The government has been taking sure, but small, steps towards making online education more ‘regular’. This newspaper has highlighted how the delays because of this approach have proved costly; indeed, had online education been granted wider approval earlier, part of the problem higher education in India faced because of the pandemic could have been avoided. Now, with 149 universities set to allow students to earn 40% of their required credits for a degree programme from online courses hosted by the Centre’s Swayam platform for Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), India seems to be making up for the past lethargy.
Against the backdrop of the pandemic, it will allow students, with obvious caveats on access, to tide over the challenges particular to brick&mortar classrooms. What’s more, students can pick courses offered by top-notch teachers or universities—there is significant difference in the quality of teaching and resources between universities even when the underlying syllabus for a course is the same. This will also allow students in remote areas to access learning that would otherwise have been unavailable to them. The competition will spur universities to invest in better pedagogical resources.
The need is to enrol more universities and higher education institutions (HEIs) for offering courses under Swayam—and within this, for credits through courses, given 149 universities are participating at present while there were, in June, some 203 partner institutes—and adopt a liberal-but-quality-focused regulatory touch. More so, with the Centre planning a repository of online courses in partnership with private players, to host courses from online and global platforms as well as standalone online-education providers; this newspaper has argued that the government must use the Swayam platform for this.
Bear in mind, since the platform’s launch in 2017, it has seen some 2 crore enrolments. Content curated as per Indian syllabi would make it easier for regulation to allow students to access courses from top-notch foreign universities, too.
The task is cut out for the government, in terms of improving access through affordable internet in rural/remote areas and cheap devices for students. Apart from this, it needs to get a lot more liberal on online education policy. ‘Automatic approval’ for online programmes from top-billed Indian HEIs must be truly automatic, instead of the UGC sitting on applications for months—while the Centre allowed the top 100 (NAAC/NIRF showing) universities/HEIs to start online courses as early as May 30, 2020, UGC was soliciting ‘roadmaps’ for this from universities/HEIs in September 2020.
Advocates of a controlled approach would argue that this keeps a check on dubious operators, but market-reputation would help curb this. Besides, Indian students are in any case accessing short-term and even degree/certificate courses from universities abroad while Indian varsities are held back from tapping this market; there is no reason why universities deemed fit to deliver brick&mortar classes should be stopped from doing this online. That apart, the antediluvian provisions of the UGC (Open and Distance Learning Programmes and Online Programmes) Regulations, 2020, need to go
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