Online education has blurred the lines between disciplines, says IIIT-B Prof Chandrashekar Ramanathan – The Financial Express

Dean of Academics at IIIT-B Professor Chandrashekar RamanathanDean of Academics at IIIT-B Professor Chandrashekar Ramanathan

International Institute of Information Technology, Bangalore (IIIT-B) had tied up with Online Education platform UpGrad and recently, the fourth IIIT-B UpGrad graduation ceremony was held virtually, during which 3,000 learners graduated. As online education is gaining momentum, especially during the coronavirus pandemic and the consequent lockdown, Dean of Academics at IIIT-B Professor Chandrashekar Ramanathan talks to Financial Express Online about Continuing Professional Education (CPE) and how online platforms are changing the way knowledge is imparted. Here are edited excerpts from the interview.

What are the courses that are being offered by IIIT-B under this partnership with UpGrad?

The programme was started in 2016, and it was offered in a face-to-face setting in the IIIT-B campus. That was also the beginning of the wave of Data Analytics and what is today called Data Science and has also evolved into Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, etc. The course was quite popular. The college had offered around two or three sessions for this course in the face-to-face setting and there was a sudden demand which was overwhelming. So we decided that the only way to take classes at this kind of a scale was by going online.

At the same time, UpGrad was also entering the online education space. UpGrad was new to the education space and IIIT-B was new to online education, so during the tie up, we complemented each other well, because with an established player, there could be chances of a mismatch.

Initially, we only started with one programme, which was PG Diploma in Data Analytics, and eventually now, we have evolved it into three programmes. The Data Analytics programme has itself evolved into Data Science, so that’s one. Another one is a slightly advanced programme on Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and the third programme is on Blockchain and Software Development. So far, we have about 10,000 learners who have gone through or going through these programmes. Recently, we had a virtual graduation ceremony, in which 3,000 students graduated from these courses.

Who is the target audience of these courses that have been organised with UpGrad? Are these the same students who are enrolled in regular courses?

There is no overlap between the learners who take these online courses and the ones that are enrolled in the regular courses. We kind of focus on working professionals with these courses. In these programmes, the course itself is the same as the regular one, but there is a difference in the way it is delivered and the way we go about imparting that body of knowledge.

Through edtech courses and resources, the lines across different streams and disciplines can get blurred. This is also in line with what is proposed in the new educational policy. What are your views on this diversified learning that transcends the boundaries of the educational streams?

When the internet came, very popularly we used to say that online has blurred the physical boundaries. But what online education has done is that it has also started blurring the lines between disciplines as well. So there is nothing that is stopping anyone from foraying into any discipline, as long as you have the necessary requisites. Even the range of offerings is also very vast. You can go and pitch yourself at any level that you are comfortable at.

In the traditional form of education, there were sets of templates and unless you fit into that template, you could not get in. The template could be on the basis of factors like your undergraduate degree, or your educational background, or how much marks you obtained.

I think this is a phenomenal shift in focus from institution-imparted education to learner-based education, where learners themselves can figure out what their sweet spot is, and pursue courses based on their levels. And this is exactly what the NEP 2020 is also trying to formalise. There is a lot to be gained across these multiple disciplines and there should not be any barriers inhibiting percolation of ideas across these disciplines. I think it is a wonderful opportunity.

With this lockdown, there has been a steep increase in digital courses. How does, in this case, one determine which course would be genuine and would provide the proper guidance and education?

With the proliferation of options that are available, there is always some amount of confusion that is bound to exist. I think we are only revisiting the same confusion that used to exist in choosing the college. And that confusion has only magnified in the online world, wherein without any physical limitations, there are thousands of options.

