Thursday, March 21, 2013

Will internet replace the universities?

Several millions of students will enter higher educational institutions in the next one decade. The Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) wants to double the gross enrolment ratio (GER) in higher education by 2020. The brick-and-mortar colleges in the country are not equipped to meet their needs. Many believe that with higher internet penetration, the demand for online education will grow radically in India. Some even believe that the traditional university system might not survive for long. Though the internet penetration in India is low, in numbers, the number of internet users in India (150 million) is second only to China (575 million) and the United States (275 million), and the numbers are growing radically.

The Indian government is trying to address these needs though the National Knowledge Network (NKN). In January, the National Innovation Council launched the National Knowledge Network (NKN) with a lecture series held at the Delhi University. This is the largest online education network in the country, with 955 institutions across India already connected to it to share their educational content online, using a high bandwidth network. It aims to connect nearly 1500 institutions in the future. The National Knowledge Network gives a bandwidth of 1,000 MB to every single university in India. It is up to the universities to decide whether they should put it to full use. Through the national knowledge network, the material in one university can be used by students in any other Indian university.

The Delhi University Vice Chancellor Dinesh Singh said that in the future, whether the students might get credits for the online courses they take will depend on the university. “In Delhi University, this will be done on a case by case basis. If you come with a structured proposal, the Delhi University will definitely give credit though I cannot predict a time frame.” he said.

Open online courses are not new in India. In 2011, the Indian government had launched The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), which made the lectures at 7 IITs (Indian Institutes of Technology) and IISc (Indian Institute of Science) Bangalore available online. In future, the other IITs and NITs (National Institutes of Technology) too are expected to be part of NPTEL, India’s largest technical knowledge dissemination programme.

In India, there are now many private players too in the online education sector. Edukart, an online education portal, for instance, has bachelor and master courses with degrees awarded by Mahatma Gandhi University, Meghalaya, and certificate courses with degrees issued by various industry bodies. “Online education is a better option for many students who prefer to work while studying because it is more flexible and affordable. We have come across students from every strata of the society though most students are in the 17-35 age range.” Ishan Gupta, the CEO of Edukart said.

Substantive advance, however, are likely to come not from within the country, or from traditional universities and outlets because it is not just the traditional universities which make books and lectures available online. The Internet Archive, a non-profit internet library founded in 1996 makes a large number of texts, audios and images available to scholars and the general public in digital format. The Internet archive has more than 30,00,000 free e-books.

The Khan Academy, a donor-supported not-for-profit founded in 2008, for instance, has over 4,000 free videos for students on a wide variety of subjects ranging from computer science to Arts history for school students. The Khan academy is immensely popular. The YouTube channel of the Khan Academy has more than 5,30,000 subscribers. The donors of Khan Academy include Google and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy is of Indian and Bangladeshi origins, and has multiple degrees from MIT and Harvard. But, he thinks that most Harvard Graduates would refuse if they are offered their fee back, on the condition that they are supposed to never mention their credentials anywhere.

Michael Spence, an American economist who won the Nobel Prize in 2001 for his work on information asymmetry had argued that though the intrinsic value of formal education is little, students will profit from attending college because employers value college degrees. Employers value college degrees because a formal degree signals a student’s intelligence, conscientiousness and conformity. Many believe that students who learn online are likely to be lacking in these traits.

But, Tyler Cowen, an economist dubbed as “America’s Hottest Economist” by Bloomberg Businessweek, thinks that the students of Khan Academy and other online universities are far superior to typical students. “I do not see their low conformity as a problem. Those are conscientious learners who are not quite satisfied with more traditional approaches. Students in India might get transfer credits from online universities abroad.” Cowen said.

Tyler Cowen had recently founded a free massive online open course (MOOC) platform which has a series on India. Delhi and Bangalore were among the top ten cities from which Cowen’s Marginal Revolution University’s course on development economics drew registrations. The reason is perhaps that Indian students find theoretically rigorous online material on development economics more appealing. It is almost impossible to access them through traditional routes. Cowen thinks that employers are already valuing online education and that it will have more acceptability when there are credits attached to it. He thinks that in the future, a hybrid model of education is more likely than students completely relying on online material.

