An exciting future


With digital learning on the rise, initiatives like the NPTEL will offer students flexible options for their education

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected almost every aspect of life. While industries have seen quite a lot of disruption, the largest impact has been in the education sector.

According the UNESCO, more than 1.5 billion learners across the globe have had to suddenly shift tracks as online learning became the go-to medium. The growing demand for digital medium and its impact on campus learning is being much discussed today.

One of the initiatives launched in India is the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) through which the Indian Institutes of Technology in Mumbai, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Chennai and Roorkee along with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bengaluru will create course content for engineering and science.

In this interview, Prof. Andrew Thangaraj and Prof. Prathap Haridoss, Professors-in-charge, NPTEL and Online Degree Programme, IIT-Madras, share their views about various online initiatives and how the industry will give preference to online courses more than the traditional courses in the future. Excerpts:

How has online education changed the students’ perception of learning?

The number of online courses for students are increasing everyday. With that, their perceptions of learning environments and academic outcomes are also changing.

Earlier, students did not perceive online courses to be equivalent to face-to-face courses but, with time, they have adapted and the number of students now opting for online courses has grown. Online courses offer education at a much more reasonable cost compared to an in-class course. They can save on items such as housing and transportation.

An interested, disciplined and involved student will enjoy high-quality online instruction from the faculty of institutions such as the IITs through the SWAYAM-NPTEL platform. Added to this is the ability to learn at one’s own pace and time, and rewinding the lectures as many times as needed.

On the other end of the spectrum are students either looking to pass the course somehow or worrying only about marks. Such students will focus on how they can get maximum marks in purely online evaluation methods, with little concern for actual learning.

Having an in-person exam, such as the NPTEL online certification exams, ensures that uninterested students do not get high marks by insincere means whereas an average student will be somewhere in between.

We believe that online instruction can actually help such students. Even if they get distracted for some time, they can make up by using online material any time. If the online instruction is well-designed and of high quality, it particularly benefits an average student.

How do students get opportunities to become self-regulated learners through this medium?

Online education not only caters to students’ differentiated needs by enabling them to pick and learn courses they are interested in, but also helps them control their learning environment, learn at their own pace and build a balance between their studies and other commitments.

NPTEL is one such initiative that has taken the IIT classrooms to learners, where they can take up any course of their choice and get certified. The process involves enrolling in a course, working on assignments, taking up an in-person proctored exam and clearing it. Self-monitoring, goal setting and interest in the chosen subject can help students become self-regulated learners to improve their skills. So far, more than 8.5 lakh learners have completed NPTEL Certifications.

With digital platforms in active use now, what will be the impact on classroom learning once it resumes?

When classes resume, most teachers will probably adopt a hybrid model such as flipped classrooms, having seen the benefits of online learning, as it also offers the advantage of taking courses outside one’s domain of specialisation and gaining a certain degree of expertise. In NPTEL, some of the most popular coding courses are open to all and learners from various fields can ace the exams, provided they listen to the lectures and practice well. Students may want more opportunities and exposure offered by online courses.

In fact, IIT-Madras has introduced an online BSc in Programming and Data Scienc, which will offer a lot of flexibility to students to learn without constraints. Faculty and students who have enjoyed the benefits of online learning will bring those elements into classroom teaching as well. The future of the teaching-learning process is going to be an exciting one.

Many students still face challenges with online learning, as they are not used to the concept. How can they adjust to this change?

Students and faculty members will struggle for some time if they are not used to the online medium. Students should form online groups with their friends and erstwhile benchmates from the physical classroom. This will reduce the feeling of loneliness while learning online.

There is certainly a need for faculty members or teachers to learn online pedagogical methods and tune their content and teaching style to benefit students. For instance, one important requirement is to ensure that lectures are interspersed with questions to test the understanding of students at regular intervals.

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