Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Brief look at some features of online education in India

Brief look at some features of online education in India

Abstract
     The essay seeks to look into the world of online education in India — at the school level, at the university level, at the level of entrance tests and professional certification courses. The approach of the private sector and the public sector in India is extremely different when it comes to online education. Whereas, for the private sector, the focus is more at the school level and primarily at the level of entrance tests or at the level of university degree courses through distance mode or professional certification courses, the focus of the public sector is more at the university level with non-credit courses.
     Online education itself is a parallel education system. However, offline education, especially at the school level also has a problematic twin, that of private tuitions. The whole system of private tuitions is based on the idea that the actual schooling system is inadequate and unable to deliver a high teacher to student ratio of attention and hence the quality of education imparted is unsatisfactory. Personalised learning is the foundational logic behind private tuitions. Online education at the school level also tries to borrow this logic and promises to deliver high quality education through the internet specially to those in remote areas and in the safety of their homes.
     The public sector though has a very different aim, online distance degree courses being an exception. The aim of most government aided platforms is to provide additional resources to aspiring students. There are no certificates nor are they in preparation for any exam, either at the class level or at an entrance level. The focus is not to replace standard contact forms of higher education in universities or even to replace correspondence or distance courses. The focus is as an additional study material, much like books, websites, Wikipedia or YouTube videos.
     The essay plans to discuss these issues in greater detail.

Main paper
     The essay seeks to look into the world of online education in India — at the school level, at the university level and at the level of entrance tests and professional certification courses. While internet resources to be used as additional tools have been a part of education ever since the advent of the internet in India, courses or tests which can be taken online, or online coaching is a relatively recent phenomenon. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) is a term used to describe some of these courses.
     The approach of the private sector and the public sector in India is extremely different when it comes to online education. Whereas, for the private sector, the focus is more at the school level and primarily at the level of entrance tests or at the level of university degree courses through distance mode or professional certification courses, the focus of the public sector is more at the university level with non-credit courses.
     Online education itself is a parallel education system. However, offline education, especially at the school level also has a problematic twin, that of private tuitions. The whole system of private tuitions is based on the idea that the actual schooling system is inadequate and unable to deliver a high teacher to student ratio of attention and hence the quality of education imparted is unsatisfactory. Personalised learning is the foundational logic behind private tuitions. Online education at the school level also tries to borrow this logic and promises to deliver high quality education through the internet specially to those in remote areas and in the safety of their homes. (See Rohan Swamy, ‘Internet Classrooms: How India Is Studying Online,’ NDTV Gadgets360, 2nd July 2014, http://gadgets.ndtv.com/internet/features/internet-classrooms-how-india-is-studying-online-551475, accessed 24th May 2016)
     The public sector though has a very different aim. As a look at the ‘E-Contents’ section of the website of the Ministry of Human Resource Development will reveal, there are several platforms for getting additional information at the undergraduate level though a lot of the resources mentioned in the list are no longer extant. There is already an existing one called NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enabled Learning). Another platform more well-titled acronymically called SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds) is coming up. Both of these are primarily video-based. There is another called Virtual Learning Environment which is primarily text-based. The aim of all these platforms is to provide additional resources to aspiring students. There are no certificates nor are they in preparation for any exam, either at the class level or at an entrance level. The focus is not to replace standard contact forms of higher education in universities or even to replace correspondence or distance courses. The focus is as an additional study material, much like books, websites, Wikipedia or YouTube videos.
     Private sector enterprises at the school level and entrance test level include ventures such as Meritnation (which also had a television commercial at one point of time), Gradestack, Toppr and Vedantu . Then there are ventures which focus solely on entrance level tests for both higher education as well as for jobs such as banking, schools, etc. Examples of such ventures are Testbook and Entranceindia. As the news report on NDTV’s Gadgets360 by Rohan Swamy which I cited earlier states, even Akash Institute, a coaching centre chain, has started offering online courses. The aim of all these enterprises is to act as a kind of parallel system rather than an addition. Since these enterprises strive to act as a parallel system and are for-profit ventures, therefore their courses are also more comprehensive in the sense that they try to cover more of the syllabus of the school curriculum that is there in standard contact forms of school education. Public sector MOOCs being not-for-profit initiatives are far less comprehensive in structure. They have only a few discrete videos in a few courses for a specified subject. Thus, by its very structure, such initiatives do not attempt to portray themselves as replacements. Rather as the acronym SWAYAM and its expanded form, Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, indicate, such platforms are for the eager student willing to seek out other resources and learn more. By their very structure, such platforms encourage curiosity and initiative, the hallmarks of education, where the focus should not be on learning by rote.
