In any sector, change and transformation are driven by customer expectations. The education sector is no different, with the customer being the student. The student entering the portals of academia today is very different from a student of even five years ago.
Today's young students are digital natives, with most of them accustomed to accessing information more instantaneously via search engines. They are also able to participate in collaborative studies via online forums or even group chats. This generation spends maximum time exposed to screens (like TV and smartphones) and consume dynamic content (like YouTube). They are more engaged with multimedia than with textbooks and would expect the same kind of interaction in the classrooms.
The freedom of the internet means learning can be unstructured. This generation is driven by 'informed curiosity' and are happy to source information on topics outside of their curriculum. Moreover, many students are already comfortable with non-classroom-based learning, that is, distance and online education.
Enrolment in distance learning has grown steadily over the last five years in India. From around 1.8 million students enrolled for distance learning Bachelor's degrees in Arts, Commerce and Science in 2011-2012, the number has grown to around 2.3 million in 2015-2016.
In recent years, the education landscape has transformed immensely with the entry of massive open online courses (MOOCs). Some of the biggest MOOCs already have thousands of courses and millions of users enrolled in many of the courses they offer. The reason for the popularity is not difficult to find: online courses are often seen as a more affordable and convenient route to education.
In the midst of this shifting landscape, how will Indian universities meet the changing expectations of Gen Z? When this tech-savvy generation sets foot in colleges, they expect dynamic content and interactive teaching methodologies. They also expect connected campuses, instant services like mail or text communication for important notifications, and the facility to download mark sheets and certificates.
What they face is vastly different. Most university campuses in India are still burdened with legacy structures and facilities. One-way communication with professors and assignments to be done on paper are just some aspects that still continue despite immense growth that the sector has seen technologically.
Clearly, the gap between what Gen Z expects and the infrastructure and what is available in universities is huge. Apart from the need to meet customer expectations, there's another strategic reason for universities and colleges to move to digital platforms - the huge opportunity offered by India's young demographic.
The untapped market in education is huge. Currently about 34.6 million Indian students enrol annually for an undergraduate degree. Yet, in 2015-2016, India's Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) stood at 24.5%. It means that 75% of our youth are not able to gain access to undergraduate education. The 2011 census data shows that around 41% of India's population is below the age of 20 years. As India grows younger, the demand for educational facilities will increase.
There is a huge demand-supply gap in India's educational infrastructure. Meeting this demand will require immense funding and other resources. India does not have the physical infrastructure to handle millions of new students. But digital platforms have no such constraints. If India's universities could adopt a blend of brick-and-mortar and digital platforms, they will be able to grow their student base significantly.
Interestingly, the receiving mechanism is already in place. India has an estimated 300 million smartphone users and smartphones hold tremendous potential as a delivery platform for learning. It's clearly time for Indian universities to build their digital wings. Going digital will allow universities to grow their student bases beyond the limits of their physical buildings.
Moreover, digital education can be easily customised and updated to ensure accuracy, transparency, and consistency. By transitioning, Indian universities will also be able to demonstrate their relevance in a digital India.
(The author is global head - TCS iON)