A quantum leap with virtual classrooms

Published: 22nd April 2013 12:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 19th April 2013 12:15 PM   |  A+A-


Although distance learning courses have existed since Englishman Isaac Pitman began teaching his shorthand method by mail in the 1840s, the World Wide Web has enabled an explosion of educational options, tearing down classroom walls, making education and learning affordable and accessible to the global audience. Mohandas Pai believes that education is about to change dramatically. The chairman of Manipal Global Education and Karnataka ICT Group says, “The reason is the power of the web and its associated data-crunching technology.”

The global trend

Online education isn’t new in the United States. More than 7 lakh students now study in full-time ‘distance learning’ programmes. What’s different is the scale of technology being applied by leaders who mix high-minded goals with sharp-elbowed, low-priced Internet business models. With the number of colleges offering full-time online degree programmes increasing to nearly double of what it was 10 years ago (62.4 per cent of colleges and universities offered fully online programmes in 2012, compared to 34.5 per cent in 2002, according to a January 2013 online education report by Babson Survey Research Group) more students can unlock the benefits of higher education without quitting their jobs or uprooting their families.

Recently, however, digital education has taken a quantum leap in magnitude and a qualitative leap in methods. Udacity, Coursera and edX all host MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) that are, so far free. Amrita Dass, director at Institute for Career Studies, says, “The proponent of MOOC have not limited their aspirations in enhancing distance learning. They believe that online instruction will become a cornerstone of the college experience for on-campus students as well. The merging of virtual classrooms with real classrooms, they say, will propel academia forward.” Coursera, an alliance between Stanford and two dozen other schools, claims to have signed up 1.5 million students. Individual MOOCs range from tens of thousands to well over a hundred thousand ‘students’ per course.

ICT in India

The relationship between Information and Communication Technology (ICT), education and development in a learning economy are being captured by developing countries. The excitement over MOOCs comes at a time of growing dissatisfaction with the state of college education.

Siddharth Chaturvedi, director, AISECT says, “Shortage of training capacity and availability of resources makes ICT a key factor in perpetuating growth and addressing issues of accessibility and inclusivity in education and training in India. Thus, online learning has significantly contributed to bridge the skill gap by making quality education accessible to a large number of students and in creating world-class institutes.”

Talking from the recruiters perspective Dass says, “Until now online courses were not valued as much as traditional degrees in the job market. But with a growing number of students taking up more and more such courses, the perception is about to change.”

Chaturvedi adds, “Although India had woken up to the online learning trend quite late, in this present technologically advanced society, students who shaped their career by joining distance education classes have attained employment in top-notch companies. In 2012, online education enrollment witnessed a 21 per cent growth rate compared to a paltry 2 per cent growth rate in higher education. This trend can be expected to continue in the near future as technological services become easier to access.”

Technology outreach

It is often criticised that these video lectures are mere ‘talking heads’ and does not foster thinking. So what makes MOOC different? B Anbuthambi, associate vice president—education initiatives, ICT Academy of Tamil Nadu, says, “The secret lies in ‘student’s engagement’. There was a time when online education consisted of reading textbooks online. These days students have a wide variety of tools at their disposal, including text chat, immersive multimedia, virtual classrooms, and digital whiteboards. The talks are typically broken up into brief segments, punctuated by on-screen exercises and quizzes. Students’ involvement in lessons help strengthen comprehension and retention.” These tools will be further streamlined by better cloud services.

Pointing out the difference between MOOC and their predecessors, he says, “The economics of online learning has improved dramatically. These digital content distribution systems are social and cloud-based and allow vast amount of data to be stored and transmitted at very low cost. Social media, which has long been viewed as the opiate of masses, is being utilised to facilitate social learning tools and learning management systems. As well as adopting podcasting as an educational tool.” What will facilitate the easier distribution will be, shared texts and the ability to collaborate on projects remotely. In-person learning will no longer be seen as superior to distance learning, he adds.

Shilpa Ashok Pandit, an expert in education and employment, who is also registered with Coursera for a model building course says, “It has been an incredible experience for me. It not only taught me advanced research methodology, but inspired me with the advanced state of knowledge that we are not even aware of. Before the class began, I had played down this kind of teaching as inevitably a pale reflection of on-campus learning, both in terms of student-faculty interaction and the residential-college experience. And for most of them, the choice was not between an online course and a traditional university. It was, a choice between online class versus no class.”