     There are two points of view regarding private tuitions and coaching centres. The more widespread one is that they thrive on an unhealthy nexus of societal and parental pressure and a malafide career trajectory path of some school teachers who may be deliberately teaching badly in schools and then teaching often the same set of students in a slightly better manner in private classes. This is of course not true of every teacher but it is perhaps true of some teachers. There are of course teachers giving private tuitions or in coaching centres where that is their only scope to teach and that should be recognised as a respected career path. However, the foundational logic of private coaching is that schools are not doing their jobs well. It is like an industry which thrives on the premise that another industry will not perform well, like a tangible product which is sold in the faith that it will soon malfunction and will have to be turned in for repairs and thus another round of profit can be obtained from the same product.
     The second point of view is that there is a social comment that needs to be made here by way of clarification. It should be recognised that human beings and society are flawed. That is the reason why the security sector exists. Crime and mal-intent are natural human tendencies. They should not be seen as defects in society. Rather they should be seen as a part of society. Similarly, it may be said that the inadequacies of the schooling system should not be seen as a defect but rather as a part of the system. That is perhaps a valid comment and it should perhaps end any further vilification of the rationale behind the existence of the parallel education system that is offered by private tuitions and coaching centres.
     This point of view regarding private tuitions is also borne out by some advertisements. Just before the West Bengal legislative assembly elections 2016, the ruling party brought out a series of videos intended for social media with hashtag annotations. One of these advertisements showed a female school student who had received a bicycle as part of a social welfare scheme. The student says that previously she had to waste a lot of time commuting between her home, her school and her several tuition centres. The bicycle has reduced that wastage of time. The point to be noted regarding the advertisement is that a ruling party in a promotional video acknowledges the several tuitions that a school student undertakes. The failure of the government school education system to provide satisfactory education is acknowledged. It is as if the unsatisfactory nature of school education is not to be seen as a problem but rather as a social trait.
     It may truly be that some school teachers may not be attentive enough to the large student base in schools or that some teachers may not be intellectually rigorous and exciting enough for the curious student that may lead to students seeking private tuitions in their quest for getting a good education for themselves. Whatever be one’s one point of view regarding this parallel system of education which finds takers from every economic section of society, the fact remains that it exists as an almost parallel system.
     Let us return to the content of some of these courses. For example, if we take the class 12 mathematics course under the CISCE board at Meritnation, the list of available courses does not show statistics (http://www.meritnation.com/icse/class12-science/studymaterial/math/math-part-i/2_12_1_648, accessed 24th May 2016) though it is there in the syllabus (http://www.cisce.org/pdf/ISC-Class-XII-Syllabus-2017/17.%20Mathematics.pdf, page 124). Thus, even in its attempt to cater to better examination grades, the entire syllabus is not covered. In their attempt to simulate the offline world of private tuitions and coaching, such private online initiatives have not been thorough.
     The focus on better grades is also replicated in the structure of such platforms. Meritnation has a system of points and badges and students are ranked according to how many points they earn. On the one hand it may seem like a game and a form of incentive to students. On the other hand and in a more disturbing vein, what it does is reinforce the spirit of competition rather than learning. The unhealthy pressure which forced guardians to enrol their wards in private tuitions, coaching centres and online courses is not released in such platforms. An additional competition is heaped upon the student in these parallel systems which tout themselves as support systems. The support system adds to the pressure and competition for the student rather than relieving students of it.
