Is 'Remote Learning' here to stay? A Conversation about Indian Higher Education

Bridge India hosted a conversation about Remote Learning in Indian Higher Education yesterday.

As we do in the Bridge India webinars, we brought diverse voices, including some from the diaspora as well as those who are interested and engaged in India, to talk about the massive shift to online learning that COVID19 has brought about.

But we were not trying to predict the future or make a case for one kind of shift or another. We all too well know that the future isn't what it used to be. Besides, we did not want to say that there is a silver bullet for all the challenges in higher education.

The recording of the session is above, but an hour long. I came away with a number of ideas and reflections, a narrative summary of which I have put below.

1. It was good to know India wants to increase the Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) - the ratio of the number of people enrolling in higher education and that of those who should go to college - from the current 24% to 50% by 2030. This will obviously mean more than doubling the size of India's Higher Education system in the next 10 years. But ambitious as it may sound, it's not impossible. China has done it in the last decade and given its young population, India should be able to do it.

2. However, the GER is closely correlated to GDP - people seek college education when it's opportune to do so. Usually, $10,000 annual per capita GDP means GER breaking through 40%, which is somewhat like a marker between developed and developing countries. This may look arbitrary but one way to explain why such a correlation exist is to look at what happens to labour markets when an economy reaches $10,000 annual per capita income: College-level education pays. As of now in India, the probability of a college graduate to be unemployed is much higher than of those without college education. That will need to change before India can push the GER through the 40% barrier.

3. In the call, however, we spoke more about the supply-side issues of such a huge expansion. India will need all hands on the deck, private, public and international providers joining forces if this has to happen. It is creating a countrywide broadband network - Bharatnet - which should address some of the access and equity issues in remotely delivered education. However, the issue of access is broader than just that of having laptops and network access. It is also about having space - physical and psychological - to engage in learning outside the college environment. Someone taught me early in life (something I keep repeating every day) education is a business of detail. Pesky details, such as maintenance, virus protection, quality of electricity provision, quiet room, furniture etc., will all crop up when we want to do more remote learning.

4. There was a very important point mentioned by one of the participants. She was, of course, upset by the lack of planning in the move to remote learning. She pointed out that most students may not appropriate infrastructure (I noted only 8% Indian households may have a laptop and a working Internet connection). For her, the biggest point was the exam, which the universities were planning to conduct online. For me, I could see that the exams, if conducted online, would be the biggest injustice of all. Even if one could build in advanced proctoring solutions to minimise cheating (which I doubt will be done), the examinations will be a distorted playing field with some people having better internet connection than others. What was a difficult task - I know people who would put up with endlessly buffered video and toil through barely audible webinars in the true Indian spirit - becomes impossible when a synchronised test is to be conducted. If the universities fail to be innovative about their assessment, those ill-conceived tests of merit will add hugely to the already existing digital divide.

5. There was also a great point made by one of the panelists who teaches postgraduate classes. For her, she said, she is missing the learning that she herself receives by interacting with the students. Indeed, rich as they may be, there is no hanging around in the corridor after the Zoom call. While we spoke about redesigning the learning materials, the overtly purposeful nature of online learning is probably one of its greatest shortcomings. There is no small talk, no knowing one another beyond what is strictly needed; we would love to think this is a very productive environment, but that will be to overlook how learning happens. The two-way interactions, slow accumulation of trust, the gentle goodwill seeping into conversations are all parts of the education one receives: It's hard to plan for it without killing the very spontaneity of it first.

Finally, it seems that the faculty and the students are viewing this disruption as a temporary blip and while they put up with online learning, they are - as of now - not viewing this as the real thing (one panellist talked about deferring her studies because of the lack of campus experience) or a permanent change. On the other hand, the institutional leaders saw this current, no doubt temporary, transformation as a precursor of more permanent changes to come. What comes next may not be what we are seeing now: It may indeed a combination of many different modes and deliveries and options. But the fact that we are even having the debate about the potential of 'remote learning' to change whole higher education systems is a change in itself. Even if we can't predict the future, it's safe to say that all institutions will now have a 'remote learning' strategy and conversations about this will be accorded more seriousness than hitherto was the case.


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