The recent advancements in digital technology are set to disrupt the field of skilling and higher education, according to noted author, economist and member of Prime Minister Modi's Economic Advisory Council (EAC), Sanjeev Sanyal.
In an article for the Hindustan Times, Sanyal writes how, with the combination of Artificial Intelligence (AI), online workspaces, and easy access to information and lectures, traditional methods of knowledge delivery and training are becoming outdated.
However, he argues that this presents an opportunity for India to leapfrog and rapidly scale up tertiary education, taking advantage of the demographic dividend. In fact, there is potential to make high-quality undergraduate education accessible to all Indians for free.
He posits readers to ponder upon moot questions such as: Is it necessary to spend four years on a university campus attending lectures that are freely available online? Do thousands of professors need to deliver the same lecture every year when it can be accessed on YouTube at one's convenience?
With the ability to upload the world's best lectures on a topic once, and AI tools to handle most questions, a mostly online system of imparting knowledge and skills can work for most undergraduate-level subjects, he argues.
Primary school education and fields requiring hands-on experience or where knowledge is still evolving may still require face-to-face interaction.
According to Sanyal, while a standardised curriculum and a good examination system will still be necessary, the resources required for this are significantly less than those needed to maintain large campuses.
With low scaling costs, it should be possible to provide high-quality courses in each subject virtually free to all citizens.
In fact, he says, that any Indian can earn a degree in any subject at their own pace, as long as they pass the required tests. This shift away from lecturing would also allow India's academia to focus on research and expanding the boundaries of knowledge.
Sanyal also highlights that one of the main advantages of this approach is the ability for rapid scaling, which is not feasible with traditional brick-and-mortar plans. It takes decades to build a good institution, and outside of a few elite institutions, India already struggles to adequately staff its college system.
Embracing the digital path is the only way to scale up in time for the upcoming demographic bulge over the next 25 years. Otherwise, our system will not be ready before our youth bulge passes its prime, he warns.
He further states that the digital approach is our best option for keeping up with a rapidly changing job market. With the potential for AI and other technologies to greatly impact employment in unpredictable ways, traditional methods of curriculum updates and teacher re-training will not be sufficient.
The digital approach is well-suited for an apprenticeship-based model, according to Sanyal. He argues that by freeing students from the constraints of fixed-time, in-person classes, they can gain real-world skills that are valuable in a rapidly changing job market.
He cites the example of The Institute of Chartered Accountants of India, which has already successfully trained numerous sought-after professionals using a combination of online systems and apprenticeships.
This approach will particularly benefit the less privileged, as it allows them to work and study simultaneously.
He also explains how the digital approach offers unparalleled flexibility. Students can learn at their own pace and take tests when they feel ready. The duration of a bachelor's degree can vary from two to six years, depending on the individual.
Additionally, students can pursue unique combinations of subjects that may not be available in traditional institutions. Bright students even have the opportunity to pursue multiple degrees simultaneously.
Furthermore, advancements in language tools will soon enable seamless knowledge transfer in any language.
Sanyal acknowledges that critics may argue that colleges serve a purpose beyond imparting knowledge, such as fostering social networks and personal exploration. However, he states that as the world evolves, our reliance on traditional college experiences is diminishing.
While some universities may continue to cater to the socialization needs of a select few, society as a whole is already building networks through social media, shared interests, and professional organisations.
The college canteen and dramatics society may hold nostalgic value, but the wider society is adapting to new ways of connecting and networking.
According to him, legacy universities need to adapt by focusing on research and developing better testing and certification systems. By establishing start-up hubs and innovation co-location spaces, they can foster the exchange of ideas and drive knowledge expansion and innovation.
He states that this shift in emphasis from traditional lecturing to a more dynamic approach could revolutionize Indian academia.
Institutions that choose hybrid teaching systems can maximize their student facilities for greater efficiency.
For example, if a batch of students only attends classes for three months a year, the same facility can now accommodate four times the number of students. This allows for a larger throughput and optimises the use of resources.
Sanyal further expresses that regardless of personal preferences, the shift towards a new educational model is inevitable. Many aspects of this model already exist, and he argues that India should embrace it as the primary method for rapid scaling.
Digital education, in particular, enables the provision of high-quality degrees across various subjects, making them accessible to all citizens free of charge, which Sanyal believes to be of great value for the current Indian landscape.
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