Online Higher Education in India Comes Full Circle

column | Digital Learning

Online Higher Education in India Comes Full Circle

By Michael B. Horn (Columnist) and Brian Warren     Dec 19, 2018

Online Higher Education in India Comes Full Circle

In 2012, the government of India stated that it would need to build 1,000 new universities and an astounding 50,000 new colleges by 2020 to meet expected demand as its population and workforce continued to grow.

With over 750 universities and more than 38,000 colleges today—compared to roughly 650 universities and 25,000 colleges in 2012—the country looks unsurprisingly unlikely to meet that objective.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Surveys and sources suggest many college graduates are unprepared for the workforce. For example, according to the All India Council for Technical Education, a whopping 60 percent of engineering graduates from India’s technical colleges remain unemployed each year.

Instead of replicating systems of higher education found elsewhere, India ought to be taking this opportunity to leapfrog the current state of higher education.

Ever since the 2012 report stated that India needed thousands of new colleges and universities, it has been evident that India should instead focus on building disruptive innovations to rethink education by offering a service that is far more affordable, accessible, and convenient than the existing options. That meant using online learning to serve people who would otherwise have no access to higher education.

And India did initially leverage online learning by allowing its universities and colleges to launch a wide range of online programs. But there were two problems. First, because existing higher-ed institutions drove the launch, their programs replicated aspects of Indian higher education online, rather than invent new ways to serve students who had no access previously—similar to what has happened in the United States in many cases.

Second, the initial online programs were of widely varying quality. Some reports suggested students didn’t learn much of anything, and were certainly not prepared to tackle real-world problems.

As a result, India cracked down on all online learning, with a moratorium on accredited universities offering online degrees in December of 2016.

Although this halted universities from innovating, it didn’t stop other Indian entities from innovating in online learning across the education spectrum. Corporations continued to offer online certificates, particularly in the coding and data analytics realms, and India’s largest education company, Byju’s, developed everything from next-generation interactive online simulations to top-of-the-line animation online video lessons. India’s higher-education system fell further behind when it came to leveraging online learning innovations.

This past August, India dipped its toe back into the online learning regulatory waters. But just its little toe.

The University Grants Commission, the national regulatory body for higher education that helps maintain standards and delegates funds to recognized universities and colleges, announced it will permit certain institutions to offer fully online certificate, diploma and degree programs in the 2018–2019 academic year.

To be eligible, institutions must be at least five years old, awarded a minimum score by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council, and rank among the top 100 colleges and universities, based on a national evaluative framework, for two of the past three years. The degree program must also mirror pre-made, face-to-face courses that have already graduated a cohort of students and have been previously approved by the statutory councils—in other words, replicate the existing system.

These new rules sound like those of yesteryear’s—and that’s a problem.

By replicating a system that India’s citizens and employers already say doesn’t produce workforce-ready graduates, it’s not clear why this wave of online learning will work better than the last. Although the Commission is allowing only the top 100 institutions in India in an effort to control quality, it’s really just cementing in place the current system of higher education.

That input-based approach to regulation, in which the resources and processes of a class are controlled, will, by definition, freeze innovation because it limits how programs may deliver their services. It also ignores the question of student outcomes at the program level, such that there will be little accountability.

There’s a better approach.

Lost amidst the changing rules and regulations is a focus on student outcomes—and, in this case, critical measures that connect education to the economy. (Some of these measures are outlined in a quality assurance framework that we researched and developed.) The government of India ought to incentivize institutions to compete on delivering what’s best for students, while keeping costs down to increase value and promote access. By maintaining a quality threshold, the Commission could invite many players to enter the online higher education market and innovate around quality and access, which could help India meet its demand to educate more citizens for the workforce.

India could also be the first in the world to pioneer such a progressive approach—and it could do so by first targeting the policy at online universities, not the entire system, which would be far too revolutionary at this stage.

The Commission ought to reconsider its choice. They can stay with the status quo and implement piecemeal adjustments in the hope that the outcomes match their intentions, or they can adopt a strategy of bold innovation with robust student-outcome protocols that don’t leave students’ success up to chance. From our standpoint, that shouldn’t be a choice.

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