Online education: Govt must enforce standardisation, regulation of EdTech firms

online education in India to take off
One of the reasons for the success of global online education providers is the standard of content and strict regulations.

By Rustom Kerawalla

The Covid-19 pandemic gave an unexpected push to online education in India. This also posed certain challenges for e-learning format. One of the key issues in the e-learning domain is the lack of standardisation of courses. For instance, each e-learning or EdTech company follows its own set of rules, curriculum, and evaluation system. This has resulted in a lack of uniformity in the education provided on online platforms. Standardisation of online courses is necessary to remove disparities in education across disciplines.

The need for standardisation is evident at the primary, high school and college levels. For a while now, online education has been facing the challenge of various regulators without a single body responsible for the governance of the sector. While institutions have been trying to collaborate with different regulators for a better e-learning experience, there has been no legislation that governs online education in India.

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There is an urgent need to appoint a nodal body to look into the working and standardisation of e-learning content. Not only should the body ensure uniformity of curriculum across e-learning or EdTech companies, it should also approve content that enables students to stay on a portal rather than swap platforms in search of solutions. The other function of the nodal body would be to ensure quality of content for online courses for higher education and college education.

The Right to Education (RTE) Act, 2009 gives state governments the power to form rules and guidelines that are state specific. While the states also have the ability to formulate rules and regulations to govern online learning and education, nothing has been done in this regard.

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A roadmap for online education

On 1July 14 last year, Pragyata guidelines on digital education were announced, which recommended a cap on screen time for students among other steps. A roadmap for carrying forward online education to enhance the quality was set by the guidelines.

The guidelines stressed on the use of alternative academic calendar of the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) for both learners with access to digital devices and for those with limited or no access. The guidelines also emphasized the need to unify all efforts related to online education, benefiting school-going children across the country. The initiative also includes DIKSHA, SWAYAM Prabha, Radio Vahini and Shiksha Vaani.

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Enabling data protection in e-learning

The definition and framework of online education remains quite vague. For instance, in some cases online education even includes teachers sharing worksheets and study material on WhatsApp and training sessions on Skype.

In this regard, an amended version of the Personal Data Protection Bill (PDPB), 2019 will add more firepower to establishing policies, procedures and operational standards for engaging online learning platforms.

Further, a legal framework should define the types of data to be stored, disclosed, location of storage and retrieval, maintenance conditions and data principal’s privileges. Moreover, it should also set down financial, physical and technological protections and specifications for notification of infringements.

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Consent, transparency and accountability, and security safeguards are the three pillars of any data protection policy. Although Pragyata guidelines for digital education takes cognizance of privacy and self-expression issues, it leaves scope for further improvement when it comes to data-protection in e-learning.

Establishing the framework for online learning

The new National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 is a step in the right direction, at least on paper. For example, the policy proposes to set up more virtual labs and equip schools digitally. It also recommends pilot studies for online education and encourages the use of e-learning platforms such as SWAYAM and DIKSHA.

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Apart from recommending a single regulator for higher education institutions, the NEP 2020 proposes to set up a National Education Technology Forum (NETF), a platform for exchange of ideas on the use of technology to enhance learning.

The Covid-19 pandemic gave an unexpected boost to online education in India. This also posed some challenges for online learning formats. The reasons for the success of global online education providers are the standard of content and strict regulation. There is a need for Indian government to emulate the successful models and regulate EdTech companies and online courses.

(Rustom Kerawalla is Chairman, Ampersand Group. Views expressed in this article are personal.)