Creating a level playing field for students

Creating a level playing field for students

Online education can help remove the false trade-off between cost, quality and scale and create a level playing field for students

In the 1960s, the then US education Secretary John Gardner spiked an argument “Can we be equal and excellent?”. Most school leaderships long ago concluded that quantity, quality and cost cannot co-exist.

While this may have been true in an analog world of education, recent progress in online education could enable institutions to break the false trade-off. Traditional education needed a revolution and transformation — to something that is always on, on demand, on the go, online, on-site, on-job, gamified, collaborative, modular, competency based and with career aligned pathways — but nothing gained much traction all this while. Despite repeated calls for an education that was more flexible, affordable, practical, employable and efficient, the traditional model, in spite of all its shortcomings, appeared to have prevailed. Online education can, however, help create a level playing field for all students in six different ways and bring in true social inclusion.

Online learning begins early at preschool

Online learning is fast replacing several home-schooling systems across the world. Parents can now let the computer teach the kids as they immerse themselves into their own laptops for a WFH assignment. Online learning, now provides personalised learning paths for weaker kids who would do better with some extra levels of tutoring. These days, online learning provides multiple options for all levels of learners and provide plenitude of certificate, diploma and even online degree courses. 

Reducing cost of delivery

Online learning has given birth to new business models for institutions and is creating new models of learning for students. The benefits of low marginal costs coupled with tech-driven flexibility, adaptability and personalisation make this model of learning a compelling proposition not only for the online learners but also for the traditional in-classroom students. Schools should pass this cost benefit as lower course fees thereby enabling many deprived and underprivileged learners to enrol themselves into these courses.

Employability of the students

Online learning, coupled with on-job training, provides a sustainable model to improve employability of the graduating student. Paid internships and apprenticeships, where the student learns the concept from the institution on their smartphones and gets to practice the skills through learning-by-doing, help getting them job ready; at the same time, the stipend earned through this model helps students finance a part of their course fees.

Emergence of the employed learner

While the number of so-called traditional students may not grow as fast, the number of adults and mid-career professionals who either have not completed their degrees or need more education or re-training is large and growing. Owing to automation, ML and AI, the number of jobs involving routine skills – both physical and cognitive – are shrinking over time. Employees will need to be re-trained in problem-solving, teamwork and cognitive reasoning that would make them adaptive, innovative and experimental. Online education can help institutions reinvent their product and deliver them to the modern learner in an innovative way. 

Online learning provides flexibility

Online learning provides the flexibility of time and space to the learner allowing them to do their studies anytime from any place! Working professionals can fit these programmes to suit their work routines. Students need not worry about a missed class now – a recorded version of the same would be made available to them on the learning portal. Students can now acquire a diploma or a degree from a foreign university without the need to travel to travel there. 

Evolution of the MOOCs

Online courses are generally cheaper than classroom courses. Enrolling into multiple programmes from multiple institutions across the world was never this easy. Several institutions also offer free-to-learn programmes (MOOCs) that can be taken at no cost –the certification too is available for a nominal cost. This also allows students to sample a few courses from different institutions and then finally make a decision.    

In spite of all these upsides, online education is still marred with several challenges – Infrastructural (almost 27% of the students do not have access to either a smartphone or a laptop, almost 30% of the students do not have access to continuous electricity and almost 43% of the students face connectivity issues), teacher competencies (as per a recently published report, not more than 10% of the university teachers have ever had any exposure to online teaching before Covid-19), lack of content in regional language (most content available online are in English) and skill development (several courses that focus on hands-on skill building through team-work and active participation are difficult to teach online). However, Covid-19 has created the window of opportunity for India to leapfrog and create a resilient and a scalable world-class education infrastructure. 

The future of education promises to be challenging, exciting and rewarding. As learning technologies continue to improve, better adaptive learning systems will evolve that can increase the productivity of learning and instruction. Spurred by the pandemic, as unemployment and uncertainty rises and it becomes harder to get a job, jobseekers will turn to education to improve their chances. This trend will require institutions to offer more skills-oriented modular education alongside traditional academic offerings − and online learning works well for this. However, to achieve its goal, institutions will need to think of innovative ways - rather than relying only on lectures - they will need to blend more learning-by-doing, work-based, apprenticeship-linked and competency-based pedagogies and projects which have a better connection to career prospects. This proximity and partnership between the industry and the academia, powered by online learning shall be the harbinger of a new dawn for Indian higher education.