Source: Times of India
The wave of the future
The observation by Curtis Uhelein, president of US-based Apollo Global, doesn’t come out of the blue. The trend towards online education is something that has been percolating through the world of higher education for a few years now. Given how new the format still is, there is no one-size-fits-all approach, of course. It could mean anything from conventional education supplemented by online methods to online-only education; from material simply being made available online to interactive digital sessions. What is undeniable, though, is that it is good news for both students and educators.
Across the world, there are barriers to higher education. In developed countries, they may be economic or geographical. In developing nations like India, the obstacles are not only economic or geographical in nature but also bureaucratic — the biggest obstacle of all is simply a lack of supply. That is why, far from the popular impression of online education being viable only in the developed world, it is actually in countries like India where it can fulfill its potential. Internet penetration is growing at a steady pace in India — and unlike conventional education where physical infrastructure is a huge limiting factor, internet connectivity alone can enable millions of youth to access quality higher education online.
There is concrete proof that Indians are hungry for such opportunities. They form the second-largest group of people, by nationality, accessing two of the largest online education efforts — Coursera and edX. It’s not surprising, after all, that an Indian student would be interested in the quality courses these initiatives offer — or access Ivy League lectures online, or download podcasts by professors from top global universities, all of which are freely available. With the abysmal higher education situation in this country, online education frees them to seek what they want.
It can only be a poor cousin
The argument that education has become global and online teaching can ever compete with offline teaching is ludicrous. A global shift towards online education is a mirage that will remain elusive. Certainly online education has some merits. But it can never be a true substitute for real education that happens in a physical classroom. In the end online education is only a technologically spruced up variation of the correspondence courses, that have helped millions of the less fortunate students secure higher education degrees at low quality and minimal cost.
University and classroom education is simply superior not only because it enables face to face interaction between students and teachers but also because it proactively engages students in the learning process and exposes them to work in other related disciplines. Universities usually club together teaching and research. It is those with the best research and teaching skills who climb to the top of the system. So university students not only observe and learn from some of the best brains in the profession but also get access to world class libraries and laboratories. The best part of the brick and mortar universities is the peer group interactions which make it possible to build an ecosystem that ensures lifelong learning.
However, the biggest obstacle that stands in the way of online teaching is not just the unique attributes of the university system but poor infrastructure facilities in India like bandwidth, which is essential for extending online education. Typically, in developing countries like India, the quality of the limited broadband service available is too poor to smoothly stream visual images. The way that India’s telecom policy has been compromised makes it certain that online education will remain a poor and distant alternative.