"The right mix of government and free market strategy can get
distance learning to bridge that critical skill gap between graduates
and jobs." writes Prithwis Mukerjee, engineer by education, a programmer by passion and a teacher by profession, Praxis Business School, Kolkata.
Distance learning using the internet, that allows students anywhere in the country to learn from the best teachers, is old news. We have heard of Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) popularised by Coursera and Udemy, applauded the good work done by the Khan Academy and proudly talk about the gigabytes of— rather boring—videos on Youtube by IIT professors under the NPTEL programme. But none of this has had any impact on the critical skill gap that separates students who graduate from India’s colleges from the jobs that await them in a booming economy.
Institutions like IITs, IIMs, NITs, Presidency University and others may be doing well, but there are another 600 degree-granting institutions with more than 35,000 affiliated colleges that have lost the plot completely. Most of these have inadequate infrastructure, teachers who are barely competent or rarely in the classroom, outdated syllabi and an academic atmosphere vitiated by student politics. And yet it is to colleges like these that nearly two crore students—potential contributors to India’s demographic dividend—have to turn to, to realise their dreams of getting a bachelor’s degree.
Reforming college education in India is beyond the ability of mere mortals. A complex mess of policy, bureaucracy, corruption, hypocrisy, xenophobia and old-fashioned stupidity ensures that modern management techniques cannot be used. Private investors are not allowed to make profits from education but are harassed for bribes by venal regulatory bodies, and the government has neither the means nor the ability to deliver. So, instead of platitudes about “revamping the system”, let us explore an alternate architecture that will deliver education and help students find jobs.
The only way to bypass the local college is to resort, once again, to web-based distance learning mechanisms where the technology necessary for creating and distributing online content is available either free or at a nominal cost. The primary content would be videos recorded with a webcam and uploaded onto Youtube. The free Google Hangout-on-Air feature allows not only webcam videos but also screen capture from Powerpoint-style slide decks or any other program. At the student’s end, all that is needed is a computer and broadband access, and given the amount of money spent on private tuitions, this is an investment that most students and their parents would be happy to make if they see value.
But to show value, we need to cross two big hurdles, namely an economic model for content creation and a stamp of accreditation on the education delivered.