In order to facilitate the achievement of the three cardinal principles of our education policy ~ access, equity and quality ~ the Government of India embarked on an ambitious project titled Swayam or ‘Study Webs of Active ~ Learning for Young Aspiring Minds’ in 2016. It involved the development of an online digital platform to host learning resources in digital, audio-visual format so that interested learners from across the country would be able to access learning resources and obtain certificates and upgrade specialized skills.
Named Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs, these courses are designed to ensure instruction delivery to millions across the geographical divide through internet-based learning modules. The platform was linked with the University Grants Commission to incentivize the courses so that they could have a following among a large section of the higher education learners.
Within our country, several statutory agencies, such as the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS), National Council for Educational Research and Training (NCERT), Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), UGC, and similar other agencies, were roped in to offer a comprehensive learning platform covering school education, out-ofschool education, under-graduate education and post-graduation education.
As on date, the platform runs 755 courses covering a wide range of learning areas with total enrolment exceeding 5 lakh over the last three years. The course content has generally involved widely known specialists of disciplines offering high quality, planned instructional modules which can be accessed free by anyone with an internet-enabled smart device.
Similar learning platforms have succeeded in most western countries and also in some Asian countries such as China, with some US universities running courses which have over a million enrolments across the world. While such online platforms deliver quality instruction to those interested in them, the obvious advantages are in areas where verifiable skill development is rewarded through increased employment and growth opportunities.
Since the Indian education context is largely formal, face-to-face and documentbased, the platform is still struggling to cater to a large section of the targeted population across the educational stages in spite of the fact that the government has spent over a hundred crore to design, develop and host such programmes on its online platform.
The theoretical counterargument to the development of such courses ranges from the concern that these may ultimately take the place of face-toface teaching to issues of quality control and certification. The fact that our country still depends on physical contact between the teaching and learning communities to move forward, instruction also brings in some skepticism among the adherents of conventional learning modes.
However, this concern is sought to be addressed by the argument that online learning systems are merely complementary in nature and seek to bring in a degree of flexibility to the learning environment by extending educational resources to those who do not have the luxury of attending formal institutions for vocational or similar other commitments.
Furthermore, the introduction of digital platforms for learning in India brings in a host of related concerns which are partly due to the poor reach of effective high-speed internet connection in mobility devices and also due to the poor acceptance of such courses in formal sectors of the learning and employment paradigms. Even with the highly publicized 4G coverage offering cheap data rates, such services are generally limited to Tier-I and Tier ~ II cities and towns, leaving out a large geographical area of the country out of its range.
Added to this is the relatively expensive nature of the compatible mobile devices, a direct consequence of which is that most of rural India still depends on feature phones for communication as against smart devices. This threatens to actually increase the consequences of the digital divide in education which the online education venture is paradoxically trying to address.
In contrast, most technologically advanced countries, including the US, have universities hosting online courses with the sole aim of delivering high quality instructional and skill enhancement materials without aiming at complete geographical coverage across the country.
The other concern about the introduction of the digital learning platforms in our country is the economic viability of a system that depends entirely on government sponsorship. While most of the financial commitments are at the stage of introducing such courses, maintaining such an extensive infrastructure will require a continuous financial commitment that would be challenged at times when scacre government resources need to be rationed across the educational infrastructure.
With face-to-face conventional learning systems still requiring the maximum priority in our budgetary allotments, it remains to be seen how the governments, both central and states, allocate dedicated resources to run online platforms for digital education. Significantly, unlike western countries, our educational systems are still clearly divided in terms of statutory importance between formal, face-to-face learning and online learning.
There is little support for the online courses in terms of statutory acceptance of such courses in career advancement or skill enhancement. As such, a large section of learners who complete such courses are still at a loss to use such achievements to further their employment prospects since the Indian employment scenario in the organized and service sectors depends almost entirely on certificates issued from conventional learning systems.
With distance education in India still struggling to get its rightful place with the support of statutory regulations accepting the validity of distance and open learning degrees, it would take a long time before purely online learning degrees gain their rightful place in the pan-India context. India’s move to popularize online learning through the use of digital platforms is apparently aimed at overcoming the vast geographical distance between learning resources and the learners and are theoretically designed to democratize the availability of such talents to learners irrespective of their place of residence.
While this may sound appealing, a number of parameters need to be addressed by the government agencies in a synchronized manner so that the effects of this noble venture can percolate to the lowest level of the education spectrum. Wider availability of advanced mobility devices, which are affordable and have a better reach of internet access so as to deliver videocontent, linking of online learning with formal career upliftment through statutory incentives, are a few among them.
Merely imitating western learning paradigms by using digital technology will defeat the very purpose for which this grand initiative has been taken and may ironically end up accentuating the divide in the availability of learning resources to our students. This issue is further compounded by the fact that education remains in the Concurrent list of our Constitution and there has to be a total synergy between the central and state governments in working towards the popularization of the use of digital learning platforms.
However, with awareness and some prodding from statutory agencies, our online learning systems can emerge to be among the best in the world given the rich talent that we have in the sphere of online technology and human resource assets.
(The writer is Assistant Professor in English, Pritilata Waddedar Mahavidyalaya, Nadia in West Bengal)