Column : End the distance learning apartheid

Updated: Jan 7 2013, 05:48am hrs
India and the world are moving in opposite directions in ODL. This makes our higher education system less inclusive

Manish Sabharwal & Paresh Vora

A few years ago the celebrations in Japan for the award of the Nobel Prize in Physics to a person of Japanese birth who lived in the US were cut short by his statement that he could not have done the work that won him the prize if he had stayed on in his home country. As the world recognises the pioneering work of MIT professor Anant Agarwals edX in using technology to challenge the traditional model of higher education, we must remember that edX would not be allowed to be set up in India because of regulatory cholesterol.

On November 1 last year, the Distance Education CouncilIndias regulator for higher education delivered outside traditional classroomsreinforced its dated regime by issuing a circular imposing territorial restrictions on online and distance learning (ODL) providers, restricting the simultaneous pursuit of two degrees by any student, and requiring distance courses to equalise the admission criteria and duration for distance courses with equivalent classroom delivery.

Rapid advancement in technology like ubiquitous broadband, cloud computing and social networking is combining with a hyperinflation in traditional college costs (Americas college debt of $1 trillion is its largest source of consumer debt), to trigger a Cambrian explosion of online higher education providers.

edX, a not-for-profit Harvard-MIT joint venture, recently received $60 million in funding to put their educational material online17% of students in its offered Harvard course in Health Quantitative methods are from India.

Coursera, a for-profit venture, has more than 2 million users5% from Indiaand offers 203 free courses from 33 universities including Stanford, Princeton and University of Pennsylvania.

Stanford is hedging its bets with online courses Venture Labs and Class2go (two internal platforms) besides Coursera.

Udacity, started by a former Stanford professor, offers 14 courses in statistics, software debugging, etc.

Khan Academy targets school children for maths and science with videos that have logged over 200 million page views.

The rise of online higher education raises interesting regulatory questions and issues. The 80 authorised agencies for higher education accreditation in the US have begun struggling with the alternate delivery of instruction (non-credit offerings to a universal audience), alternative approaches to instruction (a more modest faculty role with an expanded reliance on students), and alternative evaluation of learning (peer-to-peer grading, auto-grading, use of data analytics).

Despite these questions, the New York Times reported that a leading umbrella group for higher education, the American Council on Education, announced a pilot project with Coursera to determine whether some free online courses are similar to traditional college courses and should be eligible for credit. The councils credit evaluation process will assess students who successfully complete Coursera courses and if faculty deems the course worthy of academic credit, students could pay a fee for supervised exam. While colleges are not required to accept these credits, such credits are already accepted by around 2,000 US colleges and universities for training courses offered by US armed forces and employers. The Bill and Melinda Gates foundation recently approved 12 learning grants to support the integration of these online courses in community colleges to increase competition.

Distance learning in India is dominated by IGNOU (2.8 million students) and also offered by 200 state and private universities. The total number of higher education students in ODL is 6 million but could be much higher if innovation was allowed to flourish by rebooting our regulatory regime. Today, multiple regulatory bodies (Distance Education Council, state education departments, University Grants Commission and All India Council for Technical Education) are involved. For some state universities wanting to innovate with hybrid models, the Governor has to give consent for every remote centre opened. The ability to manage multiple regulatory approvals outweighs the quality, innovation or investment to improve student learning outcomes. The restriction of ODL providers to state boundaries while our students are free to flock to international offerings seems silly, unfair and wasteful.

India needs a single regulatory body for ODL in higher education to achieve its true potential. This body should also approve new dedicated ODL institutions up to universities and also accredit programmes under distance education from dedicated ODL institutions or traditional universities. Not only should dedicated ODL institutions be evaluated differentlynot on the poor proxies like land, building etcbut the regimes for online and distance learning must converge.

Many sceptics among academics and employers believe that online and distance education has poorer signalling and learning value than a physical classroom. Many of the current ventures will failthe president of Stanford agrees that we all know that technology will change education but we dont know exactly how. But this will change as online providers compete and employers recognise that many students are using ODL to self-certify (create signalling value for skills that already exist).

Global online higher education providers are free to serve Indian citizens; India must allow its existing and new higher education providers to freely serve all Indians. This means public policy must allow a number of genetically diverse and statistically independent tries in ODL because some of them will overcome our impossible trinity of cost, quality and scale. And this may be how we add another 15 million students to our higher education enrolment.

The authors are with Teamlease Services