Online learning’s tremendous potential to positively transform education may get marred if the e-learning market doesn’t overcome the existing barriers. Government initiatives, resource mobilization, and change in people’s mindset are crucial for edtech companies to flourish in India.
Human capital is the most important asset for development of any country. Education and health are the two sectors which act as an investment in generating human capital. Ironically, these are the two sectors which continue to face large shortages of skilled professionals like teachers and doctors. While there is a shortage of an estimated 6 lakh doctors in the country, over 10 lakh teaching posts at school level remain vacant across the country.
These figures are troublesome for an emerging economy, whose fortune depends heavily on optimally using the human capital. The service industry in the era of globalization is surpassing the production and manufacturing sector in terms of revenue generation. A population of skilled manpower can help India leverage this trend in its favor to become an economic power.
Education in India is at crossroads of whether to adopt technology or negate its impact by being indifferent. While the former is desirable and indispensable in view of the sweeping changes being brought by technology, latter will only push us into a regressive scenario. Online education can be a solution to a myriad of problems surmounting the education system today.
For example, lack of quality teachers, non-relevance to market needs, and inability to educate all are some of the noticeable issues that can be addressed through online learning. Moreover, deficiencies like focus on rote learning rather than thinking skills, no individualization, and not preparing learners for 21st century life’s challenges can be overcome through adoption of online education.
Expanding Online Learning in India: Overcoming Barriers
The e-learning market is expanding itself in the country with a projected USD 2 billion revenue in 2021. However, the growth may be over and above that projection. There is no looking back towards a retrograde model and technology is sure to stay here. The affordability of smartphones and 3G/4G technology among the general public is a testimony to its inevitability. The focus, however, should be on how to overcome the barriers which are hindering the reach of online education into the masses.
Let’s discuss the 10 major barriers which online education must overcome to really become profitable for all the stakeholders.
1. High familiarity with the traditional education environment
The conventional F2F mode has been in place for centuries. People are familiar with this method of teaching and learning since ages. This creates a psychological barrier to adhere to the old system and prevents them from choosing something new and unfamiliar. Presence of a school/college building and teachers enable the learners to perceive the system on the surface even if it is dysfunctional on the inside.
On the other hand, visualizing online education seems inconceivable. In order to remove this barrier, more and more awareness need to be infiltrated through mass level campaigns and advertisements.
2. Formal recognition and accreditation to online learning
Until a year ago, i.e. before UGC regulations (Online courses or Programs) Regulations 2018, the country didn’t have any guidelines on online courses in higher education. Limited number of seats in Govt. colleges and a high number of vacancies of university level teachers are compromising the quality of education. This lacuna manifested in mushrooming of sub-standard private colleges and institutions promising learners what public institutions couldn’t.
Online courses could have been an alternative but were lagging due to uncertainty on its recognition and credibility. Now with these regulations, online learning is expected to gain acceptance among the learners. Similar initiatives from the accreditation bodies can further boost the confidence of online takers in the market.
3. Dependence on Internet and digital devices
By its definition, online learning is a process of transaction of teaching-learning through internet and World Wide Web via digital devices. This necessitates the availability of a high bandwidth internet and a digital device like a desktop, a laptop, or a smartphone. Some parts of the country are still struggling to get continuous supply of electricity and other basic amenities.
In spite of the visible obstacles, the deeper penetration of smartphones and internet in the country is commendable in the past decade. It is estimated that smartphone users will rise to 735 million and internet penetration will reach 31 percent by 2021 which is a good omen for online education industry. Most Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities learners access online courses through smartphones indicating a move towards mobile learning. The urban-rural divide in terms of developmental initiatives can also be diminished with the help of a digital revolution.
4. Language barrier
In a country as diverse as India, the use of local and vernacular languages will always have an upper edge in providing relevant education. Most of the online courses use English as language medium which though suits Tier-1 &2 cities but may not be apt for Tier-3 cities, towns, and rural areas. The e-learning companies must take this factor into consideration while trying to tap the market. Incorporating multiple vernacular languages or translated sub-titles will be a good step towards increasing the reach and popularity of online courses.
