India’s education sector needs a new avatar, a contemporary approach

(Note: The article was originally published in Economic Times.)

Everyone seems to be talking about disruption. Like “startup” and “funding”, “disruption” has become a part of our daily parlance and evinces a strong sentiment among the entrepreneurial enthusiasts.

We are seeing disruption across sectors and levels, all of which is helping us in reimagining the world around us. Education, meanwhile, is crying out for disruption, but is going unheard. It is a sector that is brimming with opportunities and waiting to be tapped with an innovative approach.

Need of the Hour

The question is, are our institutions and universities imparting knowledge for a world that does not exist anymore in its old avatar? And are all of us, specially our youth, becoming smarter learners? The answer for both these questions is a resounding “yes”.

India has the largest college-age population in the world — close to a staggering 125 million — but it is startling to know that less than one in five of them is doing their post-secondary education. This means only 20% of college-age youngsters are doing their higher education as opposed to 90% in the US. Will India be able to achieve its gross domestic product (GDP) growth targets at this rate? No. Will we need to double our participation rates in higher education in the next five-ten years? Yes

Can pure offline, brick-and-mortar college and university models fill this massive gap? Again, the answer is obvious. Look at the challenges. One, it takes four-eight years to set up one campus/university and at its peak it could cater to 5,000-10,000 students. Two, we need to have enough trainers and teachers to feed into these facilities, many of them in remote areas or away from cities. Three, the cumulative outlay at scale for private or public-private partnership (PPP) models to cater to the entire college-going population will be nothing short of $100 billion. Four, over half of this 125 million youngsters, I believe, will have compulsions to take up a job very early in life for socio-economic reasons and may not have the flexibility to go back to college after that.

In this scenario, online education can be the big disruptor for India. Of course, there will be myriad challenges, but it offers exponential solutions: it can reach the remotest parts of India, aggregate the best faculty as everyone from the offline world can participate with much less demand on their time and lastly our youth can stay in their jobs while continuing to learn.

Disruption in online education can be the answer to the gigantic challenge that India, called the youngest nation in the world, is facing. If we do not create equal opportunities and access to the best learning/upskilling/upgrading centres for our ambitious and aspiring youth, our demographic dividend can turn into a demographic debt. Skill India too has a goal to train over 400 million people by 2022 and this audacious outreach can be achieved only by radical disruptive thinking and bold execution. However, online will not succeed if it simply copies traditional teaching methodology. Online education should be more focused on professional education and post-graduation as those demographics look for flexibility and augmentation.

For early years and K-12, brick-and-mortar schools will continue to play a big role in the holistic development of the child and online education will only be a supplement.

Five-Year Plans

For online education to be disruptive and for it to succeed, education will have to be thought through as a digitalfirst medium. Technology will have to be integrated to create a superior learning experience on the online platform. Online education has to move away from being a glorified content library; it has to involve peer-to-peer discussions, alumni chats, group studies and more. It has to shed its reputation of providing isolated, individual learning platforms and evolve into a social platform where you are not learning alone but studying together with a lot of individuals.

Let’s come to terms with a few things. In the 21st century, what we learn will have less and less relevance after five years and hence there is a need for constant upgrade. Convergence of new forms of learning will be the fuel for and engine of economic growth. Universities need to develop programmes that are linked closely with employer demands. Otherwise, the results will be disastrous: while job seekers overspend on education programmes that are less likely to result in ideal employment opportunities, employers will be hiring poor fits.

We need to change the mindsets of multiple stakeholders — academia, companies, students, young professionals and, most important, families — because how we learn and who we learn from have transformed. Our dependence on experts and figures of authority has diminished while our ability to learn from each other has spiralled dramatically. All I can say is, I wish I was back in college today.

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