These Regulations lay down the minimum standards for granting the certificate or diploma or degree through online mode.

India Warms-up to Online Education, Initiates Regulatory Framework

UGC’s recent circular inviting higher educational institutions (HEIs) to submit applications for offering online programs is one more little step towards substantially embracing the e-learning in higher education.

On January 4, 2019, the University Grant Commission (UGC), the higher education regulator in India, invited applications from HEIs for offering online programs/course from 2019-20 session. The last date of application was further extended via two later circulars on February 15 and April 1. These recent steps by the regulator reaffirms its regulatory decision taken last year in July 2018 in the form of the University Grants Commission (Online Courses or Programs) Regulations, 2018.

Why are these Regulations important for e-learning community? The Regulations are a crucial step in the direction of establishing an accredited e-learning industry in future. These Regulations lay down the minimum standards for granting the certificate or diploma or degree through online mode. The authorization of online courses to grant degrees and certificate was hitherto missing, creating a trust deficit in learners for such courses. However, with the new UGC regulations, online courses in higher education will no longer suffer such skepticism on learners’ behalf. Moreover, the Regulations are to expedite the growth of OLEs in higher education category, which was lagging behind others like school supplemental education, corporate training, and reskilling.

The Regulations are to expedite the growth of OLEs in higher education category, which was lagging behind others like school supplemental education, corporate training, and reskilling.

Increased Cognizance of E-Learning’s Potential by Govt.

The potential of e-learning in democratizing education with low marginal cost has been pulling the Govt. for a while. Despite traditional institutional structure being averse to the idea of e-learning, the concepts has been steadily making inroads into the regulatory psyche. The Govt. earlier in January 2018 mandated 15 percent of universities to offer non-technical degrees and certificates through online mode. This mandate later formed the ground for the UGC Regulations in July 2018.

In July 2017, the Govt. launched indigenously developed MOOCs platform SWAYAM for educational institutions. The universities and institutions were allowed to put up to 20 percent courses in a program on SWAYAM. Later UGC and AICTE through separate notifications enabled the credit transfer facility up to 20 percent from SWAYAM to other modes. Today over 1700 courses are available on SWAYAM and around 100 universities have come forward in accepting credit transfer for online courses done on the platform. These are small but reassuring trends and portends well for elevating e-learning to a higher plane.

The fallacy to replicate the offline experiences on online medium has made them misconstrue the true spirit of e-learning. Both medium being different have different learning experiences to offer, none being superior or inferior.

The proponents of brick-and-mortar system of education have been quite vocal in their rejection of online environment as a viable mode of learning, many of their reasons being vague and subjective experiences. Their comparison of institutional system with OLE is banal and is mostly based on their stereotypical notion of ‘valid educational experiences attained in the regular mode’. The fallacy to replicate the offline experiences on online medium has made them misconstrue the true spirit of e-learning. Both medium being different have different learning experiences to offer, none being superior or inferior. The context and need are also distinctly placed for each. So, any effort to make one resemble the other is not only ill-judged, but will also undermine the substantial benefits that might be accrued from OLE in future.

However, the Govt. is not as much apprehensive as these institutions are in trying e-learning as an alternative mode of instruction provision. The advocates of offline learning are mostly perceiving e-learning as a threat to their survival (an absolutely wrong idea), whereas the Govt. sees it as an opportunity to democratize education and increase learners’ participation in the education system.

The Govt. desires to increase the gross enrollment ratio (GER) (to 30 percent by 2020 from 25.2 percent currently) and considers OLEs as a potent vehicle to actualize the goal. Education institutions, regulators and policymakers are not so convergent in their approach towards e-learning, however the Govt. through mandates are slowly prodding them to align their visions. Had it been already so, the pace of growth of e-learning would have been faster!

The Govt. desires to increase the gross enrollment ratio (GER) (to 30 percent by 2020 from 25.2 percent currently) and considers OLEs as a potent vehicle to actualize the goal.

The Regulation: Limited yet Welcome!

Now that UGC has invited applications from HEIs for offering courses online as per its 2018 Regulations, it would be worthwhile to look into the salient features of these regulations vis-à-vis eligibility criteria, application for online courses, approval process, operation of courses, course monitoring and renewal, quality assurance, and faculty and staff requirements.