According to me, it depends on who is doing this assessment of choosing this course. I will take two or three views here. Suppose the assessment is being done by a parent – which means by someone who is not really familiar with the subject itself. In that case, of course, pedigree does matter, So questions like where is this education coming from and who is delivering it come to mind. That is where you would have to put your trust into people who have already done it or are doing it. Again, there are two levels to it – first is the institution that is providing the course, and second are the individuals who are involved in it. Both of these things matter. I am distinguishing between the two is that there can be offerings coming from institutions which are not so well known themselves, but the people who are delivering these might be people with great credentials.

If you see, there are some courses that are offered by online education players which are new but they have created a great team. So while the institution itself is not well known, the people delivering the course are very credible. So these courses can be a great choice as well.

On the other hand, if the assessment is being made by a working professional, then for them it has to be a bit more systematic, because they have already got their Bacherlor’s, possibly their Master’s and they also have work experience. While they can also do the basic screening like outsiders do, they can also take it to the next level and assess how the education is being imparted.

So, in this one even a bit of background knowledge on pedagogy would really help. In education, we say that any body of knowledge can be divided into seven categories of knowledge, which is famously referred to as the Bloom’s Anderson Taxonomy. I want to broadly divide it into two categories — the amount of knowledge imparted that is necessary for the learner to remember and understand the concept and the amount that is imparted through practice or is applied. I don’t like to use these terms, but in layperson’s terms, it can be called theory and practical methods of imparting knowledge. So depending on different courses and different learners, the emphasis on these two components would need to be balanced.

For example, if I am a working professional, I would put more emphasis on practice and assess whether the online course is giving more emphasis on the ability to practice what I am learning. That would be something extremely crucial to a working professional. On the other hand, if the learner is a student, a very strong foundation is more important. So, I would ensure that the programme talks about a lot of conceptual, foundational knowledge. That is not to say that no practical knowledge is needed, but in the Indian work culture, at least, when a company is hiring, they would like to take a person who is a quick learner. And someone becomes a quick learner by having their foundations very strong.

So the first thing would be to go by the pedigree, in terms of the institution and the individuals delivering the course, and the other point would be to figure out the balance between so-called theory and practice incorporated into the programme, and based on this, the learner would be able to choose the programme that is better suited for their needs.

Building on what you said, then, is that how IIIT-B also looks at courses with regard to their theory and practical components?

Yes, indeed. If you look at our UpGrad courses, they are targeted at working professionals or practitioners. So these courses have that structure that, in our opinion, gives them the correct amount of practical exposure while also imparting the necessary foundational aspects of it. But, on the other hand, if you look at our in-house courses and programmes, we spend a lot more time in building the students’ foundations. This is also reflected in the overall duration of these courses. A typical Master’s programme is a two-year programme, whereas an online PG Diploma course is a one-year programme. Moreover, our integrated MTech programme is a five-year course.

How is IIIT-B going about re-imagining the future of CPE and higher education?

Even if the current situation is taken out of the equation, IIIT-B has been actively looking at the opportunities that are present in online education and the advantage that we seem to be able to bring is that many of the programmes at IIIT-B itself are fairly established. So we are trying to bring that experience and position it for an online world. We have been in touch with the industry for the last 20 years, because we have been placing our students in the industry. So we think, we probably understand the need of the industry. So far, thankfully, we have been doing pretty well in terms of placement year after year.

This means that we also now believe that we are probably better positioned to offer programmes to working professionals as well, due to this knowledge about industry requirements. So we have kind of been tailoring our own programmes for working professionals who might not have stepped into an educational institution for the last 5 to 10 years. So the reimagining part comes in the form of removing the barriers to entry and by ensuring that people as well as the industry get what they need.

At the institute level, what are some of the efforts that IIIT-B has made to enable upskilling within organisations and how beneficial do you think it is from the organisations’ point of view?

There was a time a few years ago, when organisations would come to IIIT-B to conduct their orientation programmes. I really appreciate their forward-looking attitude, because normally, in traditional induction programmes, everyone has to go through a training where they are taught some soft skills and then they are immediately pushed into the job. We did have three different organisations that approached us to conduct their induction programmes seeing value in their strong conceptual foundations.

