Education

Transforming higher education through technology

The National Education Policy 2020 released amidst the pandemic, exclusively talks about how the relationship between technology and education at all levels is bidirectional.

Dataquest recently organized a webinar on transforming higher education through technology. The webinar deliberate on this and the evolving education landscape, digital readiness of educational institutes, the pedagogy suited for the digital world and related issues.

In the session we had many distinguished guests with lot of experience in both education and technology sectors. As part of its initiative to facilitate industry dialogue and dissemination of information on industry matters, trends and concerns, Dataquest is organizing a webinar to explore and understand the impact of technology on higher education in India.

While technology has always disrupted markets, business models and the way things are done, the pandemic has ushered in unprecedented level of change across sectors, including the approach to teaching, learning and evaluating.

The National Education Policy 2020 released amidst the pandemic, exclusively talks about how the relationship between technology and education at all levels is bidirectional.

The policy document also specifies that use and integration of technology to improve multiple aspects of education will be supported and adopted, provided these interventions are rigorously and transparently evaluated in relevant contexts before they are scaled up.

The participants were:

  • Dr. Madhu Chitkara, Pro-Chancellor, Chitkara University
  • Dr. Ramesh Mittal, Director, National Institute of Agricultural Marketing
  • Mr Puneet Tanwar, President-Technology, Upgrad
  • Mr Venkat Sitaram, GM & Geo Head-South India Corporate Business, Dell Technologies
  • Mr Valan Sivasubramanian, Manager Systems Engineering, Fortinet
  • Mr Pradeep Gupta, Chairman, CyberMedia Group, who was the moderator of the panel discussion.
  • Mr Vijay K Thadani, Co-Founder and Member, Board of Management NIIT University and Vice Chairman & MD, NIIT.

Subhendu Parth, Editor, was the host of the webinar. He addressed the panel with a welcome note, and Venkat Sitaraman, Dell Technologies India, delivered the first keynote. He said the pandemic has been the catalyst for advancing education. We are a partner with the Government of India, and have also partnered them in crafting the National Education Policy 2020. We are doing a lot of work beyond infrastructure enablement. This is with respect to content, fostering tools, etc., for students’ education in the future. Dell, along with the Atal Tinkering Labs, have set up lot of training centers.

We are also enabling teachers to be trained on modern, emerging, IT technologies. We are trying to make technology access ubiquitous.

Pradeep Gupta said the pandemic has changed the face of education. People could not come to the campus, and everything was done virtually.

Dr Mrs. Madhu Chitkara said Chitakara University has two branches, in Chandigarh and Himachal Pradesh. For the last four years, we have been in online and offline mode for some time. We invested so much in technology. We have been digital from day one. Around 80% of our teachers were already in the online mode. 10-20% were seniors. There was some apprehension about the technology. Within a week, we moved to fully online mode. NEP 2020 has also happened. Technology will be the bread and butter for all the educational institutes.

Dr Ramesh Mittal, Director, National Institute of Agriculture Marketing, said the inception report was prepared by IIM Ahmedabad. After this lockdown, we have shifted to digital. We have a program on par with IIM Ahmedabad. We shifted to the online program.

Based on recommendations of the UGC and the AICTE, we have fulfilled all of the requirements by providing online classes and internships. Initially, final placements were done physically. Later on, some companies regretted to have joined in for the students. They said, let the students work online only. So, they have given the assignments, along with the salaries. It was a very good experience for the students, as well. By sitting at home, they were also doing lot of assignments, from the HR, marketing, operations, finance, etc., sides. Our campus placement since the last 20 years is 100% job oriented. The average salary received by students was Rs. 8 lakhs. We are now looking at the pandemic as an opportunity.

Vijay Thadani, NIIT, noted that over the years we have noticed that there is a new idea. You need to push that idea, and then, some crisis happens, and everything falls in place. The most positive effect of Covid-19 over the last 20-50 years has now happened. NEP laid the foundation, and Covid-19 provided the opportunity for digital transformation and education reform, which were always required. In our 38-year journey, where we trained 36 million learners across 40 countries, each time a crisis took place, it gave tremendous usage power of technology, and therefore, education in technology. Even in 1980s, the birth of the IBM PC democratized computing. Even the dotcom bust created a wave.

