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Education's Big Leap

Education's Big Leap

Institutions of higher learning are graduating to new delivery models to engage with students online

Photograph by Yasir Iqbal Photograph by Yasir Iqbal

On April 4, Professor Anil V. Vaidya, Head, Information Management, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan's SP Jain Institute of Management Research, Mumbai, delivered an entire machine learning session online. "Students were sent reading material, including short videos, and during the online class, we could actually get down to modelling the entire data set already shared with students," he says. At the end of the class, students were actually able to do predictions, be it around customer churn, consumer demand or supply chain. The session was part of a course for an executive management programme, but according to Vaidya, similar exercises were taking place across the institute.

Elements of the new education delivery model, he says, will have to be a mix of online sessions backed by short videos explaining concepts and webinars and assessing lecture absorption by students based on chat and voice responses. Even examinations will get redesigned. In fact, Vaidya even devised a new evaluation method - students were asked to submit a video presentation of the project and a URL for project evaluation instead of the usual paper presentation. In the process, they managed to exhibit their tech skills as well, since the project required video-streaming services and even artificial intelligence (AI) to create subtitles.

The Big Picture

Educational institutions, mainly those into higher education, are gearing up for fundamental changes. India has 800 universities and about 40,000 colleges. Given that the gross enrolment ratio (GER) into colleges is 26.3 per cent (about 36 million students) and considering the average cost per student at Rs 50,000 per annum, it works out to close to a Rs 2-lakh crore market, or about 1 per cent of GDP. Now, Vijay Govindarajan, Coxe Distinguished Professor, Tuck at Darmouth, argues that if India's GER is to get to 70 per cent, as in many advanced countries, this could mean doubling or tripling the number of colleges. This means inadequate qualified faculty. The online medium could, therefore, open up a potential to bridge this "huge educational gap". It is still early days, but the IIMs and IITs are clearly seeing a shift towards online delivery of content, though the degree and the ways in which it will be offered is still being discussed.

Some of the IIMs have set up training groups to help faculty members migrate to newer forms of delivery. Others are experimenting with a hybrid model where an instructor-led class is held along with a Coursera course. Some are even redesigning class activities and assessing students differently. IIT Madras, for instance, is getting its faculty to use the time now to connect with students online and develop content for online delivery.

The transition is also throwing up challenges. For instance, how can B-schools make their case-study method of teaching more susceptible to online delivery? Or, how can institutions handle hardware such as laboratories and machineries remotely? There are also concerns regarding the availability of hardware, bandwidth and even power at the student's end. So, for the moment, though physical classroom sessions have been postponed and online lectures and content delivery have taken off, they are still getting finetuned along the way.

New Models, New Deliveries

Vijay Govindarajan, who has looked at the subject closely, says: "I do not believe universities can go back to normal. There will be a new normal in the post-Covid world. People say universities will get disrupted and become obsolete. I do not believe that, but higher education will be transformed." He thinks institutions will gain if they start working now and create task forces to debate models that are likely to emerge, and zero in on one. To him, there are three broad triggers for change - Firstly, the cost of college education has skyrocketed; secondly, digital technologies have matured; and thirdly, psychological barriers to change have come down. Govindarajan feels every institution must set up two taskforces. One that looks at the firefighting triggered by current developments, including budget cuts (lower alumni contributions, lower student intake, especially international students), students seeking lower fees in the medium term (since the mode of instruction will be online), and challenges of reopening campuses and hostels while keeping social distancing intact.

The other task force, he feels, should to be focused on strategy, and should debate three broad models that are currently emerging - first, a residential programme where institutions could retain their form and give students the advantages of digital technologies, like, for example, a quick file sharing to leverage the polling options on the Zoom platform.

The second could be a hybrid model where institutes look at redesigning the four-year residential programme - two-year residential and two-year online course, and then take digital the online-amenable topics. In the process, they could reduce the fees and increase the number of students. And finally, the third could be a 100 per cent online model, where leading brands would offer courses and certificates for programmes, accessed by a larger pool of students.

G. Raghuram, Director, IIM Bangalore (IIM-B), told Business Today: "The focus now will be a mix of both asynchronous and synchronous engagement with students. (The asynchronous model being one where the faculty need not be present when the student is going through the MOOC - Massive Open Online Course - for instance, against a live online delivery, which is the synchronous mode). To do that, we will need to keep in mind key elements that have traditionally been best delivered in the in-class mode such as the case method, and other topics where participants need to challenge one another for critical thinking, and see how that can be made amenable for the online delivery mode."

"The faculty may want to change the material, the sequence of sessions or even certain sessions. We need to use hardware equipment and software platforms that have learning-friendly features," he adds.

Some are already tweaking the delivery model. IIM Uda-ipur, for instance, is offering sessions combining instructor-led online teaching with a self-learning programme on online learning platform Coursera.

On its part, Raghuram says: "We at IIM-B have set up an in-house Digital Learning Committee to train the faculty and support staff for the transition. Students also need to be oriented to engage in this mode. The faculty is sharing experiences and discussing finer points that we need to be conscious of during delivery for maximising the learning experience. It may take a little longer getting used to the mode and optimising the learning effectiveness."

The institute has started the process. "We offer many degree-granting programmes. Two of them are starting in May. One (a one-year programme) is targeted at students with experience, while the other (a two-year weekend programme) is targeted at working professionals. Being executives and expectedly familiar with information technology, we are starting with online synchronous delivery," he adds.

The 100 per cent online programme model has already kicked off in India. Santanu Paul, Managing Director and Chief Executive Officer, TalentSprint - an education technology firm, says: "It is a B-to-C model today. About 80 per cent of all seats are sold to individuals, who are banking on a bunch of new financing companies that are willing to provide upskilling financing," He cites the examples of finance firms, including Eduvanz, Propelld and Bajaj Finserv. In the past three years, TalentSprint has worked with leading institutions across the country such as IIT Kanpur, IIT Hyderabad, International Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) Hyderabad and IIM Calcutta to develop disruptive programmes aimed at working professionals and students in areas, including new automobile technologies, digital health, AI and machine learning.

Addressing Accessibility Issues

According to Balaraman Ravindran, Professor, Computer Science, IIT Madras, though institutions had little time to switch to the online delivery model, it is still possible today since there are softwares, tracking mechanisms and online proctoring tools available to conduct foolproof sessions. "One of my students has left his laptop charger behind in the hostel and there is no one in his village who has a charger, so he is unable to access the online lectures. Then there are students who are in areas that do not have high-speed Internet," he says. Other than the bandwidth, the challenge will also be in terms of hardware such as laboratories and machineries, and operating them remotely, he adds.

At the national level, the proposed New Education Policy could provide the much-needed push. One of the elements of the policy document is the creation of a National Educational Technology Forum, an autonomous body. K Kasturirangan, space scientist, who led the panel that drafted the report, told Business Today: "In today's context, when there will be substantial increase in the quantum of online content delivery activity and the use of various tools and technologies, a body like the technology forum will make sure that the best practices involving technology for education are properly identified, evaluated and adopted and in the process also attend to the elements of quality and affordability." No one is likely to disagree.

So, educators and institutions are innovating ways to continue with their curriculum, as India looks to pivot its education system to a digital-friendly experience in the face of the coronavirus outbreak. As schools and colleges remain shut and lockdown continues, education's switch to the online model is here to stay.