Mangala Sunder Krishnan, Professor, Department of Chemistry, IIT Madras
The dawn of Internet in the nineties of the last Millennium has had many positive and negative influences in the societal structure but in the field of education its influence is positive overall. The quote by Professor David Merrill from the University of Utah, USA, “Information is Not Instruction”, is a beautiful summary of students’ and learners’ concern with the availability of plenty of content versus their learnability. This article looks at the developments that have happened in India in the last two decades and the process of mentoring online and content build up online, supported fully by the Government of India. Digital educational content development in India has been reasonably structured to fulfill curricular requirements and has resulted as excellent supplement to on-campus development. Blended learning and pedagogical design of courses will hopefully transform the digital content (information) to learning through instruction for much larger number of learners than can be supported by current brick-and-mortar institutions.
The era of digital content development in higher education in India began in 1999 through a workshop conducted in Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras with partners from other IITs, Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and Carnegie Mellon University (CMU). Several academic faculty, industry and government partners helped evolve a document for online content creation, Digital Library archiving, online teaching and a virtual technical University. Professor R. Natarajan, then Director of IITM and Professor M. S. Ananth, Dean of Academic Courses who became Director of IITM subsequently, designed from the proceedings of the Workshop on Technology Enhanced Learning (WoTEL -99), the formal programme called National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). Professor Ananth convinced the Ministry of Human Resource Development (HRD) after several efforts to fund digital content creation in 2003 for 200 one –Semester-long courses by seven IITs and Indian Institute of Sceince. Coincidentally, Prof. Charles West, Provost, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cambridge, USA had announced the launching of the Open CourseWare (OCW) of the MIT in the same year 1999. The two announcements were entirely independent. NPTEL has now continued through several phases and is currently spearheading the Massive Open Online course (MOOCs) programme in India through its version known as the NPTEL Online Course (NOC) and will be completing about 500 courses by March 2018. NPTEL itself has so far hundreds of millions of visitors from all over the globe and through its video channel on the YouTube, has made available more than 34000 videos on higher education content and with a total channel view exceeding 270 million, and close to a million subscribers, since the launch on Nov 27, 2007 by this author.
Teaching is an orchestrated delivery and organized presentation of contents augmented with careful attention to the pedagogy of learning (knowledge, comprehension and application, to cite the first three levels of Bloom’s taxonomy of education), but is still a delivery. One can go up in levels but they involve more of learner participation and innovation. Learning is experiential, on the other hand, and is often life long for research and innovation. Therefore, digital education comes handy to build the bridge or close the gap between teaching, learning and practice. When multiple paths to learning are explored through teaching using different approaches and archived in digital format for just-in-time use by the learner, and a teacher or a mentor becomes available even for a short while, the learner is enriched with learning resources and the interactivity that augments learning. Online lecture deliveries supported by local mentors, forums and discussion groups as are often done in MOOCs, do precisely this. One disadvantage with these processes is that practical skills cannot be provided adequately through digital deliveries in all areas of learning.
The current initiative of SWAYAM by the Ministry of HRD (Study Web Active by Young and Aspiring Minds) and the earlier Mission known as National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technology (NMEICT) with its four-quadrant approach are examples of this drive for online education. NPTEL in its original form with lectures on videos and in text format was intended to be a teacher supplement for engineering and technology institutions, but the timely arrival of YouTube and Google partnership with NPTEL ensured that all videos could also be made accessible for anyone and everyone. There are a number of institutions in the world where graduate students are often told to understand basic concepts through specific lectures of NPTEL before taking advanced courses.
It is important that blended learning was envisaged, much earlier by nobody other than Prof. Richard Feynman of California Institute of Technology when he recorded his famous lectures known as “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” in the 1960s. In his Foreword he states, “I think, however, that there isn’t any solution to this problem of education other than to realize that the best teaching can be done only when there is a direct individual relationship between a student and a good teacher-……..Perhaps my lectures can make some contribution. Perhaps in some small place where there are individual teachers and students they may get some inspiration or some ideas from the lectures”.
Online MOOCs courses and other SWAYAM like portals have to build this local learning communities in large numbers, along with exceptionally good and motivating lectures. They all have one thing in common: to enhance the quality of learning through technology enabled teaching and learning and to increase the population of employable students by at least one order of magnitude more than at present. In India where the quality teacher-student ratio (teachers who continue to do research while teaching) is around 1:80 to 1:100, there are no immediate alternatives or remedies for poor quality education. The best of our teachers have to be encouraged to learn the Internet and content enrichment technology from the youngsters (!) (including making animations, mobile apps, managing learning management systems etc.) and impart in them the learning and the discovery / design instincts of all of science and engineering that will trigger innovation and discover newer sciences and technologies!
This author strongly believes that the technology tools and interfaces have stabilized in the last five years or so, and a large population of younger people is ready to listen and learn through the opening of gates outward by IITs, IISc and other premier institutions using social and adaptive networks. Given the shift in demography of India towards a lower average age, it is also imperative that we train as many of the youngsters as possible, and in the shortest time, encourage interactions of local study groups guided by a combination of the best teachers and a large number of young and local teachers to create multiple forms of instruction. Different students have different aptitudes and abilities and therefore multiple paths should exist for a learner to reach the destination of a degree or a skill or both. Therefore, the analogue of the Google map should be implemented in content creation some of which focus on concepts and others focus on details to different levels. Tagging courses for difficulty levels is quite important. They are the ‘dots’ that Steve Jobs expressed in his famous Stanford University address. If enough of them are created, any learning pattern can be woven and the dots connected beautifully and in multiple ways. The society will move forward much more quickly to discover newer worlds.
 National Web Courses Coordinator, NPTEL Project, MHRD, Government of India, 2003 – 2015
Chief Coordinator, DTH SWAYAM Prabha, MHRD, Government of India, 2016-
Member, E-learning Programme Review and Steering group, Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, 2006-