The NEP can solidify India's global position in academics, industry, and R&D in the years to come
Designing a universally accessible and meaningful learning experience in the present times implies ensuring last-mile connectivity and inclusiveness. These crucial parameters will form the basis for India's expanding virtual horizons, via the National Education Policy (NEP). Though the digital juggernaut has been rolling ahead for some years now, conservative academic leadership, archaic regulations and a lack of understanding of its potential have held it back from making a wider impact. The NEP has demolished these barriers and will potentially solidify India's position in academics, leadership, industry, research and development on the global stage in the years to come.
Before we explore the road ahead, let's look at the scene now. India's online education sector was expected to leap from $247 million in 2016, to approximately $1.96 billion by 2021. That is a compounded annual growth rate of 52 per cent. The number of users enrolled for various online learning courses is estimated to grow from 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 such as SWAYAM, E- Basta, E-Pathshaala, and Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyaan, are furthering the spread of online education. Post-March 2020, with the spread of the pandemic, the digital juggernaut covered more ground in few months than it did in years.
Jump in gross enrolment ratio
Here's another reality: There are approximately 37.5 million students in higher education and roughly 900 universities available. 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 a significant role?
With the NEP coming into effect, we are in the right direction. The policy bats for increasing the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) to 50 per cent from the current 26 per cent, creating an additional 35 million seats for students. But there are challenges to be dealt with.
Today, our biggest challenge is ensuring that every student, and higher education institution - rural and urban - have equal access to learning and dedicated internet connectivity. How do we make education a comfortable and worthwhile learning experience in digital space, without missing out on the sharp elements of immersive learning? Can we fit real-time experiences into the virtual space? What are the ways to ensure student engagement, attendance, evaluations, assessments, online admissions and exams?
Measuring success, upskilling
GUS's Indian academic partners - Pearl Academy and UPES, Dehradun - faced these challenges during the coronavirus situation. But within a matter of days, online exams, admissions and other processes were created and implemented. While we are still drawing from our experiences here, in my opinion, the real measure of success for digital education is how the NEP implements processes and addresses the questions listed above.
Then, there's also the question of how we upskill and reskill our faculty while ensuring the end-user - the student - gets high-quality education. The gap between rural and urban higher education institutions (HEIs), in terms of resources, accessibility and faculty, needs to be bridged. The idea is to create a reflective practitioner - a mentor who is able to impart quality knowledge while meeting the demands of all stakeholders: students, institutions, government and industry, by ensuring that the learning experience is global, agile, adaptive, real-time and fits into any scenario. Introduction of online software, upskilling and training and improvement of faculty should factor in these requirements.
Convergence with corporate needs
Here, technology has emerged as unifier of geographical boundaries, diversity, social connectivity and e-learning. It has also become the new hero of 60,000 Indian students, who typically travel overseas every year for higher education but have been locked in owing to the pandemic. Digital education is now opening the doors to foreign universities and, with the NEP batting for them to set up campuses in India, this trend will grow.
To augment our digital learning, and plug the skill gap, the planners need to look at converging higher education and corporate e-learning needs. There's also the challenge of ensuring last-mile connectivity for every student in the far reaches of India and guaranteeing uninterrupted internet access.
Undoubtedly, the much misunderstood 'poorer cousin' of physical learning - virtual education has arrived. The way it unfolds and becomes entrenched in people's lives will impact our future and change it unalterably.
(The writer is CEO-Asia Pacific, Global University Systems.)
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