Technology enhanced learning in India: shared perspectives and common challenges

Courtesy of an invitation from the British Council India, I joined a delegation of academics and learning managers from UK universities, which visited Indian public and private higher education institutions in Gujarat state between 22nd – 26th February. The trip provided an opportunity to share our collective experiences of using digital technologies in support of teaching and learning with Indian colleagues and to discuss strategies for the effective delivery of fully online and blended learning courses.

The visit concluded with a two-day seminar on teaching-learning and new technologies in higher education in New Delhi (programme here – pdf; full report here – pdf), an event jointly organised by the British Council India, the Centre for Policy Research in Higher Education and the National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NEUPA). The British Council refers to these types of events as Global Education Dialogues, and the list of invited participants fully justified this description, with institutional leaders and senior academics from Indian institutions joined by colleagues from South Asia (Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Afghanistan), Asia (Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand), North America and Europe.

The seminar was designed to enable a wide range of speakers to give brief reports on their experiences engaging with teaching and learning development, with the aim of promoting dialogue and sharing of practice across national HE sectors. What struck me were the common challenges that all national sectors are facing in satisfying the growing demand for access to higher education, with the drive towards expanding provision in sustainable and equitable ways.  Clearly though there are differences in terms of the scale of the challenges being addressed and this is particularly true when comparing the UK with India.

Representatives from NEUPA reported that the number of students in higher education in India has risen rapidly from 9.95 million in 2002-2003 to 33.3 million in 2014-15, and yet this only scratches the surface of the demand for access to university courses. The Indian government has plans to grow their enrolment ratio to 30%, which would mean 17 million more aspirants wishing to be enrolled over the next five years. These are mind-boggling figures compared with the UK sector.  The Indian government is already committed to establishing 250 additional universities and 9,000 colleges, but even if these targets are met NEUPA estimates that there will still be 100 million youths of eligible age (18-23) who will be waiting for opportunities to enter higher education. Demand is particularly acute in rural areas, where a lack of connectivity to internet and basic IT services compounds the problem, with no opportunity to leverage external online resources. Interestingly by way of comparison, Bangladesh is tackling this problem by investing in fibre-optic cabling across the country to support high-speed connectivity to drive development and educational provision

Putting the issue of scale to one side, a number of concerns were raised by Indian delegates relating to the massification of HE provision, which we have certainly heard before in the UK. Attention to the quality of educational provision was one theme constantly mentioned, with concerns over widening participation and the perceived knock-on effects of the lowering of academic standards. Speakers highlighted the increasing diversity of the undergraduate population through the entry of non-traditional students from neighbouring states to institutions, which was framed as a potential risk to academic standards.  With rising enrolments delegates were also concerned about the future role of universities – that they might turn into examination factories acting as examination bodies for colleges, with little time left to focus on developing students as learners.

Another discussion theme addressed the role of private providers of education – a development we have seen in UK HE with the deregulation of the market and entry of publishing organisations such as Pearson as providers of undergraduate education.  The stake of private providers in the Indian market is far greater though – accounting for 62% of institutions – although 90% receive funding from the state to support their teaching and enrolment activities.  There may well be a growing role for commercial ‘for profit’ organisations in the future to service this demand for higher education, if public funding cannot keep pace with demand for places at ‘brick and mortar’ universities.  In this sense fully online courses could play a bigger part in the mix of tertiary education provision with new learning models emerging, assuming that the connectivity and online access issues can be successfully resolved.

In terms of the current educational mix in India, from what I could gather distance learning in its current guise is still viewed as the poorer relation to campus-based teaching, with awards not viewed as of equal worth to campus-based degrees. Of the distance learning that is taking place, it is largely of the postal communication variety through the use of hard copy study resources, and online delivery of distance learning courses has not yet been established on a national scale.  Arguably though, from a capacity building perspective, online provision offers the most scalable way of increasing access to education to aspiring students – both at undergraduate and higher degree levels. There was certainly plenty of interest shown by Indian delegates in Prof. Don Passey’s presentation on Lancaster University’s model of virtual doctorates  – see  TEL PhD programme in E-Research and Technology Enhanced Learning  as an example of this approach.

