With the advent of the digital era of the new millennium, various sectors are restructuring themselves to suit the needs of a digital environment. Businesses are going online, pioneers are developing new e-services, and even Governments have enacted legislation favouring the digital economy all around the globe.
FOR EXAMPLE, take GST in India; the law demanded that tax procedures be completed online on a portal, instead of sitting in an auditor’s cabin and filling forms. Even healthcare has gone digital with platforms such as Practo and NetMeds.
In such a timeline, it only makes sense to introduce digital mechanisms into the education sector as well. From minor digital aids to full-fledged online learning, digital education has undergone a huge evolution in the past 20 years. Online education came into existence even before the creation of the internet as we know it today. Through the intranet, universities began offering online courses for their students in the mid-1900s.
In 1984, the University of Toronto rolled out the world’s first-ever fully internet-based course. Now, in the 2020s, online courses on platforms such as Coursera and Udemy have been the frontrunners of the digital education phenomenon. At present, the global online learning market is worth more than a whopping $180 billion.
Speaking of India, the first traces of digitization in schools and colleges came in the 2010s. Most students’ first memory of digital education involves the introduction of the SmartBoard, with pre-recorded videos and exercise modules to encourage interactive learning beyond the monotone of the traditional teacher.
As time progressed, quizzes and tests went online in the classroom to make the testing process easier and to encourage regular reviews. Soon, distance learning was seen as viable and even propagated by the Government through various programs.
With the onset of the pandemic, education went online all over the world. Online classes became the norm, and the education system underwent major changes to adapt to distance learning within a short period of time. However, students and teachers could not help but draw comparisons between the traditional offline mode and the present online classes. Some yearned to go back to their classroom, while some wanted to stay at home and learn at their discretion.
Both systems of learning have their own merits and demerits. The first key benefit that everyone noticed in digital education compared to traditional education is removing “place” requirements. Even before the pandemic, people could undertake online courses from anywhere in their comfort. Unlike traditional education, there is no standard classroom that they have to report to and sit inside.
This meant huge savings in terms of transport and accommodation. For example, a person in India can do a course from a university in London without travelling to London and taking lodging there and still get a legitimate certificate of completion provided he satisfies all other requirements.
The comparing basis that stems from the aforesaid merit is in terms of costs. Online education, vis-a-vis traditional education, is undoubtedly cheaper and more affordable. Besides savings in transport and accommodation, online courses also cost less in terms of tuition, as the teacher is also free to upload lectures at his own leisure. Moreover, the institution has the freedom to slash prices as less money is spent on managing students at the physical institution.
For example, during the pandemic induced lockdowns, colleges such as JNU collected fees at subsidized rates, as there were no additional on-campus expenses. This makes education more accessible for the group of people who can afford the internet (which is undoubtedly becoming cheaper and cheaper) but not quality education.
In India, the government continuously incorporates schemes to increase internet penetration in remote areas. This will be accompanied by a rise in educational levels as well.
Digital education and traditional education are not mutually exclusive. They can be provided at the same time to the same student for the same course. For example, classroom education can be supplemented with the digitization of certain elements.
Many colleges in India prefer the traditional system of education but with digital aids, such as computer labs, online seminars, digital learning software, etc.
And this phenomenon is not just restricted to the creamy layer of institutions such as IITs and IIMs. Even colleges in 2nd and 3rd tier districts are incorporating enhanced learning methods to embellish their curricula.
Take the engineering path as an example. Non-software-based engineering courses can be completed entirely in the traditional mode, as they were in the past. But present institutions prefer to introduce virtual training modules that can help students understand 3D modelling better.
Take the case of Arya College in Jaipur. The campus has not one, not two, but 80 fully equipped labs that students frequently use to assist their learning. Wifi is integrated into every nook and corner to ensure interconnectivity. There are over 2000 computers on campus to be used for academic purposes. Classrooms are equipped with smart learning devices as well. It is interesting to note that this is not a standalone phenomenon.
Many colleges all over the country are adopting this model slowly. For example, in top colleges like IITs, certain subjects have to be done fully online, either through Coursera or via a lecturer from abroad. Some colleges also equip their students with their own laptops or tablets to enable distance learning on campus. Thus there is always scope for combining digital education and traditional education into one mixed syllabus.
