How Can Technology Solve 7 Problems in Indian Higher Education in the post-COVID-19 Era?

 

By Ritu Chhikara, Ruchi Garg and Kamala Kanta Dash

Indian higher education is poised for a radical change. This change is not coming from any calibrated policy, nor from any business lobby, or from any socio-educational movement. The techno-digital-world powered by forces like the Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) are challenging and disrupting the status quo, the age-old educational traditions, deeply held perceptions, inherent biases, and existing practices that have shaped the higher education of India since the colonial times. This is not only challenging teaching, learning, and research and related platforms but disrupting multiple processes involved from an end to end in the entire educational ecosystem.

 QUALITY Challenges in Indian Higher Education

With close to 1000 universities, more than 51,000 higher education institutions, and around 40 million students, India is one of the largest higher education systems ready to overtake China and the US. But Indian higher education continues to be trapped in the dichotomies of a few elite institutions and a large number of below-average ones. Higher education is facing several challenges. The seven challenges that we have identified can be acronmyed as QUALITY challenges. The word quality is carefully chosen not just to find and fit seven challenges but to reflect and reiterate that ‘quality’ remains central to make a worthwhile impact in any human activity and more so in the case of education. With the advent of technological revolution and access to multiple sources of knowledge, the concern for quality in education has increased manifold. Though technology has its own challenges including that of the digital divide with the onset of Industry 4.0 and the Indian government’s focus on Digital India, digitization of higher education has the enormous potential to meet the seven challenges captured by our acronym, QUALITY.

 ‘Q’ stands for Quality

There are high-quality institutions and universities admitting very few students to their coveted courses and programs. A large number of students can’t join and can’t aspire to study there. While many argue that high-quality education needs to be merit-based, they certainly forget that merit also is a by-product of an unequal society. There is an urgent need to balance quality and quantity. Increase the intake in high-quality education, increase the quality of average education, and invest highly to develop an equitable educational system. This is not possible overnight even though concerns have been shared for decades. Now digitization offers a unique opportunity to even-out the imbalances in the high-low matrix in education, or else we will only add strength to the widening rich-poor divide thereby opening vistas for unemployed graduates with a possibility to turn to unrest, crime and violence.

Technology integration and Digitalisation increase the possibility of access to the best of the global knowledge freely available on the internet while standardization of teaching, learning and research tools increase the overall quality in technology-led knowledge delivery.

‘U’ stands for Universality

Institutes of higher education and universities need to be global and universal in outlook. The universal values and best practices need to be inculcated in both the curricular and co-curricular aspects of learning on campus and beyond. Learning global languages, developing intercultural competence, and appreciating other faiths and religious traditions in a universal interfaith perspective are the need of the hour. Very few universities can claim to have embedded these aspects of universality into their teaching-learning processes. Traditional higher education structures have failed to appreciate this need. The digitization of higher education can ensure these possibilities remain viable options for skills development, academic study, and research.

The Digital revolution has brought transformation to the global transmission of knowledge. By developing digital competence of our education system we can learn more about global best practices and do our own benchmarking, adaptation, and customization as required.

‘A’ stands for Access

There is a huge access gap in higher education. Though the dropout ratio has gone down, still we don’t see higher education having free access for people who aspire to enroll, study, get certified, skilled and be productive members of the economy. There are several barriers to higher education access. Infrastructure, locational disadvantage, language, gender, age and financial capability are six major barriers in creating an inclusive higher education. Quality higher education, researches around the world have demonstrated, leads to greater self-worth, enhancement of employability, increased economic independence, and lesser chances to be depressed.

By creating and perpetuating and thereby not removing artificial barriers to quality education is certainly a national security challenge. Digitization can ensure that such barriers become increasingly lesser, irrelevant, and non-existent with the passage of time. Quality of physical infrastructure of educational institutions has been unevenly distributed, however, the digital infrastructure which provides standard access and service even out these differences. For example, a small institution with lesser physical infrastructure will be able to compete now with other big players through their competency in their digital infrastructure.

E-learning platforms like Coursera, edX, Futurelearn, and Swayam, etc are some of the leading representatives of this process of higher education digitization. There is no doubt that they have massively increased the access to quality learning to many, unavailable, and unaffordable in the past.  Now before joining an IIT or an IIM and without being enrolled in one, a learner can access what’s being taught at the haloed edifices.