Presentations from Prof. Neil Morris (Leeds) and Kyriaki Anagnostopoulou (Bath) on MOOCs also sparked some lively debate on their value in supporting student learning. Delegates were invited to consider how MOOCs might influence the way that academics teach campus-based students – offering learners a different way of engaging with core study resources which,  in turn, could free up academics’ time for other types of teaching and engagement activities with students. Inevitably there were also concerns over how existing university ordinances could be adapted to recognise MOOC awards for online courses in the future. This challenge is attracting equal attention in the UK sector, with FutureLearn partner institutions such as Leeds about to offer credits for their MOOC courses, based on the completion of formal assessments, which will require these programmes to be quality assured to the same standard as their conventional programmes.

It would be wrong though to give the impression that there are no open education initiatives going on in India – there is indeed a presence in India and a platform to build from. An e-courseware initiative is under way involving a consortium of 77 institutions looking to develop 12,000 separate modules to support a hybrid approach to campus-based study. Conceivably these resources might be repurposed to support MOOC formats.  Other Indian institutions have already taken that next step and are offering free online courses.  The Indian Institute of Technology at Guwahati offers free online certification courses to students and is recognised as a centre of excellence for science and maths education. As part of our Gujarat state visit, we also visited the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, which has put together an open course on design to help prepare potential applicants for admission to its conventional campus-based programmes, with thousands of applicants each year chasing a few hundred places on their courses. This initiative has drawn on the combined input of lecturers across all of its taught programmes in terms of the production of recorded lectures and individual study activities exploring different dimensions of design, and aims to level the recruitment playing field so that all applicants receive the same preparation – an enlightened and student-focused strategy which they hope will lead to better recruitment decisions.

This leads us neatly on to the core theme of the seminar – the impact of technology on teacher-student relationships and consequences for pedagogy in higher education. Again, familiar concerns were raised about the pressure on academics to adopt technology, which was perceived by some as an attack on academic freedom: although this was not defined as a term, it’s a fair assumption that this relates to the freedom to determine personal teaching methods and the appropriate tools to support those methods, rather than have them imposed on staff. Sceptics highlighted the associated risks with technology, not least the degrees of separation in managing online interactions with students – the invisibility of students in the virtual space and their perceived anonymity in online discussion. Notably the counter argument of the anonymity of individual students in large cohorts for campus-based classes was not addressed, nor really the freedom of students to exploit technology as a medium for coursework and interactions with academic staff at the seminar.

Underlying the debate was an interesting discourse on the role of the modern academic as knowledge expert or learning manager, facilitating active learning opportunities for students. This was the focus of my presentation, showcasing how learning technologies have been employed at the University of York to engage students in collaborative and student-led teaching and discovery- based learning. It was a theme explored by a number of other speakers.

My presentation also discussed the need for greater support to academics in the development of active learning designs and the digital skills to support these activities. The perceived lag between teaching practice and technological innovation was highlighted as a key barrier to pedagogic development by a number of speakers. The Indian Institute of Technology at Guwahati has tackled this issue by establishing virtual classes for in-service training, which the speaker boldly announced would lead to the “virtual dissolution of the physical boundaries of the institution”.  Other Indian institutions have framed the digital divide as a division between older academics and new entrants to the profession and are looking at ‘vertical training’ initiatives, bringing together junior and senior colleagues together to teach other as part of a mentoring initiative. As a reference point from a different national HE context, Thomas Sork from the University of British Columbia (Canada) offered some interesting insights into how innovation in academic practice is being supported in his institution, highlighting the communities of practice that they have set up across the institution, as well as the formal training through their Scholarship of Educational Leadership in Research-Intensive University Contexts, for which academics are nominated by their faculty deans and if accepted on to the programme, receive a scholarship to support their participation and professional development – a more resource-intensive but interesting model for professional development.

These are just some of the highlights of a fascinating visit to India, which provided many networking opportunities and a valuable space to reflect on strategies for the embedding of technology enhanced learning from a variety of national and organisational perspectives. My sincere thanks to the British Council India team for arranging the trip and co-hosting a stimulating international seminar.


Blog post cover image licenced under Creative Commons by 8 Kome on Flickr:

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