There was speculation that digital education was nothing more than a trend that wouldn’t last as long as traditional education in its early stages. However, the same was stated about online shopping, online communication etc. At present, digital shopping dominates traditional shopping by a large margin.
The same happened with education during the pandemic and is likely to happen in the next 20 years as the world moves more and more towards technology. The introduction of the Metaverse could lead to the innovation of having a traditional classroom experience in an alternate online reality.
However, both methods still have the upper hand over the other in various aspects. For example, digital education implies that one can learn from anyone ready to upload educational content. It can happen over any platform, such as college authorized websites, Coursera, or even YouTube.
The instructor may or may not be a qualified professional but is highly likely to know what he’s talking about, and may have extensive on-field knowledge. On the other hand, traditional education happens in a formalized system of academia. Teaching is done by teachers and professors who are subject matter experts. It takes place in a physical institution with standardized curricula and testing that judges everyone on an equal footing.
Digital education also removes “time” requirements to a certain extent. Traditional education requires students to be present in class from a specified time to a specified time daily, for a number of days each year. The timings are generally not flexible and are common for all students of course.
Digital education on the other hand runs on flexibility. Other than online classes induced by the pandemic, most online courses can be taken at any time of the day. Moreover, since the lectures are pre-recorded, a student can watch them and take notes at his convenience, be it in the middle of the night or at the break of dawn.
Another flexibility that comes with digital education vis-a-vis traditional education is the volume of content that can be covered. Pacing in traditional education is standardized. There is only so much syllabus that can be taught to a student at a time. Course outlines are followed rigidly. On the other hand, in digital education (excluding online classes), students can cover the course at their own pace.
They can choose any lecture at any time and can cover the course at their speed. They can take months for a small course, or finish a big course in one day with an all-nighter. Moreover, they can attend it from any device, be it their phone, laptop, or a full-fledged projector.
From the tutor’s perspective, a major benefit that is derived from digital education is its adaptability. Inclement weather, natural calamities, political riots etc often drive a wedge through traditional education in the form of breaks.
Digital education on the other hand runs unperturbed by such developments. Since the learning happens at the location of the student, the tutor can proceed with teaching with no regard to external events. Students have the opportunity to continue with their education despite adverse happenings, which will enhance the literary capability of any country.
There are still certain aspects of traditional education that cannot be replicated in digital education.
This cannot happen in an online environment, be it pre-recorded lectures or live online classes. There can be no real-time doubts, and more often than not, video cameras of the students are not on. As a result, the tutor cannot decipher whether the student is listening, or whether he is even seated in front of his system for the class in the first place.
From the student’s point of view, an online class helps them in being a truant easier. But there are certain aspects that they miss out on, such as sitting next to a classmate and asking doubts during class. In addition, peer-to-peer interaction is limited in digital education.
Online courses are just each student watching a few videos and selecting MCQs on a few quizzes. Some courses have a digital forum for peer-to-peer discussion, but more often than not they are empty.
Practical learning is another aspect where traditional education has the upper hand over digitization. In the line of advanced sciences, such as Biology, Physics, Chemistry etc, efficient learning cannot be done from home. These courses require high practical knowledge that can be acquired only from laboratories through practice. Students cannot become subject matter experts in these subjects with a few lectures and a few notes.
For courses based on software and technology, digital education is more than sufficient as most of the practical learning happens on the same laptop that the student uses for classes.
There is still a stigma revolving around digital education. We have all seen memes on how the next generation obtaining online degrees will devalue various professions. In terms of placements and college admissions, digital education continues to have lower goodwill compared to traditional degrees.
The student batch of 20-21 has been infamously dubbed the “Corona batch” all over the world, for they gave their important exams online. While cheating becomes much easier in the online mode, it puts honest students at a disadvantage for no reason.
Digital education is treated as a supplement to traditional modes of education in today’s world, despite its increased efficiency. At present, there is no chance of digital education becoming an equivalent replacement for traditional education in any part of the world.
The Internet is cheaper to install than constructing schools, and yet more areas have schools or small tutoring centres than the internet. Hence digital education and traditional education are not to be taken as one versus the another. On the contrary, both should be encouraged at the same time, with one being complementary to the other.