‘L’ stands for Localization

‘Think global and act local’ has been the maxim in use for decades. The word Glocal is now used along with Global. Now all governments are talking about the urgency of localization of UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to achieve the goals by 2030. But if you look at curriculum in higher education they are more focused on the world without an adequate focus on the local needs, issues, problems, and perspectives. There is an urgent need to customize the learnings in higher education and apply them to solve local problems through institutional interventions and stakeholder collaborations. Institutes/Universities can adopt villages and study local problems in order to solve them in a time-bound manner. A local area project-based pedagogy can be embedded into the broad curriculum. Without dealing and solving the local problems, higher education will not achieve its core objective of positive social change. Now the Prime Minister of India Shri Narendra Modi has given a clarion call to be ‘Vocal for Local’. So there is an urgent need to localize education as well. There will be questions like whether higher education can be localized? Can it promote glocalization through teaching-learning-community engagement and research? As of now the traditional model of education with a focus on rote learning has spectacularly failed to change with the time. Digitization promises to set these things right.

I’ stands for Integration

There is a pressing need for integrated knowledge. Specialized knowledge is certainly of great value to develop insights into a specific discipline and develop a disciplinary perspective to look and approach to any problem. But when most problems are multidimensional, they require different types of integrations to effectively deal with them. We have identified four major dimensions to this much-needed integration. First is Interdisciplinary integration without which our research will not be able to compete with global blind peer-reviewed and open innovation research. Second is Learning Integration where the traditional learning approach needs to blend with the modern experiential learning approach where project-based learning and futuristic learning are key to solve contemporary and emerging problems. The third is Theory and Practice Integration where both theory and practice get an equal share with a focus on practical and skills-based and industry-led learning. The fourth is the Integration of Ancient Indian philosophy and practice with modern science and technology, popularly known as the integration of the ‘Best of East and the Best of West‘.

India has taken some inspiring initiatives, but not enough. Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), irrespective of the undue flak its drawing for its center-left and anti-establishment orientation, in a way, pioneered inter-disciplinary studies in social sciences and humanities in Asia. But that model though admired in many circles has neither been followed and nor very well augmented throughout India. For long the leading IITs have had departments of humanities and now National Law Universities have social sciences and management focus. Still, a nationwide integration of the dimensions mentioned above is yet to be realized. Choice Based Credit System (CBCS) and Learning Outcomes-based Curriculum Framework (LOCF) are initiatives in the right direction. Now one can see an increasing focus on Liberal Studies by leading and new educational institutions like IIM Kozhikode, Ashoka University, Jindal Global University, Symbiosis, FLAME, Bennett University, BML Munjal University and Sri Sri University etc. This list is indicative and no way exhaustive. Many more will follow this path soon. But without digitization, these initiatives will only be labeled as too little, too elite, and too late.

T’ stands for Transformation

The use of ICT was a revolutionary phase in the history of education. It somehow made blackboards increasingly irrelevant. Then we developed PPTs, used projectors and screens, integrated some audio, and some video wherever available. Whiteboards replaced the blackboards. This generation of the 1980s and 1990s in urban India felt very lucky to have migrated from human-led to technology-led classrooms. Despite the teaching aids available, pedagogy remained unchanged. Now with the advent of Web.20, Convergent Media, high-speed internet, and the ensuing Industry 4.0, education especially higher education is set to drastically change. If educators don’t partner with technology, they are only going to perish. Digitization of higher education is going to the catalyst in this journey of higher education and technology has to be used to transform the entire end-to-end education system from admission, teaching, evaluation, placement, and all other academic administrative matters. With this transformation only we can aim to compete with the best in the world.

Y stands for Youth for Social Change

The majority of the students in higher education are the youth in the age group of 19-24.  As they come out of their teens and explore the world of higher knowledge and practice, they need guidance and role models who can utilize their willingness to serve and their energy to bring change through peaceful, non-violent, and dialogic methods of engagements.  Where many higher education institutions are happy completing the syllabus and awarding certificates, they have certainly failed to recognize their higher duty which is shaping the human personality as good citizens of the country with a global outlook. Digital technology can be used to steer the youth towards positive social Change for inclusion, empowerment, and sustainability.

Conclusion

Distance education, e-learning, and online education, not long ago, were treated as inferior in quality and inferior in status. IGNOU, the world’s leading distance educator was most often not considered equivalent to its sister central universities in India who provided face-to-face regular courses. But now it is poised for a paradigm shift. Considered so far as peripheral to learning and education, e-learning and online courses are now the buzz words. Digitization of higher education may not be the panacea to all pressing problems, but it will certainly pave the way for future changes and reforms.  The digitization of higher education has the potential to make better, the best, the average, the better, and the below average, the good.

Both Dr. Chhikara and Dr. Garg are business educators at BML Munjal University, Haryana and Prof. Dash is a public policy educator at Sri Sri University, Odisha

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