Online courses: A mixed bag of experiences

For 28-year-old Divita Singh, a professional in the field of public relations, the restrictions of the Covid pandemic also gave the opportunity for a new professional start. Singh has signed up for an eight-month PG Diploma in Digital Marketing. She had previously completed a bachelor’s degree in sociology and an MBA, the diploma should help her to develop professionally.

She took the course, Singh says, because “you need to keep up to date with the changing dynamics in your own profession.”

What appealed to her was the affordability of the course, the lack of travel, and the ease with which she could go through the study materials since the lectures were usually recorded. “It was convenient to manage while working. I could rewind if I didn’t understand a certain concept and play the whole thing over again if I needed to revise it,” Singh said.

Several other students and professionals can now relate to Singh’s experiences with online education. Two years of lockdown has resulted in schools and colleges having to go fully online. In parallel, online courses from e-education platforms have seen tremendous growth.

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But for some students, online education has not held so much promise. Lakshita K decided to pursue a bachelor’s degree in mass communication with an online course in advertising and communication, but the experience wasn’t ideal.

She says that while the curriculum was informative, interacting with the professors was difficult.

“If we had any doubts, we would have to post them on the message boards and the answers would come quite late. Most of the time we only had access to recorded lectures, not live lectures. So asking there was out of the question. From time to time we also had zoom sessions with the professors, but these were rare,” she recalls.

Communication about study topics was limited, and students were encouraged to understand concepts for themselves, she says. The whole experience left her with a bitter aftertaste.

Taking into account the changes caused by the pandemic, the Union government plans to make great strides in online education. During this year’s budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the launch of an online university to address issues of accessibility and quality. Named “DESH Stack Portal,” the university will conform to the standards of the Indian Society for Technical Education.

In addition, the university supervisory authority University Grants Commission (UGC) wants to present modified guidelines for online education in a few days.

There are currently three major regulations governing online higher education. These include the UGC (Credit Framework for Online Learning Courses through SWAYAM) Regulation, 2016, the UGC (Online Courses or Programmes) Regulations, 2018, and the UGC (Open and Distance Learning) Regulations, 2017.

For technical courses, All India Council for Technical Education (Open and Distance Learning Education and Online Education) Guidelines Amendment 2021 handles distance learning, including online modules.

In an interview with DH, UGC Chairman M Jagadesh Kumar says the center is releasing revised online education policies within a month as part of the National Education Policy 2020 reforms.

“Some of the priority changes include the ability to give students access to an additional wide range of courses. So under the changes, up to 40% of their academic output will have to come from other institutions,” says Kumar.

He said institutions in the top 100 rankings of the National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) (a government ranking system for institutions of higher education) and those with an NAAC score above 3.26 are eligible. Institutes can be either universities or autonomous colleges.

“What we have also done is facilitate eligibility to take online courses. Normally, universities require an interruption of the undergraduate or class 12 exams. We removed the eligibility criteria, anyone can take these courses,” says Kumar.

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Additionally, top universities that don’t have the means to share their intellectual resources can work with any EdTech company, he says.

The goal, he says, is to increase the gross enrollment rate. “We hope to increase it from 27% to 50% in about 10 to 12 years.”

While online degrees alone may not have much value right now, certificates from reputable universities enrich a person’s resume.

The need has prompted globally recognized universities such as Oxford University, the London School of Economics or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to launch massive open online courses (MOOCs), diplomas and certifications for a wide range of courses.

Mixed reaction

But educators across a range of disciplines are concerned about the prospect of having to continue teaching online, particularly given the mixed response online teaching has received so far.

Kritika Sharma, who is part of the English Department at the Hindu College of Delhi University, says the move to online learning has been daunting for both students and teachers.

“You have to keep in mind that while these changes were happening, the pandemic and its associated trauma was playing out in the background. Most of the students didn’t have the cameras on, and by the end it was almost like teaching air. It was very frustrating for us. It’s safe to say that my students are absolutely thrilled to be back in the classrooms,” she says.

Lack of space at home and patchy internet connections were a constant problem. Some students have complained about health issues like headaches and vision problems, she says.

“The greater loss was the loss of a sense of community. Even among the teachers, we found the whole experience to be very isolating,” says Kritika.

The Delhi University Teachers’ Association opposes the idea of ​​making online teaching compulsory and protests are planned.

“Disguised Privatization”

An educator at a UGC-funded institution, who asked not to be named, said several teachers are opposed to the idea of ​​making online learning compulsory in higher education.

“We hardly manage offline classes anymore. This is clearly an offer to promote EdTech companies. This is a disguised privatization and a big boost for coaching institutions,” the professor said.

There are other concerns too: educators believe that this will make teachers redundant and that teaching methods will suffer immensely. Teachers have found their connection with students has become negligible during lockdown.

There are also growing concerns about the quality of these courses. Complaints from students about a lack of communication in recorded lectures point to a direct impact on learning.

While digitization in education appears to be a plausible future, the lack of access to technology and the internet will be the major hurdle. A study by the Azim Premji Foundation, conducted with 1,522 teachers, 398 parents and 80,000 children, found that almost 60% of school children do not have access to online learning opportunities. In addition, more than 90% of teachers indicated that meaningful assessment of children’s learning in online classes was not possible.

Krishnan Balasubramanian of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Madras, who also directs the Gopalakrishnan Deshpande Center, says the pandemic may have prompted us to adapt to online learning methods now, but several global universities have done so since ages. For example, he says, US-based Phoenix University has over 100,000 students.

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The benefits, he says, is flexibility. “You can record, scale, play back and have on demand. The students can go over it again and again,” he says.

Online lessons have also proven their worth in practical lessons, he says. “We can create animations and videos, offer scalability and assign individual tasks to students. Bandwidth is limited at the moment, but more and more digital classes will be held in the coming future,” he says.

But like other teachers, Subramanian says online education lacks connection with students.

“In a class I get a good sense of who I’m connecting with and I can make slight changes and improvise. In online education, this is not possible in a classroom of 60-70 students. Evaluations are also more difficult,” he says. While he says online education is feasible in higher education, particularly for specialist training, the method should not be applied to school children below the 12th grade.

Among a population of 1.38 billion, 825.30 million Indians had a phone with internet by the end of March 2021, data from India’s Telecoms Regulatory Agency shows. With 40% of Indians having no access to the Internet, online education for millions of prospective students can be at the expense of education if it is compulsory.

(With contributions from Varsha Gowda in Bengaluru)

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