses to online mode with necessary tweaks and improvisation, facilitating lecture playbacks, harnessing live feedback, training faculty and students with a simple and effective communication plan. Is India prepared to handle these? Yes, because we have tremendous technology expertise and political will to tide through.  Besides Digital India initiative, the recent move by our government to encourage more FDI in education, provide Rs 3,000 crore for skill development and recognize foreign online degrees for Indian students is a strong indicator, of this.

Let’s look at the India picture on online education. This segment is expected to leap from $ 247 million in 2016, to approximately $ 1.96 billion by 2021. That is a compound annual growth rate of 52%. The number of users enrolled for various online learning courses is estimated to grow to 1.6 million in 2016 to 9.6 million by the end of 2021. Indians are the second largest consumers on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) like Coursera. Government initiatives like SWAYAM, E- Basta, E-Pathshaala, Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan ( RMSA) etc. are furthering the spread of online education.

In India, the online education revolution has been brewing for a while, with rapid global technological advances in the backdrop. Conservative academic leadership, archaic regulations and lack of understanding has held it back. It is unfortunate that a crisis like the one we are facing now was needed to bring this issue in the forefront. In the current situation universities and institutions are scrambling to find solutions to problems created by themselves. In contrast several leading universities globally have seamlessly transitioned to online learning. My daughter who is pursuing a Psychology Honors degree at Kings College has returned to India (yes under quarantine now) and is learning online like her global peers, without any disruption. The college has also indicated that the assessment and evaluation would be done online too. That shows progressive thinking. Incidentally Kings college is ranked in the top 50 universities in the world!

Progressive educational institutions are rising to the challenge and setting inspiring examples of generous leadership. In wake of the current situation, a leading international online education player, is making its over 3,000 courses free for students, worldwide. This means students get access to 95 percent free data from top universities like Yale, Michigan and Johns Hopkins.

Few Indian institutions that have been able to successfully incorporate online learning include Pearl Academy, the country’s premier design school, where undisrupted learning is happening despite the education lockdown. Another university that comes to mind is University of Petroleum and Energy Sciences (UPES) based at Dehradun where learning continues through online medium. It’s clear that Pearl Academy and UPES had unlocked their mindsets many years back which enables them to make a seamless transition. What did these two institutions do differently? They recognized the need far ahead of others and made sure that right investments were made in technology, training of faculty and students. Myths around online learning were removed, high quality content was created and partnerships with global players like Coursera was forged to ensure a top-notch student experience. Students at Pearl and UPES have access to nearly 3,600 courses from top global universities like Brown, Duke, Michigan, Insead, NYU etc.

Both Institutions rather than going for free off the shelf learning systems invested in Blackboard which is the gold standard in online learning. These initiatives have paid off and today these two institutions are functioning seamlessly while others struggle. This learning can be replicated in other institutions across India, with government support. This includes setting basic paraments in online learning like–Strategic planning, outlining expectations from students and faculty, ensuring digital equilibrium, establishing daily flexible routines for students and faculty, planning courses and delivery, assignments and evaluations. India can do it!

We are in an interesting stage. We have all the drivers and the need for online education. Consider the following which have a significant bearing on online education in the future:

*** India has about 3.5 million students in higher education and around 900 universities catering to this need. In 2030 we will have around 14 million students that’s a 4x increase. To cater to this, we will need four times the number of universities, colleges and teachers – will we be ready? Can we be ready without online education playing an instrumental role in this.

***Centennials act, behave, consume and learn differently. They have the same romance with Phones and tablets that we have with books. Let’s acknowledge that and allow them to learn the way they want and not force our way of teaching. Learning on demand is a reality that we need to accept. According to UK India business council report, 75% of Indians online are under the age of 34, and almost half of them are under 24.

*** By 2022, India faces a potential shortage of 250 million skilled workers across sectors – EY/FICCI report)- Online has the potential to fill the gap substantially.

*** Convergence in HE & Corporate e-learning needs: Large number of corporates to embrace MOOC at the cost of proprietary-developed content for internal learning.

The opportunity for online learning is now. Corona virus has given a unique opportunity to drive deep impactful changes. Educational institution who still resist this change are less likely to grow. Radical change is needed in mindset, policy and conviction. We have welcomed technology in every sphere of our life and it has made a tremendous positive impact. Our digital natives are ready to dive into the fray for online learning too.

It’s the time to change perceptions and myths about online education. The government should take a note of this and invest in making an online education policy that allows access, focuses on quality and enables the country to reach a gross enrolment ration in the high 70s which will transform the country forever. Corona may be the catalyst but the openness to online learning and teaching should not end with Corona. The conversation needs to continue with tangible action on the ground to make a difference. An educated society is a liberated one and it is time we give wings to India. Wings of change through technology.

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