Regulator faces backlash over blended higher education plan

A recent notification from India’s higher education regulator the University Grants Commission (UGC) allowing universities across the nation to teach up to 40% of courses via digital platforms is facing a huge backlash from university teachers’ associations which say the move could disadvantage many students.

Teachers’ groups say the government must first develop the required physical infrastructure to bridge the country’s digital divide before implementing blended higher education.

India’s UGC on 20 May issued a concept note on introducing blended teaching and learning at higher education institutions, allowing up to 40% of each course to be taught online and the remaining 60% offline, with feedback from stakeholders invited up to 6 June.

The concern among academics is that such a move would harm the education system and adversely affect poor and rural students where the digital divide is stark. They argue the majority of students do not have the required high-speed internet to access learning resources.

Many also argue that learning outcomes of online classes are often below par. Online provision may also lead to commercialisation of learning as universities buy in courses from private companies.

Less effective and impractical

Dr Rajesh Kumar Jha, a former executive council member at Delhi University (DU), said, “most of the students lack infrastructure and equipment. Due to this, online classes will prove to be less effective than offline as well as impractical”.

He told University World News: “About three-fourths of DU students come from far-flung areas of [the country’s] North East, and Jammu and Kashmir, including many disadvantaged groups, who will be at a disadvantage in the digital divide.”

He said owning a smartphone did not mean “access” to the digital medium.

The Academics for Action and Development group at Delhi University said the online parts of courses should be implemented through the government’s online portal known as SWAYAM – the acronym for Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, which was launched in 2017 – and massive open online courses (MOOCs).

These platforms developed by the government offer free access to everyone and host online courses from Class 9 to post-graduation.

According to the UGC, the Ministry of Education conducted an online survey last month which found that 70% of students from 338 institutions across 29 states have shown an interest in credit transfer facilities for SWAYAM courses. The UGC, citing the ministry’s survey to support its measures to promote online learning, noted that blended learning provided flexibility.

The UGC said all universities should adopt courses from the SWAYAM portal, “so that the student community can get maximum benefit”.

But Jha maintained the ministry’s survey results cited by the UGC could not be verified and that the ministry’s research methodology had not been revealed, adding the survey was conducted online where anyone can provide an opinion. He said there were serious questions about the survey’s class and caste bias.

Another DU professor who requested anonymity said physical infrastructure must be put in place first.

“We have already seen during the COVID period how poor students, especially those belonging to rural backgrounds, had to struggle due to lack of internet connections and erratic power supply.”

Technocrats above teachers

“Online classes cannot replace what teachers can do. The implementation of a blended mode of teaching-learning at universities would put technocrats above teachers and higher education institutions at the mercy of market forces,” he said.

Jogy Alex, president of All Kerala Private College Teachers’ Association, said that “the new policy was ‘anti-people’ and could create a situation where many students would be forced to leave their studies as they would not be able to get access to digital education”.

According to the Kolkata-based All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation, which represents some 600,000 teachers, “digital deprivation remains high in India and only a handful of colleges in the country are in the category of elite institutions and [most] lack adequate funding. In such a scenario the new policy would hurt the interest of all stakeholders”.

Expressing similar views, the Jadavpur University Teachers’ Association in West Bengal state said the majority of students in India do not have proper network connections, while 60% of all colleges and 40% of all universities in the country are in rural areas where internet connectivity is a big problem.

According to the Delhi University Teachers’ Association, a fairly high percentage of students from economically weaker sections or rural backgrounds do not have smartphones or access to the internet and many of them would be left with no other choice than to quit higher education.

Reduction in teaching posts

Another concern among teachers is that the switch to the digital mode will reduce the number of teaching posts.

Some believe the government wants to cut spending as an online teaching module can be repeated over a long period of time without requiring the physical presence of teachers in classrooms. Delhi University in particular points to 4,200 ad hoc teachers at the university whose jobs would be jeopardised.

Many educationists agree that online classes would reduce the teacher workload and put the future of large numbers of ad hoc teachers in higher education institutions in jeopardy as teachers would be replaced with uniform modules prepared through different platforms.

Students have also expressed similar apprehensions about blended learning.

Asfia Khalid, a student at Delhi University, said: “The new policy would keep students away from the campuses for a major part of their college years.”