Just like the Agni missile’s reentry technology, the solution is to take our University Education Online

On 22nd May 1989, India successfully launched its first intercontinental ballistic missile- Agni, a homegrown technological marvel. The missile after launch leaves earth’s atmosphere and then re-enters near the target at speed of 12 Mach (12 times speed of sound). The friction developed at such high speed results in the missile crust getting heated up to 2500 degrees while the navigational computer at the core has to be maintained at 40 degrees. Developing a system which can do this required a deep understanding of Fluid Dynamics and material science, something which India had to develop from scratch.

Nations already part of the re-entry experiment (REx) club possessed wind tunnels which helped them generate such speeds to study and develop the technology. Since the elite club comprising US, Germany, France, UK won’t want India to have this technology, taking help from them was impossible. So the moment India tested Agni, nations blamed each other for secretly helping India. Actually, nobody helped India.

Scientists under Dr Kalam who was the heading IGMDP (Integrated Guided Missile Development Programme) worked with 4 bright fluid dynamics engineers from IISc who developed a computer simulation software called Computational Fluid Dynamics for Hypersonic Regimes to replicate the same environment online and study the result. Remarkably India solved the problem at a fraction of cost by thinking out of the box rather than mimicking the 1900s approach West used.

Fast forward 2022, India has invested and liberalized higher education by allowing expansion of Universities in private and deemed space. In the last 70 years, we have gone from 20 Universities to 1040 universities increasing the number of students in higher education from 2 lacs to 4 crores. The effort is similar to what the West did in the 1800 and early 1900s. Now let’s put this in the context. The efforts have taken our GER to 29% i.e. currently 29% of our employable population are college educated.

At the zenith today, this effort is able to grow the GER by 100 percentage points every year (2019 to 2021 it grew from 27% to 29%) i.e 4 cr students in 1040 universities are improving our GER ratio by 1% every year. The US has a GER of 88%; Germany, UK, France GER are close to 60%. India’s eligible enrolment ratio i.e. number of students who completed 12th and can go to college is close to 70% which means our aim of 60% GER, ratio a young economy like us which is just taking off should have is not an impossibility.

With the current investment rate and methodology, it will take us a minimum 30 years to get there. This means India will miss the golden years of democratic dividend, the crucial period in our economy where the percentage of the working population is higher than those dependent on them. India started passing through this phase in 2005 and the phase is expected to end by 2050. So India needs an “out of the box” approach to solve the GER problem quickly ensuring the large working population we have is skilled and ready to give output which will take our economy to next level of growth and innovation.

It is also important to mention that a large number of approved seats in our Universities are vacant today and there have been cases of Universities shutting down too, pointing to the complexity of the problem.

Just like the Agni missile’s reentry technology, I believe the solution is to take our University education online. Think about it. We have a large number of people who want access to affordable and high quality education but there are only a few great teachers and world class curriculums that can excite, motivate and invigorate students to get educated. The problem truly is about delivering quality at scale.

This will make education accessible, affordable and high quality. Hence rather than restricting the number of students who can get access to this world class quality, use technology to take their teaching and content to as many students as possible. The New Education Policy or NEP tries to do exactly this and hence in my view, is a revolutionary document which can bring India to the forefront of the world.

NEP created the policy of online degrees which a student can take purely online from a NIRF top 100 Universities without impacting anything else in his/her life. To implement this, UGC has gone out making the role of edtech clear as the technology, content and outreach partner of the Universities thus paving way for the usage of years of technology prowess developed for solving exactly this problem.

Some of the problem statements we have solved over the years:

1. Asynchronous & Live approach: Every part of the curriculum can be divided into 2 parts- the static concept part which doesn’t change much and requires detailing approach rather than experience to explain well. For eg. think about explaining a derivation or experiment in Math or Physics and the concept of the idea of inheritance in OOP (Object Oriented Programming). A well scripted and edited video rich with 2D and 3D animation can do a much better job than a live session from an expert.

The 2nd part is the practical application of the concept, the place where you need an expert- a teacher who is an excellent storyteller who will keep the students bewitched with his/her examples and insights. So every syllabus should be with a combination of asynchronous and live approaches covering the status knowledge with a well designed video and the ever changing dynamic aspect with a live session. This will also free up the teacher’s bandwidth to do what he/she does best and thus cover more learners.

2. 2 teacher approach: An excellent teacher is hard to come by and the entire focus should be to use his/her bandwidth well to cover more students. But when you do a large live session, students who learn at a slower pace will have doubts and the teacher due to size of the class won’t be able to clear the doubts. This is where Teaching Assistants or TAs who are a part of the junior faculty, come to play. When the experienced faculty runs the live sessions, the TAs clear the doubts of the students who have a doubt. These are really smart faculties who can easily repeat the same session for a smaller group and help students who didn’t follow the entire session post session through a repeat.

3. Personalisation: Every learner is unique and at scale quality can be only delivered if the platform is personalized. If it provides varying support to learners who need more help, the learning outcome will be uniform provided slow learners spend more time as suggested by the platform.

4. Hand-holding buddy support: Keeping the learners motivated through the long course is an essential thing. Most common reason for drop off is the changes in priorities. Hence along with personalisation a service layer of reach out when someone is not doing the course as per design is essential.

5. Replication University online: Peer to peer interactions, group projects, networking, thesis, case studies and most of the features a great University system can offer can be today replicated online, thanks to technology.

6. University in your smartphone: Access to education in India can only be solved at scale by delivering higher education services through a smartphone thus reaching the 1.2 billion mobile subscribers and 700 million internet subscribers. Making the platform run on an app at 2G speeds on an economic smartphone and delivering the content in various languages at least through subtitling is the fastest way to democratize education.

Large scale adoption of NEP which UGC seems to be driving can be a game changer for our youth. Time is not far when we will stop looking for ideas to the West and develop truly local solutions championed by highly skilled Indian youth.

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