As per the Regulations, HEIs offering such courses should be at least five-year old and accredited by NAAC with min. score of 3.26 on a 4-point scale. These HEIs should be in Top-100 in NIRF for at least two years. HEIs can offer online program in only those disciplines which it’s offering in regular, open, or distance mode. Moreover, courses requiring laboratory work can’t be conducted online. These clauses in the Regulations look quite restrictive in nature, and may not let all to try their luck in this innovative medium. But, remember that these regulations are emanating from a system which still swears by the orthodox structure, mostly institution-centric where learners are kept at the receiving-end of decision-making.

These clauses in the Regulations look quite restrictive in nature, and may not let all to try their luck in this innovative medium. But, remember that these regulations are emanating from a system which still swears by the orthodox structure…

A clause also states that HEIs may also offer certificate, diploma, or degree courses in full-fledged online mode on condition that the courses are approved by a statutory body of HEIs and that the courses conforms quality standards specified under these regulations. Now, that’s a breather! This will allow HEIs to experiment with new courses, may be learner-centric and more customized to today’s needs. The approval part is still a hassle, but necessary one to make the decision more participatory and quality-oriented.

The online content has to have minimum four quadrants, viz. video lectures, e-content, self-assessment, and a discussion forum. This is easily achievable now as most of the platforms have gone much beyond these basic provisions. So, preparing such courses for SWAYAM shouldn’t be any problem.

Many questions about the sanctity of OLEs in conducting cheating-free examinations have been raised in the past. Though advancements in the field of AR and biometric scan have made cheating or unfair means unlikely in online programs, the regulations allay such doubts by adding a provision that online exams should be proctored, i.e. will be conducted in presence of invigilators.

Most importantly, the certificates and degrees so provided would be treated as corresponding degrees of regular institutions. This is the most significant aspect of the regulations paving the way for online courses to be treated at par with other modes as far as certifications and accreditation are concerned.

This is the most significant aspect of the regulations paving the way for online courses to be treated at par with other modes as far as certifications and accreditation are concerned.

A More Collaborative Structure

The recent state of affairs certainly augurs well for the future of e-learning industry in India. The regulatory measures taken by UGC indicates a time when other regulators too would be lapping up the idea. This also foretells that the day isn’t far when the existing educational structure would be disrupted for good. There would be more collaborative public-private educational structure in place where entrepreneurs, investors, academics, and policymakers may be seen working in sync. The role of HEIs would also undergo considerable change in terms of measuring the performance of higher education.

There would be more collaborative public-private educational structure in place where entrepreneurs, investors, academics, and policymakers may be seen working in sync.

If online courses are validated with recognized certificates, they will be gain further recognition among learners, industry, and other employment providers. Today such online courses are doing well only in those quarters where the recognition is accorded by the industry mostly based on the merit of such courses in the absence of any formal recognition by a regulator.

Online courses for corporate training and up-skilling, where the need isn’t to gain a degree or diploma, seem to be doing quite well. E-learning is also working its way up when it’s considered as supplementing the mainstream education. But, this scenario is likely to change with the Regulations which allow these courses to be recognized with a certificate, degree or diploma.

The Regulations have also laid down specific clauses about operation of courses, course monitoring and renewal, quality assurance, and faculty and staff requirements. Here the role of private sector will become prominent, and the goals like quality and staff training wouldn’t be possibly achieved without public-private collaboration. In the deployment of technology like course platforms, student support, etc. also the role of private enterprises would be prominent.

On the whole, these conservative-looking regulations are good omen for the e-learning industry, and for the whole learning community with more inclusiveness and skilling opportunities, which are glaringly lacking in the existing offline education. These courses will also succeed in addressing the employability issue to an extent.

Dhananjay K. Singh

    Dhananjay K. Singh is a physics graduate and a seasoned copy-editor with over 10 years of writing-editing experience in various fields of publication. His prolonged association with the publishing industry enlivened him to changing dynamics of teaching and learning which in turn have had an indelible bearing on the field of publication. The strong imprint of web-based technologies on education made him explore the swiftly emerging e-learning, which later became his primary subject of writing-editing.

    Dhananjay K. Singh has 10 posts and counting. See all posts by Dhananjay K. Singh

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