Digital Universities in India: The time is now

The Indian Express and upGrad, India’s largest online higher education company, hosted a webinar titled ‘Digital Universities in India: The time is now’. It emphasised how India is poised to become a soft power with its immense possibilities for making digital universities a reality.

In the backdrop of the Union Government having set an ambitious target of 50 per cent Gross Enrollment Ratio in higher education by 2030, in the National Education Policy, will physical universities be enough on their own to reach the goal? 

To discuss this, The Indian Express and upGrad, India’s largest online higher education company, hosted a webinar titled ‘Digital Universities in India: The time is now’. 

With rising internet penetration and the need for availability, accessibility, affordability of quality higher education in India, digital universities are a real possibility. However, to make this vision of digital universities a reality, what is the support needed at the policy level? What are the building blocks of a digital university? Can it match the education quality of traditional, brick and mortar universities? 

The panelists for the webinar comprised Mayank Kumar, Co-founder & MD of upGrad; Prof M.V. Rajeev Gowda, a former Indian Member of Parliament – Rajya Sabha and ex-faculty at IIM Bangalore where he also headed the Centre for Public Policy and currently serves as Chairman of the “Congress Research Department”; and Prof Jagdish Sheth, a global thinker, Padma Bhushan awardee and a Charles H Kellstadt Professor of Business in the Goizueta Business School at Emory University, US.

Here are some key takeaways from the event:

The role of technology in scaling infrastructure to meet GER goals

Access to higher education remains a privilege to much of young India. Prof. Sheth stated, “The NEP document articulates very well the use of digital technology or remote learning to reach as many people as possible. Ultimately, the mission of a nation is to unlock the potential of its citizens.” As Mayank Kumar pointed out, to touch the 50 percent GER ratio, we need to add about 30 million additional seats, which calls for “almost a 300 billion dollar-plus investment”. 

This is where digital universities can fill the gap. He commented, “I personally am a product of the highly subsidised education system in India. We had campuses which were built at around 500 acres, and graduating about 5,000 to 10,000 students every year. We need graduates at millions and millions coming out. Can high quality education provide access and transform the way education is delivered, such that five years later we are talking about online education the same way as we talk about mobile phones today as compared to landline phones earlier?”

Prof. Gowda remarked, “It’s really very exciting to be involved at this very crucial revolutionary cusp and to be part of hopefully a dramatic new future that gives large numbers of people an opportunity to engage with the best of education.” 

 

Quality concerns and exposure to real-world experience with digital learning

While Prof. Gowda agreed that virtual universities provide access to the best professors worldwide, he raised concern about the lack of possible “immersion and engagement through cheering at the sports events, Friday nights at the local hangout, etc”. How do you make sure that people can still have networks and possibly some online-offline engagement? 

Kumar noted, “The world is evolving and a lot of things that we do on campus can be replicated online. Yes, perhaps, once in a month or a quarter, you can have a small meetup in Bengaluru, Delhi, Ambala or Kolkata where people can form a personal bonding. Teaching associates can make sure to have an industry connect. Prof. Sheth pointed out that besides campus life, which is important, research is a significant part of the university context, accompanied by experience. For community-level engagement, he recommended safaris or meetups that could be hosted at physical campuses. “Fulbright is a great model because there are hundreds of visitors from all over the world who go to different campuses,” he added.

On a lighter note, the panelists remarked that online dating proves that real life social connections are very much possible online.

The role of private enterprises in the digital education revolution

Prof. Gowda spoke about the concept of a regulatory sandbox to encourage the adoption of digital universities. He explained, “In some domains, let’s carefully create an opportunity for experiments for newer players to come in and prove themselves, rather than wait for 20 years before they can actually succeed. We need to be able to open up to private sector visionaries and ensure that very high quality education becomes accessible to much larger numbers.”

Kumar added, “What we are underestimating is that while there is capital expenditure required for building physical brick-and-mortar infrastructure, there’s an equal amount of investment required to take these learning experiences online, whether it is on content development building the right capabilities today.”

The role of the government in supporting digital universities

To address the digital divide, Prof. Gowda suggested that the government could play a role in creating co-working spaces or “co-studying” spaces with built-in technology. “Mobile vehicles that can go from one village to another and essentially provide access to those who are currently excluded or can’t even afford a smartphone. Of course, internet bandwidth is also a challenge.” He added, “More technologies that can do real-time translation to make it accessible to more youngsters everywhere or even older people coming back to learn. If you go to some of the well-established institutions (a lot of it in the public sector), they have a lot of space, so how can you parlay that space in every district quarter, in every smaller town, in the government colleges? Can you build in the infrastructure that will allow people to congregate and take part in a blended learning model? There’s so many things where the government can play an active role.” 

Kumar added, “While the government has its own online platform, they are also encouraging some other private platforms to come on board. The role of the government should be to create an environment where the best of all the worlds can come together, making sure that quality is maintained. There’s enough innovation happening in the country, it just needs the right channel where all of that can merge into a unique learning experience, backed by very strong technology that can take high quality education to scale. The, taking the gross enrollment ratio from the current 25 to 30 to 50 percent is going to be a much easier journey than what we are anticipating at this point.” 

The panelists mentioned how rising Internet penetration and smart device usage is driving a thriving edtech industry, with opportunities for LifeLongLearning and multi-lingual possibilities. The webinar emphasised how India is poised to become a soft power with its immense possibilities for making digital universities a reality.

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