Grand Challenges Breakout Session: Online Higher Education

The Challenge
Despite many government programs and efforts, higher education in India is still dismally low. The reasons for this lie in a lack of adequate access to institutes of higher education, a lack of financial resources, as well as cultural practices and attitudes. This is especially true in under-developed and rural areas across India. The purpose of this session is to discuss and brainstorm innovative ways in which higher education can be made more inclusive using technologies and online platforms in order to alleviate some of the constraints of access and affordability.

The Field Visit
In preparation for this session, a team consisting of a CKS researcher and other research volunteers conducted a field visit to a TelNek center that offers such alternative education systems, i.e. a system that utilizes computers and online platforms for education. The objective of such centers is to make education more accessible and affordable, and also to impart relevant skills that would help make the beneficiary more employable.

The team visited a TelNek center in the village of Magadi, close to the city of Bangalore, where they conducted interviews with students, parents and trainers in order to understand their perceptions of such an education medium. The aim of this research was to get an understanding of the community’s overall perspectives on higher education, as well as to better understand some of the challenges to using computers and the internet for education in rural areas where people have not had much prior exposure to such technologies. Finally, they wanted to gain an understanding of the community’s openness to and uptake of technology.

Emerging Insights

The team found that the greatest barrier to pursuing higher education for many of the respondents lay in their financial and social backgrounds. Given very limited resources, families are forced to prioritize their basic needs, and as result education oftentimes takes the backseat. Additionally, tradition and social norms often have a negative impact on further education for girls, as the decision to pursue higher education does not lie in her control, but rather depends on her parents or in-laws. Additionally, there is often a lack of awareness about opportunities for higher education, and an absence of guidance from reliable sources and local mentors.

One of the key barriers to using computers and the internet as an educational platform was the language barrier. Many of the respondents are only familiar with their native tongues, and the need to switch to English as medium of instruction posed a major barrier to understanding. Moreover, there is oftentimes a lack of alignment of the educational programs with local job opportunities. Thus, students may be a part of a particular program, but on its completion cannot find any career opportunities in their local contexts where they can actually utilize these skills.

Also, the greatest barrier to using these technologies for higher education is the fact that many of the students have not had adequate exposure to computer and internet use at a younger age, and therefore are uncomfortable and unfamiliar with the medium.

Finally, the curriculum needs to be planned according to the specific needs of different communities. Also, there is a lack of skilled teachers, another challenge.

A last question that was brought up was that of how you can empower students without dsisempowering teachers.

Possible Solutions
It seems evident that the success of online higher education is dependent on making locally relevant solutions that are derived from the students needs and specific contexts. Additionally, it also seems as though the platform would require some degree of human interaction in addition to the technological aspect.

– Creating Content online that can be contextualized and adapted to the local context.
– Wikiuniversity with more collaborative learning

The group picked the problem of educating the girl child and brainstormed solutions for that specific problem. Safety is often a big concern for girls. A solution would be to create a safer and more trustworthy learning environment.

In order to create more awareness, there also needs to be more stories in the media and even in Bollywood movies about the positive aspects of educating girls.

You could also provide free accommodation for girls as an incentive to pursuing higher education.

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