Column : End the distance learning apartheid

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SummaryA 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.

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 Agarwal’s 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 Council—India’s regulator for higher education delivered outside traditional classrooms—reinforced 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 (America’s 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 online—17% of students in its offered Harvard course in Health Quantitative methods are from India.

Coursera, a for-profit venture, has more than 2 million users—5% from India—and 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

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