     However, private initiatives have some advantage over public initiatives. Public initiatives are funded usually by a one-time grant. Personnel are hired for the duration of the project. Once the project’s duration is up and the grant is over, such initiatives are no longer maintained or updated. The defunct resources in the list of ‘E-contents’ on the MHRD website are an indication of that. Private initiatives on the other hand are meant to rake in profits. Hence, the websites are periodically updated if the accrued profits justify it. Since private initiatives closely follow the syllabus, therefore they also try to keep updating themselves with the change in syllabi. The exam preparation sites for instance need to change their format with the change of format of the entrance examination.
     Both private and public initiatives also offer distance degree courses online. There is a website called U18 which offers distance courses which are approved by a public state university, the University of Mysore and a private university, Don Bosco University in Guwahati. The difference in a platform like this is that it is a full-fledged degree course, taken through a distance or correspondence model but the platform is online. Thus lectures are through internet videos. Private universities like Amity University also offer degree courses online. The fee structure for online distance learning courses indicates that it is double the cost of offline distance learning courses. The costs for additional facilities are worth noticing. These are the costs for add-ons for the online mode of the B.A. (English) course

Face to Face Classes (Personal Contact Program), INR 5000/ Semester, 5 hours of sessions per subject
One on One Live Query Handling Sessions, INR 2000 / Subject/ Session, 45 minutes per subject
Reference Books, at Actual Cost, List available on request

     After the success of the shopping site Flipkart, several other websites came up in India which bore the suffix -kart. Lenskart and Medkart are two such examples. There is also a website called Edukart, where the user interface is similar to that of shopping in Flipkart. One can narrow down by providers, courses and other features. Edukart lists several private and public universities which offer degree courses through online distance mode.
     Several other universities, such as Sikkim Manipal University, Pondicherry University, Karnataka State Open University, Assam Down Town University, Tamil Nadu Open University, Annamalai University and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Open University offer degree courses online as part of distance education. Standalone private institutes such as National Institute of Business Management also offer online degree courses. If online distance education seems like an easy way to get accreditation and degrees, one also needs to be aware that the University Grants Commission does not recognise online distance education degrees yet (Jeevan Prakash Sharma, ‘Beware! That online degree may not be valid in India,’ Hindustan Times (New Delhi edition) 14th April, 2015, http://www.hindustantimes.com/india/beware-that-online-degree-may-not-be-valid-in-india/story-IzoQfPHgv7Ckj4vRSUofeI.html, accessed 24th May 2016). Distance education degrees themselves are always caught in a mire of unacceptability with several employers refusing to accept them. Online distance education degrees seem one step further away from universal acceptability.
     Professional certification courses such as courses in Big Data offered by platforms like Simplilearn (which recently came out with television commercials featuring Irrfan Khan) offer their own certificates. These courses offer information which can also be gleaned from the internet for free but these courses offer it in a more structured manner and are thus useful for those willing to pay.
     In short, in online education in India, be it school-level examination focussed websites or entrance examination websites or university-level distance degree courses or non-credit discrete videos, there is either a lack of comprehensiveness or a lack of universal acceptability. Whereas school-level examination focussed websites lack comprehensiveness, university-level distance degree courses face similar issues as distance or correspondence courses go. Distance or degree courses may be great for acquiring knowledge and certification but more often than not it is seen as an easier way of getting a paper degree. Hence, their lack of universal acceptability. Though open universities are sometimes government sponsored, yet a lot of government agencies refuse to recognise distance and correspondence degrees. The lack of synchronisation leads to harassment for students who enter such degree programmes and complete them but fail to apply for several jobs as then their degrees are not recognised.
     Non-credit discrete videos on the other hand, such as on platforms like NPTEL or SWAYAM are not seen as replacement programmes. They are seen as additional resources. Thus they project themselves as incomprehensive. This self-projection of incomprehensiveness leads to such resources as being meant for self-study and knowledge enhancement rather than for career-focussed educational programmes.
     Thus the ones that portray themselves as serious and comprehensive are dubious and the ones which portray themselves as casual are more like hobbies rather than for vocational education. This, in short, is what can be deduced about the state of online learning in India.
     One point which connects school-level examination focussed websites, entrance examination websites and university-level distance degree courses are their high costs. The costs are so high that it can be deduced that they are not meant for the financially downtrodden who cannot be a part of the formal schooling system or regular contact methods of higher education. It is not as if such online education bridges the economic gap that offline methods fail to. Rather, such education is aimed at the financially well-to-do. So who are the main consumers of such education?
