Mark Twain is often quoted as saying: “I’ve never let my school interfere with my education." In the coming years, thousands of students in India will have to take the quote literally since they may not have any brick-and-mortar school or college to accommodate them.

Ironically, it may also prove to be a boon in disguise given that advancements in technology now offer the best courses from the world’s best institutions—all for free. The only thing needed is some lateral thinking to encourage a mindset change among parents, students, universities, employers and governments who need to lend their “stamp of approval" and give credits for these online courses.

photoThe need for this change is acute. Consider these figures. Around the time of independence, there were only 20 universities and 500 colleges in India. By 2011-12 according to the annual report of the ministry of higher education, the country had 523 universities, 33,923 colleges, 11,809 AICTE-approved technical institutions, and around 13.7 million students enrolled in universities and colleges. AICTE is short for the All India Council for Technical Education.

Of these, 43% of students were in the faculty of arts, followed by 19% in science and 18% in commerce—the remaining 20% enrolment being in professional courses with the highest percentage in engineering, approximately 13%, followed by medicine 2.2%, law, and so on. The numbers are only set to increase.

Yet, these figures will continue to fall woefully short of providing higher education (discussing primary education, which is in a worse condition, is way beyond the scope of this piece) to all in India, a point underscored by the Madhava Menon Committee report last year.

This is especially true of colleges having cut-offs for students in urban areas at 90% and more. Moreover, even the popular coaching classes are reported to be following suit, leaving one wondering how they take credit for “teaching" meritorious students who typically are driven to excel.

But this, too, is altogether a topic in itself that brings us back to the fact that the Indian government has set a target of increasing the gross enrolment ratio (GER) from the level of 12-15% by the end of the 11th five-year Plan to 30% by 2020.

It means adding approximately 10,510 technical institutions, 15,530 colleges and 521 universities. This would require about 9.5 trillion, according to the Madhava Menon Committee report, a task that will only increase the fiscal deficit of the government by granting subsidies to government-aided colleges, and/or increase corruption by encouraging more suspicious land deals and politician-builder nexus when building private colleges.

To begin with, distance learning is a far better option. The open and distance learning (ODL) system is one wherein teachers and learners need not necessarily be present either at the same place or same time and is flexible in regard to modalities and timing of teaching and learning as also the admission criteria. It comprises state open universities, institutions and universities and includes correspondence course institutes in conventional dual-mode universities.

There are around 200 distance teaching universities/institutions in the country that accommodated around 3.75 million, according to the 2011-12 government annual report.

But despite the fact that distance education diplomas and degrees are as valid as those obtained from colleges, imagine the reaction of an employer when you tell him that you did not attend any college, but graduated through distance education—blame it on a mindset problem, or lack of belief in the quality of a distance-learning programme.

The Madhava Menon report has an interesting perspective on this. Acknowledging that eyebrows are often raised over the poor quality of education being imparted through the ODL system, particularly in respect of technical and professional programmes, which require development of certain skills through hands-on practice, it argues that quality is a matter of equal concern in the conventional system as well, whether it is general, technical or professional programmes.

How else do we explain our trust in the likes of the Indian Institutes of Management and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)? But these premier institutions can accommodate only a few thousand students.

It’s here that distance education makes tremendous sense, primarily for those in the arts and commerce streams who do not need hands-on laboratories for experiments. It is yielding results, too. For instance, the overall annual growth in enrolment between 1975-76 and 2008-09 was 5.6% for the conventional system while it was 16.3% in the ODL system. The contribution of ODL to GER in higher education, too, has risen to about 22%.

Virtual classrooms, libraries and laboratories can be created to provide learning and other support services to distance learners. On-demand examinations provide students complete flexibility in the system of examination. The information and communications technology (ICT) can be used extensively in organizing capacity building programs for ODL teachers and enhancing the ODL system for growth of skilled manpower.

The Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) set up by the government in 1985, uses state of the art technologies, broadcast, telecast and online systems for delivery of programmes. Besides this, several other open universities use an online multimedia mix for delivery of programmes.

Even foreign education providers, especially from the UK, Canada, Australia and the US, are keen on offering distance education in India. Open universities in the UK, Hong Kong, Australia and some other locations also offer full-time residential programmes in their campuses or in collaboration with public and private institutions. Over 50% of programmes in open universities around the world are offered through the dual mode, maintaining high quality of distance education.

With the advent of technology (including tablets, smartphones and notebooks), the Internet has given rise to online or e-learning available with flexi-timing. Digital technologies for learning with self-paced learning modules, multimedia case studies, simulations, video tutorials, and communications and assessment tools, have increased the array of learning opportunities for students and their teachers.

In India, content development for courses in engineering, sciences, technology, humanities and management—covering both undergraduate and postgraduate courses—is under way in collaboration with IITs and the Universities Grants Commission (UGC), under the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT). Each college would get a Virtual Private Network of 10 mbps from state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.

Moreover, the National Knowledge Network (NKN), constituted on 13 June 2005, will enable scientists, researchers and students from different backgrounds and diverse geographies to work closely for advancing human development in critical and emerging areas.

NMEICT got a financial allocation of 4,612 core during the 11th five-year Plan while NKN is expected to provide connectivity to approximately 400 universities/deemed universities and their departments and all educational institutions of national importance beside more than 18,000 colleges (recognized by UGC/AICTE).

With these initiatives, the government had expected GER in higher education to increase by another 5 percentage points at the end of the 11th Plan period.

But these are not enough for a country like India.

Evolving models like that of the Khan Academy, Students Circle Network, Udacity, edX and Coursera—which are not affiliated to any university—are changing the paradigm of education, and offer a possible solution.

Stanford professor Daphne Koller, who recently gave a TED talk on this trend, makes the college experience available to anyone through her start-up, Coursera, with classes from 16 top colleges. While top schools have been putting lectures online for years, Coursera’s platform supports tests and assignments that reinforce learning. On its part, the not-for-profit Khan Academy—an online library of over 3,300 videos on subjects including maths, physics and history—also offers free classes.

Moreover, there are hundreds of such courses that have been offering free online lessons from the world’s top universities including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and Berkerley—some of them for over a decade.

Taking advantage of this trend, the Chinese government instituted the China Quality OpenCourseWare programme in 2003, and it’s overseen by the ministry of education. Thousands of courses have been made available online, and the scale of this project has also spurred a large research activity, and over 3,000 journal articles have been written in Chinese about OpenCourseWare.

The Indian government should take the cue.