Can’t go the distance on education if online choked

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Published: October 17, 2019 3:37:00 AM

Foolishly, we banned online education in 2015; the ban has now been lifted, but getting clearances is the problem

 homegrown ed tech firm Byju, byju net profit, byhu shares, byju funding, byju valuation, Coursera, EdX, IGNOU, distance learning india, online courses india, school of open learning, delhi university, University Grants Commission, National Assessment and Accreditation Council, naac, IIM Kolkata, SWAYAM portal If the government is serious about increasing the capacity of India’s education system to meet the country’s needs, it simply has to free up education-delivery

At a value of $5.5 bn, homegrown ed-tech firm Byju’s is probably among the most valuable in this space globally, and is a symbol of how quickly Indians are taking to online coaching; the fact that global universities have enrolled around one million Indians annually, using platforms like Coursera or EdX, symbolises the same trend.

That, of course, is hardly surprising given the changing nature of education globally, the fact that people need continuing education/re-skilling now since there is considerable uncertainty over how the jobs market is going to evolve, the fact that not that many people can afford to take 3-5 years off to complete a graduate/postgraduate degree, the high costs of a formal education, etc. What adds to the need for more online education in the case of a country like India is that the existing college/university system is bursting at the seams, and clearly cannot accommodate the country’s needs.

So, it is shocking that while India needs a lot more top-quality distance education, in 2015, the government banned online degree courses; what was allowed, though, was distance learning conducted through brick-and-mortar centres. An IGNOU could, for instance, offer courses through its learning centres, but a Delhi University couldn’t offer this through the kind of online way that Coursera does; the same rules, though, didn’t apply to non-degree courses of the type offered by Simplilearn.

The ostensible reason for the ban was that there were several fly-by-night firms giving out online degrees; but, since there are several such hole-in-the-wall institutions in the brick-and-mortar space as well, should all offline education be banned?

Fortunately, good sense prevailed and, last year, the University Grants Commission (UGC) decided to reverse the ban, and put out rules to allow universities/colleges, and other institutions to apply for permission to offer online classes for degrees. The problem is the conditions laid out are so onerous, they take away the flexibility associated with online education; the fact that none of the 35 universities that applied have got a clearance a year after the new rules were announced makes this clear.

So, for instance, the rules state that the higher educational institution offering the certificate/diploma/degree should have been in existence for at least five years, it must have a National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) score of at least 3.26 on a four-point scale, and at least one batch of students that has been offered this course must have passed out.

Even the length of the course is decided—minimum 6 months, with at least 20 credits for a certificate course, and one year (40 credits) for a diploma—and, at a time when a Coursera offers you complete flexibility in when the courses start/end, the UGC has specified the academic session shall begin from either July-August or January-February. And, in case an IIM Kolkata, by way of example, decides it wants to offer an existing course via the online mechanism, it needs to get UGC’s permission.

While the idea was to make online education easier, the rules make it clear the UGC prefers this be done through its SWAYAM portal; the rules allow “any other learning platform”, like a Coursera or an EdX, but this can be done only “after the same is approved by the expert committee after due verification”. Why add this extra layer of bureaucracy?

If the government is serious about increasing the capacity of India’s education system to meet the country’s needs, it simply has to free up education-delivery; and, instead of putting in all manner of pre-qualifications, why not allow the market to sift out good players from bad ones, and encourage more independent testing agencies—like those who conduct CAT and GMAT for students—which can help in this process?

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