Coming into the online world also, we are looking forward to working directly with organisations in what we call consultancy-based education. The challenge with all the industries is that if they want to improve the capacity within the organisations, their employees need to undergo training, but when these people go to general-purpose training, the employees come back and have difficulty in applying what they learnt. This is a huge barrier in non-IT industries, except for I think Fintech. Every other sector is struggling, primarily because there is no training available tuned to their industry. This is where IIIT-B is going out with the model of consultancy-based training.

In consultancy-based training, we work very closely with organisations and provide them with subject-matter consultancy for solving their problems using IT. But we don’t walk away after the consultancy engagement is completed. What we try to do is embed some faculty members into the organisation as consultants and try to carve out their problems. Then we assess where technology can play a role in solving these problems. Then we design a customised training programme wherein we help their own employees solve the problems hand in hand. The benefit is that when that consultancy engagement comes to an end, we do not take away that knowledge of solution from the organisation. Then they are well-equipped to take it forward to a lot of internal projects. That is something relatively new that IIIT-B is doing.

What had the reception around CPE been like?

Even if I don’t talk about IIIT-B’s experience in this, across the board there is a lot of interest in making sure that everybody stays on top of the game, especially in the tech space. I don’t know how other industries are coping with CPE, but I can say for sure that in tech, everyone is extremely wary of the changes and are realising that if they don’t keep up, there could be consequences. Therefore, there is a big uptake of CPE and many educational institutions are foraying into it.

How is the ecosystem of CPE affecting all the stakeholders?

I think the employers, the students and the education imparting agency, these are the three key stakeholders.

Out of them, the employer is the largest. There are two things that are happening in terms of the employer’s role – direct and indirect intervention. We use this term B2C – where individuals at their own level come up and sign up for the programmes. But in addition to that, we are also seeing an interest in B2B – where an organisation approaches us and asks us to offer our programme as a part of the reskilling of employees. This has happened not only for the online programmes, but we have also delivered for five consecutive years our own Master’s course face-to-face. The organisation wanted their employees to be a part of continuous learning. That is the direct intervention we are seeing, Many organisations are also seeing it as an opportunity to attract talent and also retain them. I think that is a very attractive option.

Of course, due to this intense competition, there is also a pressure on everybody to ‘shape up or ship off’, as it is said. So that is the organisation’s way of putting an indirect pressure on employees to take part in CPE.

How is this kind of a set up affecting the prospective students, considering the continuous increase in competition?

If you look at the direct involvement of organisations in reskilling of employees, then this question becomes very valid on where this leaves new entrants in the field. I think that is the dilemma. I would still say that depending on how entrenched that particular work is, you want a big differentiator between upskilling an internal employee versus a fresh student who is looking to enter the field. That differentiator is going to be domain knowledge. In the online education space, even in CPE, I see that there is an enormous amount of programmes that are being intended for technology upskilling. I think there is still a lot of opportunity available for training people in the domains. I have not seen programmes being developed to enable somebody to enter into a new domain if they have never worked in that area.

I think that is a big area to be tapped in.

My own thought process is being triggered by the question, because as I look around, I don’t see many courses that say like Banking 101 or something like that. People are pretty much left on their own and if they don’t have that domain knowledge, entering into that sector would continue to be difficult. I hope somebody steps in to fill that gap. Vaguely, I remember that there is an IDRBT in Hyderabad that looks at Banking Technology, but that is the only institution that probably offers something for somebody to enter into banking. However, that is also a banking technology programme. I think sector-specific 101 programmes, that is something that is needed.

Is there anything else you would like to add regarding online education?

The take away from online education is that it is not just working professionals who would benefit from it. I would also urge students to look at the area to help bridge any gap. And they need not confine themselves to technology, because domain is going to be very important and picking up the right knowledge in whatever form and medium available would be very helpful.

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