New Academic Year May See Launch Of A National Digital University, Will Allow Students To Mix And Match Courses From Different Institutions Online

by Anand Parthasarathy - Jan 12, 2023 10:34 AM +05:30 IST
New Academic Year May See Launch Of A National Digital University, Will Allow Students To Mix And Match Courses From Different Institutions OnlineDigital Learning
  • A digital university envisages a hub-and-spoke model acting as a hub for multiple national and international academic institutions.

    Students can register in diverse courses from different institutions and obtain degree or diploma from the university.

    Kerala has already launched a ‘Digital University’ in 2021. The question is "does this fit into the proposed national pattern?"

Almost a year after its intent was first confirmed in the Union Budget of 2022-2023, the government appears to be translating its word into deed by setting up a National Digital University (NDU) for the academic year 2023-24.

In a brainstorming webinar within days of the budget announcement, academics and government officials charged with overseeing higher education, participated, and spelt out the aim of the National Digital University — "Making world-class higher education accessible to all".

The University Grants Commission (UGC) stated that it would function as an enabler and not a watchdog in the setting up of NDU.

In a written reply in the Rajya Sabha, in April 2022, the Minister of State for Education, Dr Rajkumar Ranjan Singh provided details regarding the government’s approach to the subject.

"The Digital University would provide students access to personalised learning experience at their doorsteps,” he said.

The Department of Higher Education, in consultation with UGC, All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) and other stakeholders made a concerted effort to initiate the process and ensure the early start of the e-university.

Addressing a 'Rozgar Mela' in Odisha in September 2022, Union Education Minister Dharmendra Pradhan confirmed that the Digital University would be up and running from the next academic year, defining it as an institution  “where education, exam, certificate and all related components will be provided digitally to students".

Recently, UGC chairman Mamidala Jagadesh Kumar, in the course of multiple media interactions, expressed that the NDU will differ from existing higher education institutions in the following ways.

Hub And Spoke Model

The concept is a networked hub-spoke model, with the Digital University at the hub and universities and higher educational  institutions to collaborate as a network of spokes.

All government-funded institutions such as IITs, NITs, IIITs and central universities would become a part of the network. It is being learnt that foreign educational institutions are also on the radar.

The Digital University will allow students to register for multiple courses at different institutions. They can accumulate credits from these institutes and redeem those to get a certificate, diploma, or a degree.

The students will be awarded degrees by the university where they earned 50 per cent of the credits.

However, if the credits are thinly spread across, the Digital University will award the degree.

An additional benefit being mooted is the absence of quota of seats, wherein, any number of students can join, based on no entrance test but only the passage of the qualifying exam.

Why a digital university makes sense for India. Illustration:
Why a digital university makes sense for India. Illustration:

A tutorial on the aims and objectives of NDU has been presented by the 'College Vidya' portal and can be found here.

Professor Jagadesh Kumar has explained some concepts of a National Digital University in a Prasar Bharati interview. He further suggests that the NDU could even award postgraduate degrees and doctorates.

Radical Departures

The idea of NDU is considered to be a radical departure from current practices while some educationists have expressed doubts about the workability of the same.

They contest "how can educational standards be enforced if students are allowed to mix-n-match courses?"

If the student intake becomes limitless, the teaching will become entirely online and will devalue those still earning degrees and diplomas, the old-fashioned way, by attending multiple academic semesters at the same institution.

The idea, however, has received colossal support from some quarters.

Mayank Kumar, chairman of the India Edtech Consortium (IEC), has welcomed the formation of NDU and stated “it will bolster the growth and adoption of online higher education across Indian households and will co-exist with Indian ed-techs to further future-proof our youth.”

He applauds the idea of an academic bank of credits (ABC) that allows students to accumulate credits and use them later when they opt for upskilling.

Kumar predicts “NDU could be India’s next UPI moment, making quality education more accessible and flexible,” thereby, drawing an analogy with the way India’s Universal Payments Interface (UPI) has transformed the digital payments system.

At this stage, however, there is ambiguity about the mechanism in place to deliver on the promise of an NDU. 

It appears from the government announcement that 'all components' would be 'delivered digitally' and NDU is being seen as a clearing house for online learning with no teaching campuses.

Professor Jagadesh Kumar seems to suggest on similar lines as quoted in the Prasar Bharati interview, hinting that NDU might be restricted to courses that do not require lab or practical work.

What About The Kerala Digital University?

Kerala opened a digital university in February 2022. Photo: Screen grab from DUK video.
Kerala opened a digital university in February 2022. Photo: Screen grab from DUK video.

Adding some degree of confusion, an unrelated development was the setting up of the “Kerala University of Digital Sciences, Innovation and Technology” — abbreviated to Digital University Kerala (DUK).

While the ordinance to create DUK dates to January 2020, it was inaugurated in February 2022 in a 10-acre campus within the TechnoCity IT park, on the outskirts of the state capital Thiruvananthapuram.

It has been touted as ‘India’s first Digital University’. With capacity for 1,200 residential students, DUK offers MTech and PhD courses in five schools, covering science and engineering, electronics and automation, informatics, and digital humanities. 

It also houses Kerala’s only Blockchain Academy.

It is reasonably evident from the Kerala government’s statement of intent and other documents on the DUK website, that except for the accidental similarity in names, the DUK and the NDU have very little in common. 

DUK was created by renaming the Indian Institute of Information Technology and Management – Kerala (IIITM-K) that has been in existence since 2000. 

Indeed, the last director of IIITM-K, veteran tech academic Dr Saji Gopinath is also the first Vice Chancellor of DUK. 

Unlike the National Digital University concept, the Digital University- Kerala, is both residential and  mostly classroom-based. Photo: Screen grab from DUK video.
Unlike the National Digital University concept, the Digital University- Kerala, is both residential and mostly classroom-based. Photo: Screen grab from DUK video.

The course contents at DUK have been refined to concentrate on digital skills and technologies.

However, key elements of NDU are absent and it isn't an out-and-out online education platform. There are no provisions in place for students to obtain credits from multiple institutions.

After Kerala, Rajasthan is known to have opened its own Digital University in Jodhpur. Reports from print, digital and television, bundle the Kerala and Rajasthan digital universities at par with the NDU, falsely suggesting that the two states have got a head start on setting up NDU. 

Observing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s opening remarks in the first brainstorming session on digital universities in February 2022, it is comprehensible that the government envisions NDU as a medium to bridge the enormous gap in skills that looms ahead for India in what is broadly called Industry 4.0; the fourth digitally driven, AI-fuelled industrial revolution that the world has already entered.

An NDU appears to be a radical but calibrated vision to sharply grow the size of a certified and skilled workforce and not just an automation to increase the number of graduates and PhD holders.

It aims at overcoming current logjams caused by limited seats in higher educational institutions, exploitive coaching centres, and to consequently prevent the unhealthy, debilitating spiral goof up of entrance tests.

In response to the tacit admission of  the failure to achieve the skilling objectives, of past initiatives like the SWAYAM MOOC courses and the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning; that a piece in Swarajya highlighted a year ago; a targeted course correction was long overdue.

The National Digital University will hopefully be just that.

Anand Parthasarathy is managing director at Online India Tech Pvt Ltd and a veteran IT journalist who has written about the Indian technology landscape for more than 15 years for The Hindu.

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