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How covid changed India's higher education

India is home to one of the largest higher education systems in the world with over 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges and institutions. These, together, cater to nearly 39 million students. (Photo: Hindustan Times)Premium
India is home to one of the largest higher education systems in the world with over 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges and institutions. These, together, cater to nearly 39 million students. (Photo: Hindustan Times)

  • It has been a year of intense experimentation at India’s universities and colleges. Will the students benefit?
  • Several firms and professional bodies have also started partnering with institutions more actively to provide support and facilitate in the delivery of education

NEW DELHI : On a recent Sunday afternoon, justice Vineet Kothari of the Gujarat high court appeared on a computer screen. The black coat and white neck band that are part of a judge’s uniform were missing. Instead, he was dressed in a light pink shirt and a burgundy Nehru jacket.

Kothari exchanged pleasantries with the vice chancellor and others before addressing the law students of the university who had just finished a session of online simulated court proceeding. Over the next one hour, Kothari spoke about a variety of issues but what was left unspoken, was equally consequential. Until early 2020, such an interaction with a sitting high court judge would have taken weeks of preparation. “In pre-pandemic times, it would have taken at least two months of preparation and a fair degree of security and legal protocols, besides all the logistical work," said Naresh Jadeja, registrar of Marwadi University in Rajkot, Gujarat, that had organized the online lecture by Kothari. “But technology did everything once the honourable judge agreed to give his time and share his knowledge."

The world of the guest lecturer has been completely upturned because of the pandemic. Geographical proximity is no longer a constraint. In design and architecture schools, for instance, students can now get their drawings vetted remotely by top-notch professionals. “This is a disruption that will remain even when the pandemic is over—the industry-academia connect; the comfort of bringing in specialists, practitioners and industry leaders to educational institutions is a huge plus," Jadeja added.

These nascent signs of broader shifts within India’s higher education ecosystem may be the only bright spots for thousands of students who have undoubtedly been through a bruising, and in some cases, wasted year. And it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Since the mid-2000s, as India’s job market tightened and the middle-class aspiration continued to soar, millions of young people flooded into colleges and technical universities in an effort to improve their prospects. The higher education enrolment rate for 18-23-year-olds shot up from 12.39% in 2006 to 27.1% by 2019, and it continues to rise rapidly. Yet, access to quality education has been limited. A massive ramp up in remote learning and closer tie-ups with eventual employers has remained in the realm of discussion, with very few scalable solutions. The pandemic, however, has changed the equation in just a few months. Demand for education is booming in India, with the overall education market size set to hit $225 billion by FY25, of which the higher education market will comprise $35 billion, according to the Union commerce ministry. As the expansion gets underway, hybrid and new forms of learning are likely to play a key role. India is already home to one of the largest higher education systems in the world with over 1,000 universities and 50,000 colleges and institutions. These, together, cater to nearly 39 million students.

In the post-pandemic era, academics and experts predict that the focus on large physical spaces will shrink and a hybrid model of education involving a combination of classroom teaching and online lessons will find greater acceptance. They also say that more investments will flow into the technology backbone. But even as the tech penetration increases, concerns about digital inequality and new forms of exclusion will also rise. As the pandemic year has already highlighted, uninterrupted power supply and high-speed internet is a distant dream in many parts of the country.

“While going in for online education and massive dependence on technology in teaching-learning activities, we have to realize that this will exclude a sizeable section of the student community," said Vikram Sandhu, an associate professor at Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, Punjab. “We have already seen students climbing up trees and hillocks to get a better internet signal to complete their homework. And the struggle is just not confined to learning and teaching, but also in terms of financial implications for the poor and lower middle-class families," he added.

Harivansh Chaturvedi, director of the Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH) in Greater Noida, Uttar Pradesh, has a more upbeat take. “There is no question of going back to the pre-covid period in totality. The disruption has brought in a new normal for colleges and universities. We are adapting… there are limitations, but benefits outweigh the challenges," said Chaturvedi.

The hybrid model

Some of the obvious benefits of this new model include the emerging learning management system that helps simulate the classroom, breakout groups during virtual lessons that foster discussion, and online assessment and proctoring that result in saving time, energy and money, while reducing the chances of human error. Educationists believe that a layered learning and assessment model is helping willing institutions to adopt continuous evaluation, open book exams and other innovations.

“The 3 Ms of education—model, mode and method—will change permanently," said Mahadeo Jaiswal, director of the Indian Institute of Management in Sambalpur, Odisha. He added that students understanding (the) concepts will take precedence over note sharing and rote learning, and there will be a pick-up in experiential learning. The hybrid model of learning will be key, said Jaiswal who feels that “the blackboard model is giving way to a platform model." “Technology adoption will grow and hesitancy among the teachers will gradually change for the better. For survival, the sector will adopt innovations and the pandemic has given us a prototype to follow and improvise," he said. IIM-Sambalpur is now using a learning management system called moodle, which supports online and offline learning, enables a single sign-in for educators and learners, and allows virtual submission and grading of assignments.