Strong initiatives

Prof Kushal Sen, video coordinator National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), IIT Delhi, says,“Manpower requirement for trained engineers and technologists is far more than the number of qualified graduates that Indian technical institutions can provide currently. Among these, the number of institutions that have qualified and trained teachers in all disciplines being taught forms a small fraction. A majority of teachers are young, inexperienced and are undergraduate degree holders. Therefore, it is important for institutions like IITs, IISc, NITs and other leading universities in India to disseminate teaching/learning content of high quality through all available media.” He points out that the NPTEL is among the foremost and an important step in this direction and use technology for dissemination.

The observation that internet use is particularly popular among young generations suggest that there is great potential for bringing more people online in developing countries, where population tends to be younger than in developed countries. BITS-Pilani by recently introducing BITSConnect 2.0 has joined the bandwagon. Prof VS Rao, director, BITS-Pilani, Hyderabad campus says, “With this initiative, the institute takes a giant leap in integrating ICT in education. By bridging the gap between the geographical distances across four campuses and global knowledge centres, this platform will facilitate collaboration with faculty, students, alumni and industry experts for education, research and mentorship. Acadamicians from across the world will be able to collaborate with and guide research projects in BITS via this immersive telepresence.”

Harnessing the potential of technology

It is often said that schooling is about 21st century learners being taught by 20th century teachers often in 19th century buildings and rooms. Shilpa feels, “It is imperative that educational institutions think beyond the conventional methods to reach the unreached.”

Technologies that are now available in most Commonwealth countries increase the potential to support learners and educators, and can help remove the barriers of time and distance, feels Shilpa. “New ICTs do not replace all previous ones, nor do they replace the need for good educational design and delivery. However, appropriate technologies can provide additional possibilities for learner support, interactivity, and access to education,” she says. In general, the problem of growing social, international and regional inequality is fundamental for how higher education systems should be designed in a globalised learning economy.

Making wise decisions

Given the 21st century learner’s freedom to select from among a vast array of courses, it becomes crucial for students to choose an online college wisely in order to ensure smooth progress towards their academic goals. Amrita says, “If the prospective online learner pays close attention to the appropriateness, affordability, accessibility, and design of a course, he or she will be well positioned to succeed in today’s highly competitive and diverse academic environment. Regardless of whether one opts to supplement traditional ‘brick and mortal’ instruction with online learning or complete a course of study offered purely online, selecting online courses effectively can be the key to academic success.”

The road ahead

The idea that every university should become a world centre of excellence is attractive in the sense that it gives strong emphasis to quality and meritocracy in contrast to mediocrity. But how should higher education be organised so that it contributes to a take-off in terms of innovation and economic growth in a less developed economy? This perspective requires that policies for higher education be seen as integral parts of a much broader set of policies aiming at promoting innovation in the economy.

The affordability of ICT services is the key to bring in more people into the information age. Anbuthambi says, “The ICT Development Index (IDI) is a composite of three sub-indices (access, use and skills) and, as expected, Korea tops the IDI rank, followed by Sweden, Iceland, Denmark and Finland. All these countries are characterised by high internet and broadband access and use. All of the economies ranked at the top of the ICT Price Basket (IPB) index also have high per capita incomes, indicating that these countries have achieved relatively low prices making ICT services affordable to their netizens. India ranks 116 on the IDI and 87 on the IPB from a given set of 165 and 152 countries, respectively.”

Pai says, “Thus to leverage on the use of ICT in education adequately, the most innovative thing India can do is to give a tablet with pre-loaded education software and WiFi/3G to every child in Class VII and above. Similarly, a laptop can be given to every student in college.” He elaborates that the total amount spent on school education by the state and central government is around `2,50,000 crore. So the cost of giving a tablet to 10 crore school children in Class VII and above would be `65,000 crore. We should also remember that the total budget of states and the Union government towards education is `25,00,000 crore per annum.

He says, “Similarly, the cost incurred in providing laptops costing `25,000 to 1.5 crore college students would be `37,500 crore, if spread over two years it would be affordable.”

Pai feels we should connect all schools and colleges through internet with the use of cables. The universal service obligation funds collected from mobile users which are around `15,000 crore a year can be used towards infrastructure and bandwidth development. If this is done over two-three years, the annual cost will be that much less, but the impact would be truly transformational. In other words the rate of return on investment in higher education will positively correlate with the rate of technical progress.

— pallavichetan@gmail.com

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