Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Leapfrogging Growth And Prosperity: Leveraging Technology In Indian Higher Education

Digital-based technologies will allow students from every strata of society and from every socioeconomic background to get high-quality locally-relevant education

Published: Jul 23, 2014 06:02:57 AM IST
Updated: Jul 21, 2014 07:27:27 AM IST
Professor Kriti Jain, IE Business School, Spain
Professor Kriti Jain, IE Business School, Spain

We have been excited by the prospect of India having a young force of 400 million skilled and knowledge workers within next 10 years contributing in every human endeavour! The very thought of so many high quality teachers, nurses, engineers, doctors, scientists, geneticists, administrators, computer programmers, researchers, etc. straddling across the globe sends the adrenalin gushing. India, with the world’s largest population of under 35 years, is at the cusp of ‘once in a millennium’ opportunity. To take a perspective, the number of youth below 35 years is more than the population of entire Europe and whole of USA.

Given this opportunity and background, we set up a research design to study the technological-digital readiness at both the macro - Government and educational institutions – and the micro – faculty and students – levels. Our findings in many ways are an eye-opener. During our year-long study, we surveyed and interviewed various stakeholders in the Indian education system. To summarize our findings, it is quite strange that the education sector in India has remained largely untouched by disruptive digital and visualization technologies that have transformed most other industries and sectors. It is ironic since those born after 1990s are extremely comfortable with mobile smart phones and usage of social media (addressed as digital-born), while the senior faculty members do not yet seem to be comfortable with these technologies (digital-migrant educators). The study shows a glaring mismatch even at the level of elite Institutions between expectations of young generation and actual delivery by the educators. The following paragraphs summarize our findings and our recommendations to the academic planners and administrators.

Fortunately for India, the young population has arrived at the time when a simultaneous web-based, technology-driven ‘knowledge-information-innovation’ (KII) paradigm is exploding at the seams. The KII paradigm creates disruptive possibilities by using various low-cost, open-sourced technologies to create top end content, and non–linear delivery mechanisms. The academic community, globally, has begun experimenting with these KII models too. As an example, the massive-open-online-courses (MOOCs) such as Coursera and Udacity have been lauded for their potential to reach millions of learners who are not enrolled in colleges and universities.

The learning habits and preferences of Indian students are undergoing big changes. Students are becoming impatient learners – they need fast, interactive, animated content. In a country where the ‘guru-shishya parampara’ (teacher-student relationship) is placed on the highest pedestal, it is intriguing to see students becoming critical of the teaching styles and practices.  There is a lingering suspicion amongst the academia towards adopting new interactive technologies and pedagogies. The faculties and administrators are largely happy with the teaching and learning methods developed in the Western world in the fifteenth-century with the introduction of printed text-books and ink-based pens. Academic classrooms are still staid and listless whereas the new technologies can not only make learning exciting but also accelerate it infinite times. A 3D color video of the structure of human DNA in about half a minute one can demonstrate and teach something which a typical blackboard lecture cannot do in 50 minutes. The students know and understand this difference. Was it not for the policy of compulsory attendance, students would happily skip the boring old-fashioned classroom teaching and instead watch lessons on YouTube.

The Government of Indian has initiated technology-based learning methods under its National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) program. However, the results have, at best, been modest. Sakshat programme sought to crowdsource expertise in different educational colleges across the country for generating web-based content. The resulting database and content was to be freely available to all other educators and student community. The government provided generous funds. However, majority of these projects still remain incomplete even after 4-5 years of funds release, due to numerous reasons including constraints in technical expertise of the faculty.

Professor Arun Kumar Jain, Indian Institute of Management, India
Professor Arun Kumar Jain, Indian Institute of Management, India

National Program of Technology Enhances Learning (NPTEL) - a government funded online portal that provides free engineering and science courses led by the Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) – has evoked mixed reactions. The experiment has helped faculty members of remotely-located educational institutions in designing and imparting courses based on these lectures and videos. However, the rapidly-evolving, globally-competitive environment has created new challenges. Students who can now access high-quality 3D, and interactive content elsewhere, are getting dissatisfied with NPTEL videos. Furthermore, in a country where examinations and grades are central concerns of students, synchronization of video content with different regional syllabi and different languages is key to long-term involvement and deeper engagement.

In a networked world, blending technology with human creativity can bridge the digital divide and ensure demographic dividends. These technologies can deliver content in real-time to far-off regions allowing students to study at their time of choosing (speed), and provide economies of scale (once content is created it is a permanent asset and can be accessed by anyone, anytime). New technologies allow that the same standard content can be localized and delivered in local dialect (economies of scope).

Without doubt, this vision requires an integrated policy-strategy-execution interface and a collective will-power. Universities cannot live and act with a ‘business-as-usual’ approach. The Federal structure of India where higher education is largely a state subject makes it complex. Unique execution models are needed to provide such coordination between Central and State Universities. The role of Central Universities should be to act as role models for excellent teachers, focused researchers, and training of teachers. The faculty in these Institutions should be expected to keep themselves abreast with the latest research in their respective domains. The Institutions should be the catalytic agents for improving the overall standards of the SUs and provide a common platform of education and infrastructure resources.

The State Universities can create new value and meaning for skills and value-added education through focus on the 3Ss (scale, scope, and speed). The role and function of State Universities (SUs) is crucial in not only extending and promoting higher education in far-off regions (from Delhi) but also train and develop manpower for local industries and capacity building. Given the cultural diversity and richness in India, SUs ought to be the paragons for promoting discourses and job-oriented skills in local dialect and languages.

Digital-based technologies will allow students from every strata of society and from every socioeconomic background to get high-quality locally-relevant education. The beckoning demographic dividend has a flip side – the window is open only for a decade or so before the youth becomes middle-aged and remains uneducated, unskilled and largely unproductive! The challenge is huge - currently about 25 million youth are college-going in India (with a gross enrolment ratio of about 15%) whereas the potential requirement is to educate about 250 million young people. The usual linear models (setting up more colleges for more youth) cannot cope up with infrastructural, faculty, and resources challenges. The question is who will do it and how can it be done? Drastic situations require disruptive solutions.

[This research paper has been reproduced with permission of the authors, professors of IE Business School, Spain]