Conventional education, disrupted as it is, needs to be better and more effective. Online and hybrid education models are new but are catching up because of a large young population, rising cost of education, and a desire to reach the unreached. Steve Jobs once said: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future". Is ‘online’ the missing dot that defines the future of education?
Knowledge, whether deductive or experiential, must be acquired. A traditional Guru-Shishya interface is the best. However, education today is evolving into ‘online’ a la Eklavya parampara, where students and teachers need not be at the same place. The University of London was the first to offer distance learning degrees, establishing its external programme way back in 1858.
In India, many private, deemed and state universities offer so-called distance education. Professional bodies like Associate Membership of Institution of Engineers (AMIE) and Institution of Electronics and Telecommunication Engineers (IETE) advocate use of blended learning models for working professionals.
In the US, even widely respected and accredited universities such as Stanford and Harvard now deliver online courses. The total enrolment in higher education is about 36 million in India. Though distance and online models are the same in concept and implementation it is difficult to comprehend why two separate regulations on ODL and online education were formulated.
A blended education (online education with provision for face to face learning facility) regulation that replaces all existing regulations would have been the most appropriate. Whereas online education is a superset, distance education is the subset and blended learning the master set.
The ministry of human resource development’s initiative of creating an online platform called Swayam is welcome. However, some good content along with best practices of massive open online courses (MOOCs) would have served the cause of the online education policy better. The delivery and assessment must be truly interactive to be effective. Assessment is the most difficult task in online course. Special attention needs to be devoted to proctoring and cheating. Online assessment may require the use of biometrics, IRIS scanners, image processing and integration of computer stereo vision (the extraction of 3D information from digital images to reduce chance of cheating in exams).
The popularity of an online model is based on how well it mimics the award of degrees.
A certain accreditation score does not always guarantee the success of delivery of online education. Hence, it is necessary that each mode of delivery be assessed and accredited separately by evaluating its specific parameters for the teaching and learning processes. Waiting for five years before an institution can offer online courses is jarring when an assessment of capabilities can be done in a shorter duration.
The challenge of e-learning is, like what James Bates, a senior programme manager at Boeing said once: “The most profound words will remain unread unless you can keep the learner engaged. You can’t see their eyes to know if they got it so... say it, show it, write it, demo it and link it to an activity". Can our wisdom, entrepreneurship and passion overcome these challenges?
S.S.Mantha is a former chairman of All India Council for Technical Education.