On May 24, the University Grants Commission, India’s higher education regulator, approved new regulations for online education. The regulations are yet to be formally notified but the commission said they “will be made applicable from the academic session 2018-19”.

The regulations clear the way for universities that rank high in the government’s ranking and rating systems to offer even degree programmes online. In theory at least, a student will be able to earn a bachelor’s degree without attending college. Lectures will be recorded or delivered through video-conferencing and discussed in an online discussion forum; e-content will replace textbooks and there will be a provision for self-assessment. This will help increase the country’s gross enrolment ratio from 25.2% to 30% by 2020, the commission said. The ratio calculates the percentage of college-age youth – aged 18 to 23 – pursuing higher education. It has been rising at a glacial pace, taking five years to reach 25.2% from 21.5% in 2012-’13, according to the All India Survey of Higher Education 2017, published in January this year. The commission has also argued that harnessing technology will rapidly expand Indian students’ access to higher education.

But experts in online and distance education are not so sure. They pointed out that online education demands investment – in software and staff – that public universities, which are short of staff and funds, might not be able to make. So far, most universities offered only certificate or diploma courses, generally to students who had already graduated from regular institutions or were employed. The experts also cast doubts on the quality of the online degree programmes.

The biggest sticking point is examinations. The regulations allow for “proctored examinations”, which a University Grants Commission official explained means an invigilator will be present in the examination hall or be watching remotely through video cameras.

Online courses are aimed at teaching a large number of students at relatively low cost, and the scale determines how candidates are evaluated. Tests have to be such “that can be graded by a computer”, said Andrew Thangaraj, coordinator for the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning, a project run by the Indian Institutes of Technology offering online courses, including in literature and social sciences, to supplement regular engineering programmes. In effect, students taking online courses will have to be assessed mostly through multiple-choice or objective-type papers, a form of assessment considered inimical to the study of the humanities and social sciences. Thangaraj, therefore, urged “much more debate and discussion” before degree programmes are offered online.

‘Not that simple’

The regulations allow institutions of higher education to offer online courses in disciplines they already teach in their classrooms or through distance learning. Programmes requiring practical or laboratory work cannot be offered online, so the sciences are largely out.

Only an institution with an accreditation score of at least 3.26, out of four, from the National Assessment and Accreditation Council – an autonomous body for assessing quality of higher education – and ranked among the top 100 institutions by the National Institutional Ranking Framework for at least two years can offer the programmes. Most of the IITs involved in the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning satisfy these conditions. They do not apply to institutions offering open and distance learning, however.

Every online programme must have “four quadrants” – video lectures, e-content, discussion forum and self-assessment. “Learners’ engagement” is proposed to be monitored by tracking their participation in discussions and assignments. The commission has not explained how the programmes will be staffed, however.

According to Thangaraj, the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning alone needs a staff of 100-150 to run. There is also a network of about 1,600 “local representatives” who organise “offline infrastructure” such as exam centres. While lecturers and professors deliver lectures, teachers’ assistants (typically research scholars) deal with questions left on discussion forums and grade tests. It took the IITs nearly three years to establish the programme and scale it up to the current size. The programme is now funded to the tune of Rs 25 crore a year through Swayam, the Indian government’s online education platform launched last July.

The most popular programme run through Swayam is Diploma in Elementary Education, offered by the National Institute of Open Schooling. It has attracted over seven lakh teachers, but the response has been mixed, with some students as well as educationists voicing doubts about the quality of training being imparted.

K Murali Manohar, who teaches at Dr BR Ambedkar Open University in Telangana and heads the Indian Distance Education Association, a group of teachers involved in distance learning, did not think any public university would launch an online degree programme this year. “Some private universities may come forward but I do not think any public university can,” he said. “We are not prepared. This will require investment and staff. We will need new software and computer laboratories and examination centres.”

Even if the government offers public universities fresh grants, he added, rolling out the courses will take time. “It is not that simple.”

Challenge of exams

Both Thangaraj and Manohar doubted the wisdom of offering a full degree programme online, especially a bachelor’s, the first level of higher education. “A degree is much more than the sum total of all that you learn,” said Thangaraj. “It is your interactions with your peers, with your faculty, role models. You learn so much about life. You write exams but that is not the only point. The other part is equally important.”

He argued that online courses should be only a small part of the course work, roughly 20%, as has been the practice so far. “IIT Madras has an online MTech degree but it is only for industry professionals,” Thangaraj said.

Online certificate courses are popular with businesses for upskilling their employees, a mature set of learners, said Manohar. Offering a full degree course online, however, comes with many challenges, not least evaluation. “The commission has not issued any guidelines and left it to the university to decide,” he said. “But if the evaluation system is not efficient, they will not recognise our courses. There will not be scope for continuous evaluation and even for regular examinations universities will have to enlist the service of private companies, identify centres and have video recording. Plus, you can ask only short-answer questions.”

Thangaraj said questions requiring long answers or essays are not asked if there are more than 200 examinees for a paper because “you cannot have thousands of people writing long answers across the country” and “there is a challenge grading those essays”. The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning recently ran a course on American literature for a batch of less than 100 students and they were asked long-answer questions in their exams. But even if the numbers are manageable, Thangaraj said, they set “subjective papers” only for about 25% of the assessment. Moreover, for the first two weeks of the course, all assessments, irrespective of discipline, are objective-type or in the form of multiple-choice questions.

Conducting exams for online course in general is difficult. In January, one of Thangaraj’s colleagues offered through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning a course in renewable energy that Uttar Pradesh’s Dr APJ Abdul Kalam Technical University had made compulsory for all its final year students. Nearly 40,000 students signed up and they had to take a proctored exam. “We couldn’t do it in a way we would be happy with,” Thangaraj said. Finally, they sent the question paper to the university, which conducted the exam and graded the papers the way it usually does.

The grading, where it cannot be done by the computer, is completed by teacher assistants. But as K Murali Manohar pointed out, universities are already stretched for manpower. “They are understaffed and even regular courses are suffering because of that,” he said.

There is no doubt that online courses will be cheaper in the long run since only the software managers, teachers and their assistants will have to be paid. In any case, the cost will be far less than setting up colleges or universities for the same number of students. “Economics-wise it may work out,” said Thangaraj. “But whether it is a good thing to do is something else. I am not in favour of it.”