Digital learning transforms spread of higher education

A new phase of promoting higher education which places importance on digital learning through massive open online courses (MOOCs) and online learning platforms has emerged in India, says the latest UNESCO report.

MOOCs and other digital tools such as Ekalavya, which characterises self-learning environments, have transformed education, connecting students to global learning platforms and making learning more dynamic.

Authored by Karanam Pushpanadham, under the UNESCO International Institute for Educational Planning, the report Massive Open Online Courses: The emerging landscape of digital learning in India reviews major initiatives undertaken by Indian authorities to facilitate lifelong learning for teachers, students and those in employment.

India has 462 million internet users with a penetration rate of 35% of the total population. It has the second-largest national group enrolled in MOOCs after the United States, which the Government of India is striving hard to leverage.

Drivers for change

The growth of MOOCS in India has been driven by the National Knowledge Commission’s push for a digital broadband network capable of both connecting research and education institutions and promoting a vibrant translation industry that makes knowledge available in different languages.

The National Knowledge Commission has also pushed to foster a better environment for innovation, such as establishing a robust intellectual property rights regime, incentivising research in universities and promoting traditional health systems.

The National Knowledge Commission’s discussions on distance education and how it can provide access to education for a large number of students, creating national information and communication technology infrastructure, has resulted in the rapid expansion of higher education institutions in India, says the report.

Government funding via the National Skill Development Corporation, established in 2009, has led to an increase in vocational training programmes, in an effort to meet the target of training 500 million people by 2022.

The report noted that a new educational landscape that combines online learning with bricks-and-mortar classrooms may be able to deliver high quality education at an affordable cost to a large number of students.

Digital transformation

On average, very highly educated Indian students are enrolling in MOOCs: Some 84.3% have post-secondary degrees and nearly 40% have graduate degrees.

According to the report, MOOCs are supplementing traditional higher education for many students in India, where nearly 40% of Indian MOOC students are also enrolled in a traditional undergraduate or graduate degree – a larger number than among the non-Indian MOOC student population.

For instance, in an analysis in 2014 by Andrew Ho of Harvard University of the first year of edX MOOCs at Harvard and MIT, 13.2% of the students were Indian. Indians also made up 6.9% of the first 1.7 million students to take a MOOC offered by the University of Pennsylvania. Indian MOOC students are mostly aged around 26 years old which is significantly younger than other MOOC participants.

The Pushpanadham UNESCO report noted that the majority of Indian MOOC students are employed full-time and use the courses to develop skills that will help them in their current job or will help them find a new one. “MOOCs are increasingly being used to fill in the gaps of a traditional higher education system, and they are largely seen as a learning model for professional training,” he said.

Indian MOOC students who are employed or currently looking for work are mainly drawn from industries with relatively well-defined skills and promising job prospects; and 70% of employed Indian MOOC students work in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) fields.

Pushpanadham said it is likely that the success of MOOCs will persist in India, as there is a high demand among students and the Government of India has recognised the power of MOOCs for enhancing entrepreneurship, education and training.

However, there is a need to tackle emerging challenges, while the expansion of online learning will be crucial to the success of the government’s recent initiatives to provide quality education for all at all levels.

The study highlighted a need to reflect on current practices, and to identify and rectify the barriers restricting access to MOOCs and other open educational resources, adding that the success of digital learning platforms relies on the availability of internet-enabled devices, the
speed of the internet, the readiness of learners, and the proactive educational policies of the government.

Work for educational planners

Drawing lessons from India’s first generation of online learners and providers, the report recommends that educational planners should provide reliable access to technology, such as broadband internet, computers, tablets and mobile phones.

Since the majority of MOOC students currently hail from large urban areas, access to technology and the internet for rural communities in India must be facilitated, while quality schooling should prepare students to understand university-level academic content.

The course content of MOOCs would need to be contextualised, especially in the humanities and social sciences, so that they are suitable for different cultural settings.

Students would need to be encouraged to opt for MOOCs by introducing mechanisms that allow credit transfer between traditional institutions and MOOCs.

Further research into how to reduce dropout rates for MOOCs, supporting learners to complete the programmes to secure their desired career and educational benefits, is needed.

Gender disparity among MOOC participants, particularly in India where women make up just 20% of Indian MOOC students, while the Gender Parity Index has climbed to 0.86, indicating a less unequal participation among men and women in India’s traditional higher education sector, has to be addressed, the report says.