Re-imagining engineering in India

Will EdTech help galvanise the engineering courses in the country?

June 13, 2020 08:11 pm | Updated June 14, 2020 10:08 am IST

“It is not beyond our power to create a world in which all children have access to a good education.” Nelson Mandela

India, with a population of 500 million in the five-24 age group, offers a great opportunity for the education sector. Based on current growth trends, India is expected to have world’s largest tertiary-age population and second largest graduate talent pipeline globally. But accessibility of quality education still remains as a major issue for half of the student population. Is it possible to create capability outside classroom, any time and anywhere?

When we talk about accessibility of quality education, it is important to understand the landscape of higher education in India. Three independent studies in the world have put us second last on the list of countries doing well in higher education. India has succeeded in solving the issue of accessibility in with the number of higher education institutes being even greater than that of China’s. However, in the process of such rapid expansion, it has traded in its quality of education. There is a huge gap between what is taught and what is practically needed.

According to the Annual Employability Survey 2019 report by Aspiring Minds, 80% of Indian engineers are not fit for a job in the knowledge economy and only 2.5% possess tech skills in Artificial Intelligence (AI) that the industry requires. Thus, the quality and relevance of higher education still remains a major challenge.

Engineering colleges have a 33:1 pupil to teacher ratio (PTR), which has been increasing over years. The AICTE-recommended PTR is 20:1, which means India is short of 76,000 teachers (on an average). In comparison, the PTR in the U.S. is 12:1 and in China is 19:1. The bigger issue here is shortage of trained faculty equipped with new-aged skills. This is clearly reflected in the student enrolment in Indian engineering colleges, which has been reducing at an average 3.7% compound annual growth rate (as per AISHE MHRD reports).

But the higher education market is growing. So where are we losing students? According to a study by Assocham and Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, Indian students spend $7 billion (around ₹45,000 crore) per year on foreign education because of the “sub-standard” quality of higher education in the country.

The three key challenges in higher education are: lack of faculty with new-age skills; students disinterested in learning and lack of support for teachers. The solution is to encourage practical or experiential learning, healthy debates and customised delivery via EdTech to create a blended model of teaching-learning.

Content plays a crucial role in creating this learning experience and making it interesting. This will also ensure that anybody can learn anything, anywhere solving the dual issues of accessibility & quality.

Is EdTech the perfect solution?

According to the India Brand Equity Foundation (IBEF), India had 37.4 million students enrolled for higher education in 2018-19, with a gross enrolment ratio of 26.3%.This makes the country the second largest market for e-learning, after the U.S. The sector is expected to reach $1.96 billion by 2021 with around 9.5 million users. There is a growing need for online courses and digital education in the Indian market that is comparable to that of other countries.

However, in India, the existing education system is still largely dominated by brick-and-mortar institutions. Despite the growing digital literacy rate among students, the digital mode of learning is not being used even to half its capacity. While EdTech will help make complex topics easier to understand, enable irregular students to gain online degrees and help under-resourced students in far-flung areas to access quality learning material, there are some key aspects to be considered: Science and Engineering courses have key lab training components that cannot be taught entirely remotely. Again, will EdTech help make a transition from rote learning to competency-based skill learning? The social life of students in a university. What happens to peer learning in an EdTech environment? What happens to the extra-curricular aspect of campus life? Will the removal of critical interface and quantification of learning outcomes create problem?

These are the challenges that need to be studied as EdTech moves into higher education. With a fast-growing market, there is a unique opportunity for start-ups in EdTech to innovate for universities, students and teachers. The shift from offline to online mode of teaching is a behaviour change and both learners and educators will take time to adapt to this “new normal”. While going online is a brilliant way to provide accessibility to quality education any time and anywhere, and equip our educators with the resources they need, a few components of teaching-learning — laboratory training and social aspects of university life — will have to be kept offline for holistic development of students. Though there are virtual labs, many feel that these cannot give the required hands-on lab experience. Hence, a hybrid model of teaching-learning which involves major delivery through online teaching along with some on campus components will be a holistic model for Engineering in 21st century.

The writer is an alumnus of IIT Delhi and a Harvard HCONF Scholar.

Views are personal and do not represent the views of the author’s work organisations

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