Digital University, built on a networked hub-spoke model, would enable institutions to offer online courses with no limits on seats and no difference in recognition between online and conventional degrees, says Dr Abhay Karandikar
The UPI was launched on April 11, 2016. It is hard to believe that just five years ago, digital payments via the UPI did not exist - in January 2022 alone, 4.6 billion transactions with a value of 8.3 lac crore rupees were made possible via UPI, with 297 participating banks and innumerable apps. The success of the UPI lies in hub and spoke model where the hub (NPCI) ensures that the banks, public and private players- spokes are not only able to seamlessly interoperate with each other via the open protocol of the UPI, but also maintain their individual ability to innovate and bridge the last mile with consumers, in their own hyper local way. The protocol allows for hubs to also interoperate with each other, thus enabling multiple countries to participate in the ecosystem.
The Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s announcement of the establishment of a Digital University as part of the budget speech on February 1, 2022 is a similar transformative moment for higher education. The announcement mentioned the establishment of a Digital University that aims to provide students across the country access to world-class quality universal education with a personalised learning experience at their doorsteps, in different Indian languages and formats.
To understand the magnitude of impact that the Digital University can bring about, let us look at it from a student’s point of view today. The number of reputed institutions is limited and hence there is a race for seats in these institutions, with cut off marks for admissions going up every year. Once admitted, students can’t take a break - missing a year essentially means quitting the programme. Students can’t change institutions mid-course, since enrolling in another institution essentially means starting from scratch again. After graduation, students need to keep returning to the institute to get verified transcripts.
In contrast, the Digital University, built on a networked hub-spoke model, would enable institutions to offer online courses with no limits on seats and no difference in recognition between online and conventional degrees. Socio-economically deprived students who normally find it hard to secure admission to top institutes because of lack of access, would be able to attend the same class taught by the top teachers in the field. Evaluation can be based on an online proctored exam or a computer-based assessment. This hub and spoke construct has the potential to facilitate the creation of a thriving ecosystem of both public and private technical education providers.
Just like the Internet operates on several open standards that enable billions of computing devices across the world to talk to each other, the Digital University will be powered by several standards that define the foundations of modern education. The most important one is the National Academic Depository (NAD), which is the storehouse of all academic data and awards for students, including certificates, diplomas, degrees, marksheets - all duly digitised and lodged by academic bodies. These electronic documents can be easily accessed by students on Digilocker (a provider of NAD services), just like our vaccine certificates or driving licences are. These electronic documents will not only eliminate the need for students to go to their colleges to obtain verified transcripts but will also eliminate fraudulent practices like forging of paper certificates, thus maintaining the authenticity, integrity and confidentiality of the award.
The Academic Bank of Credits (ABC), powered by NAD, is a credit based system that helps a student earn credits for every course taken. A degree is awarded when mandated credits towards a program are earned by a student. This enables a student to graduate with the same degree, by taking a combination of courses based on their strengths and interests, even cutting across disciplines to be awarded dual degrees if requisite credits for both degree programs are satisfied. ABC also provides a credit based system that enables a student to transfer credits awarded to them for one program from an institution to another institution, with their consent. This enables true study mobility for students from one program to another, from one institution to another, even if the student happens to take a break between two courses within a programme.
In order to help institutions interoperate with each other, the National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR) defines technology principles, standards and best practices around data interoperability, governance, quality, security and privacy. NDEAR identifies the building blocks for education that can be implemented by several public and private partners collaboratively using open source software. Imagine a student from one institution being able to login to the digital library of another institution, or an app by a private player using a common login that verifies their student credentials.
Digital University will not only help push the limits of science and technology ushering in new inventions and discoveries, but will also help increase the number of institutions and courses that students aspire to go to. Coupled with the online medium that most of these courses would be offered in, the number of seats available for students will also multiply many fold - thus reducing or hopefully eliminating the stressful race of students for the limited seats that exist in physical campuses today.
In five years from now, we very well could be in a very different world of education than we experience today. Only time will tell, but one thing is certain - like any new area, it will take a collaborative effort of both industry and academia, technologists and educators to build on the strong foundations laid out by this construct of a Digital University.
The writer is Dr Abhay Karandikar, Director of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and Rahul Kulkarni, Chief Technologist, Samagra and Co-founder, DoNew