Gradual Higher-Ed Mobility Needs Faster Policy Flexibility

Not all adjustments in an online teaching-learning system are witty and comical. Some are nutty and tragic.
For representational purpose.
For representational purpose.

To my question during my online class "did you all follow me?" a student's Glasbergian answer "I follow you on Twitter!" made the class erupt with emojis and smileys, and honestly I enjoy every bit of such witty responses to break the online monotony.

Not all adjustments in an online teaching-learning system are witty and comical. Some are nutty and tragic. Nutty to expect a student not to look at the door for fear of being hauled for examination malpractice when his younger sibling is banging the door.

The malpractice calculator driven by an Artificial Intelligence-based proctoring algorithm - fed by a watchful proctoring camera that records "undesirable head movement by 130 degrees to the left" - will run amock not knowing that the younger sibling wanted to share the ecstatic joy of Hardik Pandya's winning sixer in the second India-Australia T-20 match.

Tragic it would be, if the best lit place that meets the proctoring camera's lighting specifications is your bathroom with its lumen-density being the highest. Welcome to the world of online education.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a tectonic shift in the global education landscape causing tremours with potential to widen existing gaps. With over 1.6 billion students worldwide, it requires a massive effort to bring all of them back to formal methods of schooling.

The emergency response to COVID-19 that ensured learning gates were open despite college and school gates being closed was built on a fragile digital infrastructure. It was either indigenous, or shared, or borrowed completely to bring the fateful academic year 2019-20 to a 'successful closure'. With such a fragile digital infrastructure, the craving desire to massify online exams is fatal.

Our emergency room response to Covid-19 cannot immediately replace an education ecosystem that is predominantly driven by residential experience that involves face-to-face faculty sessions/meetings, socialising, open-ended classroom and hostel discussions, team work, sports, entertainment, feeling of community, etc. The growing ‘online education is the future’ screams need calibration to reflect ground realties.

The digital and socio-economic divide which is still wide and global cannot be brushed aside in the massification of online education. Nor can online education be the magic wand or universal recipe for all forms of education. At best, online or virtual education is a much-needed future-proofing for such punctuating moments of extraordinary turbulence. It is definitely not a future substitution of brick and mortar with bits and bytes.

The future of education must move into a hybrid model that cerebrates the best of both without the fear of being driven into irrelevance. Renowned management educator at the Tuck Business School, Vijay Govindarajan, doesn’t believe that digital technologies will make the current university system obsolete.

Citing Amazon as an example, Govindarajan points out that 30 years of Amazon has managed to account to only nine percent of retail sales in America till the end of 2019. In another Harvard Business Review article in May 2020 calling for a long-term plan for virtual higher education, the four authors urge a three-phased approach for a digital transformation in the higher-education ecosystem.

The article categorises higher education institution into three types based on their digital/online readiness—Digital Newcomers, Emerging Adopters and Advanced Institutions. Each of these types of institutions require different strategic and resilient roadmap to charter their digital journey as they move forward to mitigate any crisis in the future.

Indian higher education also has plentiful problems in its digital/online edusphere. Access, content, capacity building, assessment, ethics, etc, make it a dizzying cocktail. Less than five percent of Indian higher education system will be in the Emerging Adopters and Advanced Institutions categories.

For a silent giant like India in the global education market, the Aatmanirbhar Bharat is a policy gift to look inwards and build self-reliance for global resilience. An indigenous response mechanism in varied forms will not only have a huge domestic demand but also a global reach if we can move higher education institutions from the third to second to first category progressively and strategically.

For such a gradual institutional mobility, we need a faster policy flexibility that is not hit and run but aim and shoot. Is anybody listening?

(The writer can be contacted at

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