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January 22, 2003 10:33 IST
With several Web sites and education companies offering e-learning solutions, many are turning to the Net for education.
No more waiting for buses which never come or fighting crowds at rush hour to reach your classes halfway across town. Classes now come directly to your home. Your desktop, to be precise.
Online courses on all subjects, from the CBSE syllabus to retailing, have changed the face of education in India. The education bug has caught up with Indian Web sites and they are doing their best to provide students with an alternative way to quality education.
Gurukul Online Learning Solutions, an e-learning portal, was conceived in 1999. CEO Shailesh Mehta, CEO says, "The online medium of education was an obvious choice for us, because online education is student-centric, unlike traditional education that is faculty centric."
The trend is steadily catching up with students across India as the Internet spreads and gains popularity. "Student acceptance levels were low initially, but now we have a hold of the market and know what students' expectations are, and the response curve is evolving," says Madhukar AL, regional manager, egurucool.com.
But Vikas Mishra, marketing manager of emacmillan.com feels that e-learning is currently for a niche segment. "The student response has been fairly good but not up to our expectations yet," he says.
An online course usually functions this way. First, the student registers at the Web site and sends in a cheque, demand draft or uses a credit card to pay online. A course packet containing study material is then sent to the student, if required, with an online ID or PIN and password for access. The student can log on to the site and go through the syllabus, study or download the material.
Making e-learning effective
An electronic page is miles apart from a textbook. The challenge for e-learning portals is in making their Web pages as, or more effective than textbooks. This is done by making the "virtual course interactive, with chat and other software to make learning a real experience" says Rakesh Singh, associate professor, in economics and supply chain management at NMIMS.
"Interaction among the learners, and between the students and the instructor is important. Hands-on experience and lab exercises which can be done by simulations of problem scenarios are also helpful," adds Mehta. Madhukar AL explains, "The interface has to be very clear and students must find it easy to surf through the site. And the content needs to be more elaborate, because of the absence of face-to-face interaction."
Most online courses are strictly online, but many e-courses include additional features like student-teacher live chats, online assignments and resources for additional studies, playback of recorded classrooms of expert faculties, discussion boards and email support. Some sites go a step further with synchronous or live support in the form of virtual classrooms. Some may have personal interactive classroom sessions offline in select cities.
What gives e-learning an edge over traditional learning is accessibility, according to Madhukar AL: "You can learn at your own convenience, customise tests and get instant feedback on how you fared. Besides, it is cheaper than regular tuition classes."
Mishra agrees, "Unlike regular classes, students can work as well as study at their own pace and interact with the faculty when they have doubts. Besides, e-learning assures standardisation of training and content presented. This is also true for any certification the students may receive.” Adds Mehta, “You can scale up a few faculties for benefits of thousands of students. And with features such as recorded classrooms, you will not have problems of missed classes anymore."
The drawbacks of e-learning
The flipside is obvious - no personal interaction with the teacher. "It is difficult to know whether the student has understood the concept,” points out Madhukar AL. “PC penetration is also very low in India - few students have computers and Internet connections and even fewer are aware of online courses," he adds.
"E-learning requires a lot of self-driven study methods. Some people have phobias concerning computers, while others balk at any type of computer interaction. They may feel it is too impersonal. Some people may simply freeze when confronted with learning on a computer," says Mishra. But Mehta is optimistic: "The only impediments are that of bandwidth and mindset issues, which we are fast overcoming."
Puneet Arora, an engineering student expects an online course to be "more practical than sitting in a class room". However, he feels that this method of teaching has a few drawbacks. "Some courses let students submit their assignments on the Web. This gives more scope of cheating by students. Moreover, going through material on the Internet makes this form of learning slower than in a classroom."
Amrita Kriplani, a first-year student, echoes another concern, "I'm used to the traditional classroom method of teaching and I guess that will and can never be replaced."
E-learning portals are aware of this disadvantage. "We decided to offer the supply chain management course online as well as online-cum-print, because of several requests. Many prospective students do not have the Net at home," says Singh.
But working people like Raghubir Biswas find online courses much easier. "Without disturbing my official work schedule I could carry out my course of choice, otherwise not possible for a professional like myself." But he points out, "The main challenge is that an online learner has to be self-motivated to study, because unlike a regular class there is no instructor who will enquire about the progress or take class tests."