Current period is termed as digital age in which the information technology has resulted into major transformation in education, services, work and business practices. In the perspective of higher education, the IT based digital intervention has led to the situation where access is no more a challenge and the knowledge is ubiquitous. The on-going expansion of higher education for realizing the targeted gross enrolment ratio of 30 by 2030 has made the situation precarious due to unavailability of good quality teachers in requisite numbers and desired infrastructure support. A look in past indicates that this challenge of quality and infrastructure was realised many decades ago, when video lectures used to be recorded in video cassettes and then in CD ROM for mass usage, which has evolved into e-learning content and YouTube videos due to technological development.
In the present time, the wide reach of internet and smart gadgets for digital access to learning resources happens to be the potential saviour as it brings learning resources to the learners. In fact, due to far reaching impact of digital learning at global as well as at local level, it has become a way of learning. The learner's response on the use of different digital learning platforms shows that the use of digital learning technology increases student engagement in course, barrier free access to learning materials and the use of adaptive technology in digital content shows definite improvement in their performance. However, the efficacy of digital learning platform depends upon the quality of content, content availability and speed of internet.
It is obvious that there exists congenial atmosphere for growth of digital learning and its critical evaluation in the context of our nation is the need of hour
With fast growing penetration of internet across the country and impending elimination of digital divide, there is no doubt that the digital learning will offer ample opportunities to the student community in higher education segment. Global trends indicate that the charm of digital learning amongst learners is resulting in continuous growth of online education delivery and it is likely to continue in future too. In fact, this digital access to different learning resources is becoming a challenge for the present contact type class room teaching programmes.
In recent past, number of digital learning platforms have come up and are being successfully used by students and teachers alike. The degeneration in the class room teaching quality due to non-availability of teachers in both quantity and quality has made it inevitable for the students to look for good quality learning resources through different e-learning platforms like edX by Harward and MIT; Connect , ALEKS -adaptive artificial intelligent learning system, LearnSmart, Create etc. by Mc Graw Hill, NPTEL and online courses by IITs and top Universities of world, Coursera. As per a report, the India's education market is likely to grow upto $180 billion by 2020 due to the expanding digital learning market and the demographic dividend. The share of digital learning market alone is likely to go upto $5.7 billion by 2020 due to fast expanding number of internet users, which may reach around 550 million by 2020 with about 40 percent penetration in the country's population.
Thus, it is obvious that there exists congenial atmosphere for growth of digital learning and its critical evaluation in the context of our nation is the need of hour. Some of the positive features of digital learning are as under.
Access and Equity: Online access to similar learning resources offers the biggest advantage of all time access to all irrespective of their location, race, religion etc. i.e. it is barrier free and of same quality for all. It results in availability of learning opportunity to every human being on this planet earth without any discrimination and every society/community/nation can march ahead for knowledge driven growth. Also, the different learners with different learning capability can access the learning resources as per their capability and limitations.
Affordable: Digital learning is quite affordable as the major cost is usually incurred in the initial phase of setting up of digital learning platform and populating it with learning resources while, the recurring cost of providing access, its maintenance and upgradation are not that large with the prevalent technological solutions. This less price for good quality learning resource with lot of ease makes the digital learning very attractive.
Better engagement: The use of technology in digital learning has an attraction in presentation, and content, which is loved by the learners and leads to their better engagement. It also permits for use of gamification in learning, which really fascinates the learners.
Collaboration: Uniform availability of digital learning resources creates ample opportunities for collaboration and networking amongst different learners and teachers even without meeting physically.
Career development: Digital learning resources facilitate those with the quest to learn at any span of their age and build their career suitably as per the changing industry/society requirements.
Formal and Informal education: Digital learning platforms integrated with certification based on testing through learning assessment tools have potential of being used for both formal and informal type of education.
Mentoring: Conventional formal education system is limited contact type education system and the students fail to get the mentoring as per their need. The digital learning platforms are evolving with the facilitation for as and when mentoring of the learners with minimum response time. It also offers the capability to adapt to the individual's needs, personalized instructions, personalized doubts removal, and customized instruction based on analysis of learning capability of students and preserving it for continuous improvement using study behaviour and analytics.