5. Technological preparedness
Online courses require a certain level of technology know-how. The usage of basic operations and ability to navigate through pages is crucial in order to optimize online learning. Technology has still not percolated many of the remote and rural areas which is creating digital divide in the country. Many first generation learners have a technology phobia and show apprehension in choosing an online course.
Such barriers can be removed through a strong support system and a little guidance to the learners on how to move through the online course. Also, an easy to use interface and simple templates/designs makes learners comfortable with using technology. In fact, one of the many benefits of online learning is that it also provides learner the technological skills as a by-product.
6. Lack of awareness on benefits of online learning
Online learning is still at a nascent stage in India and many people are completely unaware of this mode. Even if some information has reached them, still they cannot figure out the relevance/advantages of doing an online course. Lack of information is a major barrier which can again be overcome only through right information reaching to the potential learners.
For instance, Toppr, the e-learning company dealing in K-12 category, utilized offline counselors to provide right information to the doorstep of the learner and this yielded good results in the form of rise in paid users especially from Tier-2 cities.
7. Open educational resources (OER)
OERs are freely accessible teaching-learning resource in any form like text, audio, video available on the internet under creative commons licensing. Numerous other educational materials are also freely available on the internet. A learner can use them for learning a concept without paying anything. In such a scenario, online courses has this challenge to offer much more to the learners than just a repository of learning content.
Many online courses are based on the freemium model where the learning content is freely accessible but the mock tests/test series and personalized features are paid. An ideal online learning environment must be strategically planned, interactively delivered, and guide a learner as per individual needs.
8. Cost and digital payments
Along with the cost of online course, also comes the cost of a digital device and internet connectivity. Though the overall cost of online courses are lower than that of conventional ones, particularly the privately run educational institutes, it can be lowered further through economies of scale. A positive trend has emerged in Tier-2 cities; in many segments, there are more users than are in metros or tier-1 cities.
Increased disposable income and dearth of quality education providers have led to such adoption. The option of digital payment is still not preferred in many of the places. So, need to establish offline touch points for cash payment must be included by the e-learning companies. Moreover, cost affordability and provision of scholarships can accelerate growth of online learning.
9. Disengaging learning material leading to lowered motivation
Online courses ought to have elements of interactivity, collaboration, instant feedback, and personalization. These are essential for increased engagement and motivation. In absence of these elements, online learning may perform worse than the conventional mode because of isolation of learners from teacher, peers, and the institute.
It is therefore inevitable for the e-learning companies to continuously work on technology and pedagogy to provide best learning experience. Sub-standard and poor quality online course material can be detrimental at an early stage when e-learning has just started booming.
10. Lack of skilled manpower for developing quality online courses
Behind an online course is an entire team of course designer, course developer, subject matter expert, technology expert, graphic designer, etc. who work collaboratively to build an OLE. Lack of qualified professionals and skilled manpower leads to the issue of a poor quality online course mentioned in the previous point. As the e-learning industry flourishes, more suitable people will see career avenues in this industry, but e-learning companies are struggling on this front for the time being.
Enabling Policy Environment
A little thrust in the form of favorable policies and regulation regarding online courses will go miles in ensuring emergence of a viable means of quality education to everyone. The Govt. is foremost regulator and its policies go a long way in ensuring smooth progress of a sector by lending credibility and acceptance across public and industries.
The Govt.’s own digital learning initiatives like SWAYAM and UGC’s regulations for the use of online learning in higher educations have provided an enabling atmosphere, at least for a start. Things are likely to improve more in future. On part of the e-learning companies, resource mobilization, awareness campaigns and their incessant effort towards improving the quality of course delivery via technologically sound online learning platforms are the demand of the present times.
Technology has made our routine tasks convenient, then why leave education out of technology’s purview and not let it become easy, convenient and more interesting! The digital natives born in this century cannot learn by old monotonous ways of conventional education. They are peculiarly distinct from the older generations by virtue of being born in a digital age. Tremendous technology exposure has made them smarter, more curious, responsive and interactive. Thus, online education is the future of learning and is all set to bring a major transformation in the education world.