     Let us analyse each type of education at a time. The university-level distance degree courses delivered online are targeted at the well-to-do who may find it even easier to keep up with the minor formalities online rather than having to do them more physically. The school-level examination focussed websites which are competing with contact modes of private tuitions even though these websites may not be as comprehensive and be able to provide as much personalised attention and as high a teacher to student ratio that some private tutors may be able to, such websites do make money and can raise capital from the markets. As the news report on NDTV’s Gadgets360 by Rohan Swamy which I cited earlier twice suggests, they target perhaps those who are well-to-do but live in remote areas or perhaps those, who irrespective of their location, are looking for a kind of safety that lack of physical proximity provides. It is also to be borne in mind that travelling among home, school and tuition centres is a physically strenuous activity. As the student in the ruling party promotional video said, the travelling led to the student taking fewer tuitions. With travelling reduced, either through a bicycle acquired through a social welfare scheme, or completely obliterated through the system of delivery being online, it is easier on the physical and mental health of the student. That is perhaps another reason why such forms of online education thrive. Solely entrance examination focussed websites where the focus is not on learning but rather taking lots and lots of practice tests, the internet provides perhaps as good a platform as any offline mode. For final entrance tests which are in fact taken on a computer, the online websites perhaps provide an even better platform that offline physical coaching centres where some of the tests are perhaps taken offline rather than on a computer.
     These are some of the forms of online education in India, the ways in which they function and speculative comments about the reasons why they exist. Whether such forms of online education are the best form of education or not is a topic of contention. However, the reason for being for both private tuitions as well as distance and correspondence courses is that they make up for the failures of the standard school and higher education system. Both of them are remedial measures. Whereas no government initiative has ever encouraged private tuitions, distance and correspondence courses are actively encouraged by policy makers. Distance and correspondence courses too should be seen as a parallel education system just like private tuitions. Selective encouragement for one defies some logic. However, that is the way things are. The best remedial measure of course would be to strengthen and increase the scope of the standard models of delivery of education, that is, the regular school system and increasing the number of institutes of higher education and helping them with funds to improve their quality of education.
     Online education in India thus seems to address a kind of a gap or a failure in standard modes of education. They provide what theoretically is available in the best educational institutes of India, be it at the school level or at the level of higher education. The point, it may seem, is only to increase its reach and extend it beyond the privileged few who make it to those institutes. However, as any survey of the ‘best’ schools in India (which is usually interpreted as schools whose students score the highest marks in board examinations or in entrance examinations) will reveal, even students of such schools take private tuitions. The reason for that may be that the teacher to student ratio is low and thus individualised attention is not available for the students. What the fascination for private tuitions thus reveals is thus an across-the-range failure of the school system in India to provide education which is satisfactory to students. It is a greater issue than one of extending a successful model in best schools and extending it to others. Online education for school students in India rather addresses the need that school students have for good education with individual attention being paid to students, a high teacher to student ratio with a high quality teacher who not only knows the subject well but can also explain it to students well. Thus able teachers and lots of teachers seem to be the actual answer for the problem that affects India’s schooling system. With the decreasing percentages of budgetary allocation for education in India, the problem seems far from going away. The parallel system attempts to provide what the regular one fails to do.
     With higher education, similarly the answer to India’s problems perhaps lie in increasing the number of educational institutes and giving such institutes greater economic support. The quality of education which non-credit discrete ‘expert’ videos seek to spread is perhaps achieved from an environment which leads to creation of such ‘expert’ videos in the first place. Such an environment is perhaps brought about by having a pool of academically enthusiastic students and teachers and adequate economic support. To increase that pool of academically enthusiastic students (who also later go on to become inspiring teachers), their school education is perhaps what needs to be improved.
     Distance and correspondence courses do cater to a certain category of students seeking knowledge and certification but encouraging that rather than the contact modes of education seems to be addressing the problem from the other end. Online education in India will perhaps increase in volume given the skewed directions of policy makers.

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