Best quality and adaptability: Differing quality of teaching-learning in the conventional class room education is one of the big challenges. This variance in quality leads to varying interests of learners and a perennial desire of being taught by the best teachers in the respective field. Digital learning platforms once populated with the learning resources of requisite quality by the suitable course instructors can be invariably used by all for learning. Thus, the best quality education is available to all through the digital learning platform having the high quality learning resource with them. The quality of digital form of the learning resources has capability of being enriched and upgraded as per fast changing requirements of society/industry and making it available to learners as early as possible.
Teachers' upgradation: Upgradation of teachers attaining higher age is a challenge in the current education system due to various reasons like social perception, no possible disruption in responsibilities shouldered by them, non-availability of time etc. Digital learning resources can be suitably used by the teachers for their upgradation and improvement without any hesitation and can continue to be a learner at every age, which eventually improves their teaching quality.
Virtual experiencing: Digital learning platforms have potential to offer hands on training to the students through virtual laboratory and industrial working & practices. This hands on working experience leads to better visualisation and enhanced creativity of students.
Self-learning: The availability of digital learning resource from different sources for the same subject provides students with opportunity to improve their understanding through different perspectives of educators and proceed with self-learning.
Transparency and feedback: Digital learning platform is capable of keeping complete trail of the learners learning and testing. The electronic form of this learning process management is quite transparent and the feedback mechanism is quite effective.
In view of easy availability of electronic version of knowledge resources, the teaching processes have been challenged significantly.
The students of present digital era have access to the virtual courses being offered by good quality teachers from different parts of the world and have access to the virtual laboratories, which is leading to the gradual loss of interest amongst students for attending structured classes. The informal delivery of courses in the form of nearly free e-content has limitations due to complete non-contact type learning environment which eventually leaves certain gaps in teaching of the courses. Shifting focus from faculty and their teaching to students and their learning is equally concerning as it leads to social disconnect. Learning hierarchies are not maintained as complete content is accessible and it leads to difficulties in application of knowledge at later stage. It is equally concerning to see that in the country like ours where good quality broadband internet access is in the state of getting expanded, the complete dependence upon digital education cannot be thought of.
Sometimes, the technology becomes a cause of distraction to the learner and paves way for the cheating in assessment processes. It also leads to degradation of handwriting skills of the learners, as they do not get ample writing opportunities. The content creation process involves technology support as well which means that more intellectual capital is required in the content creation and management as compared to the traditional education system which leads to shift in focus from quality to the presentation format and ease of access.
Further, it is very essential to have certification of digital learning resource from the perspective of its quality and genuineness, because any improper content when floated on web may have disastrous implications of rolling out substandard-trained human resource. The interoperability of digital content should be ensured so that the different segments learning resources remain coherent. Security of web based digital content also needs to be assured completely so as to prevent any malpractices.
It is evident that the rich quality digital learning resource has lot of potential, but mere fascination for becoming digital should not drift the higher education system from its core theme of imparting best quality education. In view of some of the drawbacks, there is a need to integrate digital learning with the conventional teaching-learning processes to supplement them and improve the quality of learning. However, for the learning and development, which focuses upon helping people to learn the skills and get motivated for enhancing productivity, digital learning platforms are good due to their non-invasive nature and the difficulties of content management, working disruptions and other logistics issues.
Further, it is extremely essential for the higher education regulators of the country to evolve and enforce a complete legal framework to keep vigil over the digital content and digital learning platforms being created by different operators with the business perspective and ensure their availability after the requisite accreditation certification.
Prof. Onkar Singh
Prof. Onkar Singh has been the founder Vice Chancellor of Madan Mohan Malaviya University of Technology, Gorakhpur (U.P.), the first non-affiliating technical University of U.P. state. He is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Harcourt Butler Technical University, Kanpur (U.P.). Prof. Singh has rich experience of higher education system as a teacher, researcher, academic administrator and also through his association with Governing Bodies of large number of premier Institutions and statutory regulatory bodies of the country.