Students and teachers have no option but to adopt technology, said Pramath Raj Sinha, co-founder of Ashoka University in Haryana’s Sonipat. “We have started something called AshokaX, and people who normally would not be able to get into Ashoka are now able to access high-quality courses. This is a pathway that you see all around the world, whether it’s Harvard or the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology). This (online courses) is replacing or adding to what used to be continuing education, executive education or schools of professional studies," Sinha said.

While students enrolled in on-campus educational programmes will continue to demand the same attention as before, several other segments can access high-quality courses at these institutions amid a growing demand for them. “These are financially rewarding and contribution-positive from day 1," said Sinha. But for this shift to take place seamlessly, universities may have to invest in creating new technology infrastructure, train faculty, and design and deliver courses in an engaging fashion, especially because the attention span in an online medium is relatively low, said R P Tiwari, vice chancellor of Central University in Punjab. “One thing is for sure. The hybrid and blended model of education in higher education is here to stay," said Tiwari, who is also a member of the University Grants Commission, India’s apex education regulator.

Chaturvedi of BIMTECH agrees. “We have now gone 50% online and 50% offline to deliver our courses. It helped us deal with the crisis and we are going to continue this due to the physical distancing requirements," he said.

“We have invested and built a studio, which is helping us to deliver not just the blended learning programmes but also to offer (new) online degrees. In the past one year, we have partnered with higher education aggregating platform upGrad to offer an e-MBA at almost one fifth of the (earlier) cost," added Chaturvedi.

EdTech a partner

Many firms and professional bodies have also started partnering with institutions more actively to facilitate education delivery. “The number of industry people we bring (to the campus) has almost doubled," said Sarika Mahajan, an assistant professor at Jamanlal Bajaj Institute of Management of Mumbai University.

“For example, we now have bankers who come for a lecture or an interaction with the students in the morning while having coffee. There are challenges, but what the pandemic disruption (has) taught us is the art of continuity."

Mahajan said that the integration of allied technologies like online assessment, e-content, wider use of video conferencing platforms for live classes and recorded classes has clearly helped and more colleges and universities are using such tools.

Examinations and entrance tests have been the subject of much debate in the past year, with the pandemic making it extremely difficult to hold physical examinations for admission into engineering and medical schools.

At the same time, the integration of educational technology with mainstream education has accelerated. “Pre-pandemic, we were working with around 50 institutions for conducting online assessment, primarily entrance exams. It was not a big part of our revenue—perhaps less than 10% of the overall revenue," said Siddhartha Gupta, chief executive of Mercer Mettl, an online assessment company. “However, post-pandemic, in the first year (itself), we went from serving 50 to 265 universities and colleges. When the pandemic started last year, we went to institutions and over 80% said that they may have to go for online assessment but almost 77% said they don’t have any experience."

In 2019, Mercer Mettl conducted just 135,000 online assessments, a number that soared to 3.4 million in 2020.

“We have now around 400 education clients, which shows the direction in which the sector is headed," Gupta said, adding that earlier there were only talks about online entrances and end-semester exams, but now it’s about adopting such measures.

While several Edtech startups have undoubtedly benefited, even existing firms that offer tailored, narrow solutions have witnessed a boom in adoption. “Not just exams—from question banks to scheduling; and from invigilating remotely to collating reports and announcing results, it (online testing) is a smooth process because of these (Edtech) companies," said Muralidhar S., founder of assessment firm Metritrack. “This is the new normal for the sector even after the pandemic is over. You will see more startups operating in this space in (the) coming months," said Muralidhar, who now runs a virtual career counselling startup.

Persisting challenges

It is a foregone conclusion that the world of higher education will never return to the old ways and universities are trying their best to innovate and keep up with a changing environment, said Sanjay Gupta, vice chancellor of World University of Design, which focuses on the design of transport, textiles and fashion.

“Having said that, students and faculties are (also) eagerly waiting to go back to campuses. We are still unable to do lab or fieldwork…and facets like studio practice, workshop practice, and peer learning work best when done face-to-face, which means a return to the campus is inevitable," Gupta added.

However, the system of blended learning that some universities are seeking may also not be a sustainable model in India, argued Gurucharan Singh, a professor at Punjabi University in Amritsar. “While 24/7 electricity and high-speed internet is a constant challenge, universities in most part of India don’t have (any) IT infrastructure or the financial support to create it. And even if you create a workable model, it will not lead to quality education outcome for millions of students," he said.

This is because engagement with online teaching is tough. “So, what will we create? Professionals who are socially isolated, those who have not learned team work adequately and personality wise, they might be self-centered, arrogant and poor in productivity," added Singh.

Even the students, who are more conversant with technology, are not fully convinced. Last year’s online learning experience has been less than satisfactory to a vast majority.

“Yes, teachers are supportive, but some (faculties) are also not adequately familiar with virtual learning. The vibrant classroom environment is missing. Sometimes, you learn from seniors and classmates during an outing for tea or dinner. That cannot be taught on a computer," said Kumar Rajesh, an undergraduate student in Delhi.

One thing is certain though—in the coming months, the distinction between the computer screen and the classroom will only get hazier.

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