Online courses: a mix of experiences
For Divita Singh, 28, a public relations professional, the restrictions of the Covid pandemic have also given her the chance for a new trajectory in her career. Singh enrolled in an eight-month PG degree in digital marketing. She had already taken an undergraduate course in sociology and an MBA, and the degree was to help her advance further professionally.
She took the course, Singh says, because “you need to catch up on the changing dynamics of your own profession.”
What appealed to her was the affordability of the course, the lack of travel, and the fact that she had the ability to peruse the study material as the lessons were usually recorded. “It was convenient to manage while working. I could rewind if I didn’t understand a particular concept and replay the whole thing when I needed to revise,” Singh said.
Several other students and professionals can now relate to Singh’s experience with online education. Two years of confinement have forced schools and colleges to go completely online. At the same time, online courses via e-education platforms have experienced rapid growth.
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But for some students, online education hasn’t held so much promise. Lakshita K decided to follow up an undergraduate degree in mass communication with an online course in advertising and communication, but the experience wasn’t ideal.
She says that although the program was informative, connecting with the teachers was difficult.
“If we had any doubts, we had to post them on message boards and the answers would come quite late. Most of the time, we would only have access to recorded lectures, not live lectures. So asking was out of the question. From time to time we also had Zoom sessions with the teachers, but they were rare,” she recalls.
Communication about study topics was limited and students were encouraged to grasp the concepts on their own, she says. The whole experience left him with a bitter taste.
Keeping in mind the changes brought about by the pandemic, the Union government plans to make great strides in the online education space. In this year’s budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the establishment of an online university to address accessibility and quality issues. The university, named “DESH-Stack Portal”, will comply with the standards of the Indian Society for Technical Education.
Additionally, higher education regulator University Grants Commission (UGC) plans to come up with amended guidelines for online education within days.
Currently, there are three major online higher education regulations. These include the Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through SWAYAM (UGC) Regulations, 2016, the Online Courses or Programs (UGC) Regulations, 2018, as well as the Open and Distance Learning (UGC) Regulations, 2017.
For technical courses, the All India Council for Technical Education (Open and Distance Learning Education and Online Education) Guidelines Amendment 2021 supports distance learning including online modules.
In an interview with DH, UGC Chairman, M Jagadesh Kumar, said that as part of the National Education Policy 2020 reforms, the Center is issuing amended guidelines for online education within ‘a month.
“Some of the changes on the priority include the ability for students to access a wide variety of additional courses. So, depending on the changes, up to 40% of their academic credits will have to come from other institutions,” says Kumar.
He said institutions in the top 100 rankings of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) (a government ranking system for higher education institutions) and those with an NAAC rating above 3.26 will be eligible. Institutes can be either universities or stand-alone colleges.
“What we have also done is to relax the eligibility to join online courses. Usually universities ask for a cut in undergraduate or class 12 exams. We have removed the eligibility criteria , anyone can join these courses,” says Kumar.
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Moreover, top universities that cannot afford to share their intellectual resources can collaborate with any EdTech company, he says.
The goal, he says, is to increase the gross enrollment rate. “We hope to increase it by 27% to 50% in about 10-12 years.”
While online degrees alone might not have much value right now, certificates from reputable universities add to a person’s resume.
The need has driven globally recognized universities like the University of Oxford, the London School of Economics, or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch massive open online courses (MOOCs), degrees, and certifications on a variety of courses.
But educators in a variety of disciplines fear they will have to continue teaching online, especially given the mixed response online teaching has received so far.
Kritika Sharma, who is part of the English department at Delhi University’s Hindu College, says the shift to online learning has been daunting for students and teachers alike.
“You have to keep in mind that during these changes what was going on in the background was the pandemic and the trauma it brought. Most of the students didn’t have cameras on, and in the end it was a bit like teaching on the air. It was very frustrating for us. I can say unequivocally that my students are unequivocally happy to be back in the classrooms,” she says.
Issues of lack of space at home and spotty internet connections were a constant problem. Some students have complained of health issues such as headaches and eyesight problems, she said.
“The biggest loss was losing the sense of community. Among the teachers, too, we felt the whole experience was very isolating,” says Kritika.
The Delhi University Teachers’ Association opposes the idea of making online teaching compulsory and protests are planned.
An educator at a UGC-funded institution, who did not wish to be named, said several teachers oppose the idea of making online learning mandatory in higher education.
“We barely manage offline education. This is clearly an offer to promote EdTech companies. This is veiled privatization and a big boost for coaching institutions,” the professor said.
There are also other concerns: educators believe that this will make teaching staff superfluous and that teaching methods will suffer greatly. Teachers have noted how, under confinement, their bond with students has become negligible.
There is also growing concern about the quality of these courses. The student complaint about a lack of communication in the case of recorded lessons indicates a direct impact on learning.
While digitization seems to be the plausible future in the education sector, lack of access to technology and the internet will be the main obstacle. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation conducted among 1,522 teachers, 398 parents and 80,000 children revealed that almost 60% of schoolchildren do not have access to online learning opportunities. On top of that, more than 90% of teachers said that meaningful assessment of children’s learning was not possible in online lessons.
Krishnan Balasubramanian of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, who is also responsible for the Gopalakrishnan Deshpande Center, says that while the pandemic may have caused us to adapt to online learning methods now, several World universities have been doing this for ages. For example, he says, the US-based Phoenix University has more than 100,000 students.
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The upside, he says, is flexibility. “You can save, scale, replay and have it on demand. Students can repeat it over and over again,” he says.
Online teaching has also proven useful in hands-on classes, he says. “We can do animations and videos, scalability, and we can give students individual assignments. Right now, bandwidth is a limitation, but in the future, more and more digital lessons will take place,” he says.
But like other teachers, says Subramanian, what’s missing in online education is connection with students.
“In a class, I have a good idea of who I’m connecting to and I can make slight changes and improvise. In online teaching, that’s not possible in a class of 60-70 students. Assessments are also trickier,” he says. While he says online education is feasible in higher education, especially for specialized courses, the method should not be applied to schoolchildren below grade level. class 12.
Out of a population of 1.38 billion, 825.30 million Indians had a phone with internet at the end of March 2021, according to data from the Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of India. With 40% of Indians without internet access, online education may come at the expense of the education of millions of aspiring students, if made compulsory.
(With contributions from Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)
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