Second, there were different organizations. There were three degrees of maturity required. One, experience in education. Next, the further you are on the technology adoption curve, the better your chances. Third, how have you treated innovation? On March 14, we started WFH, and all operations shifted to home. March 24, NIIT Digital and NIIT University were on fully digital platforms. The full lifecycle of learning — labs, projects, assessments, etc. — was transformed. I must compliment the government. They played an enormously flexible role. MHRD showed trust and said to the institutes to go and do their things. A lot of good things will emerge. No transition happens without hiccups. Parents also played a part in learning.

Puneet Tanvar said that the immediate impact of the pandemic was heightened sensitivity of learners. There was an uncertainty regarding where jobs were headed. They also looked at where they needed to upskill themselves. People also had a lot of time due to WFH. WFH is for working professionals, and that’s leading to savings in costs. There was a need for education, time for education, and the investment. We are an online business. We have seen a huge increase in traffic over the last six months. Once people see and realize how online works, the trend will accelerate. The NEP will only boost it further.

Some organizations had problems, being brick and mortar, in general, such as partitions, etc. For us, it was how do we scale, and what are the courses students are interested in.

Gupta said Dataquest has done a survey of how ready are the different educational institutions today. It will be published shortly. He asked Sitaraman how does Dell intend to make the institutes technology ready.

Sitaraman of Dell Technologies India said today, everything impossible has become possible. 10 years ago, Dell was already allowing folks to work remotely. When the pandemic happened, the shift was much easier. We also helped the institutes understand the technologies they need to adopt. First, infrastructure and access for connectivity. Second, we looked at teacher training. Students have to leverage and have access to content. Third, we outlined scientific industrial research around some important areas. It is also opening up a lot of opportunities for students. Research activity is also of paramount importance. Finally, operations, and to do with the campus itself. A new, hybrid environment is already evolving. There will be some students on video, some remote, and some from other parts of the country. Distance barriers have already been broken.

We are moving forward in the digital era. A lot of educational institutes have taken forward steps, and we call them as leaders. We have taken very quick steps for the future.

What sort of infrastructure is required? Valan Sivasubramanian, Fortinet, said that  the challenge has been huge during the pandemic. The solution we had, allowed 80-90% employees to connect. Fortinet also decided to provide free training to the entire public. We could see there was a huge lag in cyber skillset. We made it available. Universities can also set up cyber security labs where they can train the students.

Today’s students spend 140+ hours a week with their devices. 72% of students connect at least two devices to the campus network. 40% of higher education students would like to use mobile technologies more often. 63% of higher education institutes ook at cloud options first. 83% of students feel that tablets will transform the way they learn in future. The global education market is predicted to grow 17% per year.

There is also an expanding attack surface, due to a disparate and diverse ecosystem.  Combined with digital technologies, this creates the perfect storm for hackers. It is an apt environment for hackers, using explicit content, unauthorized access, and malicious URL. There are criminals seeking financial gains, nation states looking to steal personal data and IP. They are stealing technical resources, sensitive research and IP. All of this leads to reputation loss, financial loss, identity theft, and research loss.

We need to protect against new threat vectors. We also need to secure the digital environment. System upgrades and patches can adversely affect the infrastructure causing vulnerabilities. Point products can be inefficient and costly. The elements we need today should have visibility across the digital attack surface, protect against sophisticated threats, have an intelligent security architecture, and simplified compliance.

Fortinet suggests broad, integrated solutions, which are also automated. Key fabric pillars are zero-trust network access, security-driven networking, dynamic cloud security, and AI-driven security operations. There is a need for an alliance ecosystem. Fortinet provided free, complete training content from March to December 2020. There is also the Fortinet NSE or Network Security Academy with 20 courses and four certification levels. It enables institutions to prepare students for careers in network security.

Pradeep Gupta said that technologies have always impacted. What are some of the technologies that are emerging?

Dr. Chitkara said we are talking about educational verticals. Now, we have to take care of all the verticals. If these are properly used, the future will be an era of higher education. One positive outcome has been the adoption of digital technologies. Digital can also upgrade the education system, for the teachers and the students. Parents have come into the teachers bedrooms. They are looking at how technology is being given to students. They are looking at how we are preparing students for the new normal. We have rich platforms for the continuous education of students. All professors are coming to the campus to deliver lectures to the students.

International patrons also allowed use of technology and platforms. For the industry, we were attached to over 650 industrial houses. We are proud to say that we have 100% placement. Industry is also coming forward to help change the curriculum. We upgraded our library. We have different courses. We also partnered with AWS. AWS talked about cloud computing and virtualization.

