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The Holy Grail, A Digital University

There are great expectations from technology to help us achieve our educational goals, but certain key issues need to be addressed first

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The concept of education is undergoing a transformative change in terms of quality and expectations.  The range of expectations varies from personalized education to lifelong learning to producing globally competitive students.  The necessary condition for meeting these diverse expectations is to augment and leverage the digital infrastructure in a prudent manner.  Digital technologies will continue to play an essential role in delivering quality education to students both inside and outside schools and colleges.  While the pandemic has highlighted the need and importance of technology for education, for several reasons, including scalability and inclusivity, the delivery of education via digital technology is of paramount importance.  The digital thrust in education also addresses other challenges, like the lack of well-trained teachers, the need for an updated curriculum, incorporating modern methods of pedagogy, effective teaching, and outcome-based learning.  A robust digital infrastructure must include the following five components: ubiquitous high-speed connectivity, inexpensive access-cum-learning devices, high-quality digital learning content, AI-enabled digital learning environments, and forward-looking enabling policies. 

First, a quick look at where we are.  In terms of digital infrastructure, India has been able to effectively deploy and leverage several digital technologies.  Many colleges and universities are already using the National Knowledge Network (NKN), a multi-gigabit network that provides a high-speed communication backbone for education and research.  Educational programs for classes 1 -12 are being telecast using the DD Free Dish network, and the reach is being augmented in collaboration with respective state governments by the Kendras of state DD channels.  There is a plan to further extend the facilities to the states/UTs by provisioning 200 DTH TV channels to deliver education in regional languages.  This initiative is likely to offer a variety of engaging teaching-learning material, including the standard classroom material, content for employment exams (like UPSC and CET), entrance exams (JEE, NEET, CAT, etc.), skill development and capacity building.

In terms of digital initiatives, the SWAYAM platform brings together some excellent learning resources on a unified digital platform that is easily accessible to all students in the country.  The Virtual Labs project addresses the problems of lack of good lab facilities, updated lab experiments, and the paucity of trained teachers by providing 24x7 remote access to simulation-based labs in various disciplines of science and engineering.  Online Labs have been developed for interactive laboratory experiments via simulations at the school level.  The National Digital Library of India (NDLI) has been rolled out, which is a virtual repository of high-quality learning resources with filtered and federated search capability.

Content is the king, and there will always be an ever-increasing demand for quality educational content.  However, the content on the digital platform has to be comprehensive, coherent, consistent, and complete in terms of curriculum coverage.  A structured and competitive mechanism for developing quality e-content should be institutionalized.  Also, teachers must be trained periodically to be more effective and truly harness the power of digital resources to facilitate better learning outcomes.  These initiatives will ensure the future-readiness of our students by empowering them with 21st-century skills.

The Holy Grail is establishing a digital university using the backbone of the digital infrastructure.  The digital university will provide a unified platform for the convergence of students, teachers, and digital resources, and also support multiple learning environments (micro, chatbot-based, AI-enabled, peer-to-peer, AR/VR-powered, etc.).  The National Education Policy 2020 and the National Digital Education Architecture (NDEAR) already have built-in enablers for this unified platform for increasing the ‘ease-of-education’. 

To provide further momentum to digitally-powered education, there is an immediate need to build an all-encompassing digital convergence platform for people, content, and other e-resources.  Quality improvement and augmentation of existing content have to be carried out, keeping in mind the trade-off between curating existing content versus creating new content.  The development of relevant content in different regional languages will address the problem of inclusivity to some extent.  Perhaps, data-driven decision-making is required to figure out where to add content.  The development of device-independent content that works across platforms has to be encouraged.  There is a strong need to enable and incentivize ‘make our own access-devices’, and set standards for our devices, thereby giving impetus to the ‘make in India’ initiative.  There should be a clear push to develop an AI/ML-based mechanism for skill-level assessment, gap analysis, and course recommendations to students to chart their personal academic journey.  There must be a time-bound plan to connect all villages/ educational institutions/ Anganwadi centers through the internet/DTH.  Finally, ‘digital teachers’ and ‘personal digital tutors’ for students with special needs would be beneficial from the perspective of adaptive learning. 

 While discussing digital infrastructure for education, we must be cognizant of what technology can do and its limitations.  The pandemic has highlighted the need for a resilient education system, including the importance of ‘how’ we respond and ‘how fast’ we respond.  Therefore, it is imperative that we incorporate readiness-cum-strategic filters for the next disruption.  

The Author is Director, IIIT-D

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

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Ranjan Bose

The author is Director, IIIT Delhi

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