Apart from online universities and private portals, there are internet libraries which make even recent works accessible., an internet library has 1,232,446 books available for free download, as of now. The Online library of Liberty run by Liberty Fund, a private, educational foundation has 1367 classics on economics, history, law, literature, philosophy, political theory, religion, which at times, go back more than four thousand years. The Mises Institute, a US think-tank in has made more than 600 e-books, videos and thousands of papers and articles accessible to students and scholars. It is many such non-tradition and relatively small portals that made countless otherwise inaccessible books in humanities presently within the reach of Indian students.

However, some believe that it is difficult to separate out the good from bad over the internet. Anyone can create a website and put content online. There is too much misinformation. There are many fraudsters who sell worthless degrees online. But, the DU VC Dinesh Singh said that such apprehensions are baseless. “Many otherwise wise, respectable, and sane people have reservations about online education. They think that there are quality issues. True enough. But, there are quality issues everywhere. If I put material on the web today, I can improve tomorrow. This process of improvement can go indefinitely.” he said.

Another strong criticism against online education is that the internet can never replace face to face interaction between students and the teacher and among students themselves. Tom Palmer, the Director of the educational arm of Cato Institute, one of the most influential think-tanks in the world thinks that it is difficult to learn many subjects over the internet. “There are many mathematicians who are self-taught. But, it is an invalid inference to say that teachers are not important. You have to distinguish pure mathematicians from people who learn mathematics to be an engineer. The internet cannot replace face to face interaction. It is also very taxing on the professor to reply to students on the internet.” Dr. Palmer said.

But, Bryan Caplan, a professor at George Mason University says that some internet forums offer more meaningful interaction than even elite universities. When Bryan Caplan was studying at University of California, Berkeley, he had a really difficult time finding students interested in discussing ideas though it was one of the most reputed elite public universities in the world. Caplan felt that even his professors at Princeton were quite narrow in their outlook, despite their high IQ’s. Caplan is presently working on a book, “The Case against Education“.

Caplan however thinks that the online education is very unlikely to replace traditional universities. “The first students to try online education will be the ones who are low in conformity, and that will affect how employers perceive online education. I am far from sure that online education will thrive in countries like India. But, when there is no well-established education system and when there is a high share of qualified yet uncredentialed workers, the stigma attached to unconventional degrees will be much lower,” he said. Caplan thinks that because of the stigma attached to not attending a college, students who study online instead of going to a brick-and-mortar university are likely to be very eccentric. Employers are likely to shun them because they also might have authority issues when they join the workforce.

Dinesh Singh, however, thinks that the low conformity of such students is an asset, and not a liability. “There is nothing wrong with a person who studies online. If you have a prejudice, you will look at someone and think that he is strange. If you do not have a prejudice, he can do anything and you will not think that he is strange. Everyone has their own quirks, and we should mind that at all.” Dinesh Singh said.

Many point out that what we call “the college experience” is a reality today only for a rare minority of students. Dinesh Singh thinks that with the low level of interaction in Universities today, the internet would not diminish the returns to students much either. “I had some good teachers and some very bad teachers. People say that the professor on the internet will never be like my Guru. But, how many such Gurus have we ever had? On the web, you can choose your professors.” Dinesh Singh said. “If the internet is going to replace Universities, perhaps books and VCR would have done it long ago. But, all of them had many problems, like no interactivity. With the internet there is more interactivity, and this model has a better chance of success.” He said.

In 2012, Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) had collaborated to launch, EdX, a not-for-profit enterprise that offers many classes of Universities like Harvard, MIT and Berkeley for free online. Other prestigious universities are soon likely to join. EdX also looks into how technology and the internet can transform learning in the future. But, even before the advent of such MOOC platforms of elite universities, there were several millions of online students across the world.

India’s online educational market itself is estimated to be over twenty billion US dollars and is growing very fast. Some expect it to double in the next five years.

Source: Business Standard (Online Edition), March 21, 2013

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