Gupta said there are challenges of education. Tanvar said personalization is an important part for us. Students should be able to access learning on any device. The learning platform should be light weight, work on several devices, and network conditions, etc. We have to ensure the learning platform caters to different types of audiences. Personalization is a huge area of focus, which begins very early. We are helping students choose the right programs so they can have a fulfilling career. Then the actual content itself. The outcomes they are expecting can be very different. Somebody may be looking at it as a job transition, and someone else will be looking at it as a managerial aid. What kind of support can we provide through that journey?

We also have mentors who are looking at how well students are doing, and even getting into a call with them, when they need to. Students need support from somebody who is watching out for them.

Gupta asked whether he is using AI to capture a lot of data for all of this. Puneet said it is a complex problem to solve. We have implemented AI in certain steps of the process. We ensure that learners get the right outcomes that they want. We measure ourselves as an organization in terms of how successful are students in terms of what do they want! We also have a career portal where learners can apply for jobs, recruiters can post jobs, etc. We are using AI to find the best available jobs for the learners. The jobs are customized to their skills, etc. There is a lot of scope for AI/ML to personalize course content.

Gupta next asked Dr Ramesh Mittal, how are they handling engagements. In agriculture, people think we are not tech-savvy. We are also providing advocacy, policy, etc. The Agriculture Ministry has 29 incubation centers and we are part of the incubation center. When the pandemic started in March, it was difficult to enroll the incubatees. Credit goes to technology and ITeS. Registrations have happened and applications have been invited through IT-related applications. The virtual incubation centers are working across the country. A two-month training program happened through this virtual platform.

In the agricultural sector, more than 300 startups have been developed. 59 of these are from the National Institute of Agriculture Marketing. Smart agriculture concept is also used country-wide. Many startups are using IoT. Many state departments are looking for consultancy. Eg., from Jaipur, we are handling supply chain challenges for Tripura horticulture produce.

Gupta said why do we need 23 IITs? We can have a new wave ushered by this pandemic, and have professors at one place.

Vijay Thadani, NIIT, said there are some interesting paradigms that are possible. The pandemic has changed the rules of the game. We now need to see how fast the institutions are on the innovation curve. IITs have a right to remain. Many of the 400-500 universities can become as good as the IITs with a well distributed and organized digital infrastructure. There was a case study on virtual collaboration. The current pandemic will allow us to discover this sooner than expected.

How are various technologies being used today? We should consider each one of these technologies as a tool in a toolbox. We should take out the right technology in the right manner, and at the right time. That will determine success, which is dependent on learner effectiveness. Our focus should not be on teaching effectiveness, but on learner effectiveness.

Gupta said that there can be educational offerings bundled. Sitaraman said that moving forward, we are in a human-machine partnership era. We are integrating some of the software for students. Content can be easily accessed and consumed. Systems are coming inbuilt with the digital fabric. It makes the overall experience very rewarding. It enriches the digital experience.

Gupta asked Sivasubramanian about cloud adoption. Onboarding is the easiest part. He said the CSP will take care of the cloud, but the customer should take care of the security of the apps.

Gupta asked each panelist to make a comment on the NEP. Dr. Chitkara said we need to have accreditation. If a university wants to be known for research, they can mention they are a research university. Please assess us as a research outfit. In case they are a teaching university, they should be graded accordingly. Classroom teaching will happen virtually. AR/VR will be primarily used for lab demos, etc.

Sitaraman said the NEP outlines digitization very well. Top priority should be given to technology providers. Sivasubramanian said we should not miss out on the need for change. We should preserve what we need and have new things added on. Security should be a top priority. Dr. Mittal said that NEP and pandemic are going hand-in-hand. Time has to change to digital infrastructure. We should focus more on the digital infrastructure. Eg., supply chains can be managed via blockchain. The complete value chain can be integrated via blockchain.

Dr. Chitkara said students are learning all the time. The personal touch will be very important. Blended learning is the future. Gupta added that some students do not even have a smartphone. Tanvar said we need to give infrastructure a strong push. There should be democratization of education. We need good infrastructure for devices and connectivity.

Thadani said that the government should allow flexibility. We have a toolbox of multiple technologies. We have to play with the cards dealt to us. 11% don’t have access to technology. For the industry and policy makers, let a thousand flowers bloom. Education sector has to lead thought leadership. We need to redefine the framework of education. We should use this opportunity to leverage NEP. We can define the thought leadership paradigm. Security should not be underplayed. That is a high vulnerability area for education.

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