What are the biggest challenges that Universities face while starting online courses?

Online education has ensured that learning is no more restricted to age, location or physical presence. It can be availed anytime, anywhere. This new age technology and availability of world wide web have made online education a more preferred option, especially for those seeking specialization or further higher education. According to Technavio’s market research analyst prediction, the online education market is growing at a CAGR of 19%. The preference of online education is particularly high in India. For example, 1.3 million out of 18 million of the users of Coursera, world’s largest online education provider, is from India. India has the distinction of being the country with the 2nd biggest number of online learners in the world, right after the USA, despite Indian government so far restricting Indian universities and colleges from offering online degrees, and not recognizing online education, which greatly impedes its adoption by Indian learners and professionals.

Online education has especially opened a new door for learning for working professionals, businessmen and housewives who could not access normal college or university education due to restrictions of their profession or work. However, they can easily spend a few hours a day at a time of their convenience learning from a mobile phone or computer. Even the people who live in a village or inaccessible areas of India can now access online courses offered by top teachers across the world. The cost can also be significantly lower than regular courses. This is the magic of online education. This could be a revolution in a country like India!

No wonder, despite all odds, Indians have been embracing online education like no other country through the academic powers-that-be continue to frown and balk at online courses.  We had a wide variety of experiences while working with universities who launched or intended to launch online courses. Let us share from our experience what are the biggest challenges that universities face when they attempt to launch, or actually launch online courses.

Indian government has finally woken up to the need for online education

“15% of the universities will be eligible to offer online courses in India” recently said the HRD minister, Prakash Javadekar. This is a major shift in government policy. Earlier, the government didn’t allow Indian universities to offer online degree courses even when global giants like Harvard and Oxford jumped onto the online degree bandwagon.

Nevertheless, many conventional universities are not very pleased with the idea of online education. They have their own doubts and skepticisms. It is very understandable and natural, as online education demands a paradigm shift from the methodology and pedagogy universities have been following for many decades. In India especially, any new reforms take a while to be implemented.

However, new technology waits for nobody. Online education is certainly an idea whose time has come. As of 2018, online education is a threat of a tide of changes that would potentially wash away many of the universities and the old way of doing things. Universities will have to reinvent themselves to survive this challenge or become irrelevant. The changing stance of the government is only going to accelerate the inevitable. The fear and in some cases, disbelief, is palpable.

Indian education sector has just experienced the shocking power of market forces that swept away hundreds of engineering and management colleges and destroyed investments worth thousands of crores. The new force of online education is not only mysterious and powerful but certainly does not bring good news for one and all in the education sector. Who will be left standing when the full game would have played out?

We firmly believe that online education will rapidly grow in the higher education sector. It will not only take away students from many traditional classroom courses but also add new learners who would have never made it to the classroom. All universities, therefore, would be forced to start online courses or suffer for failing to do so.

If we go by that assumption, the next question is how should the universities plan to go about this new digital transformation of higher education? In this article, we will cover the biggest challenges that Indian universities will face when they try to launch courses online.

1# Coping up with Dynamic and Rapid Changes in Technology

As per Gartner, more than 20.8 billion connected devices will be in the market by 2020. This will give the opportunity to billions of students, professionals, and anybody who wants to learn anything to get access to world-class education. With global investors investing billions in edtech companies, the landscape of higher education is changing rapidly. Things like simple text-based and simple audio-visual learning technology have become obsolete and are constantly being replaced with more cognitive and customer focussed technology like mobile applications, microlearning, AI-driven learning, online exam technology etc and the changes are becoming more rapid and unpredictable. Every new technology makes it easier, simpler, faster, more entertaining to learn – rendering previous technology obsolete and redundant.

Universities, whether in India and abroad, are rarely great with either developing or tracking and adopting the very best technology. It is easy to get waylaid into the wrong territory, invest in the wrong technology, and be left with obsolete codes. This is why even Harvard and Oxford, with a massive amount of resources, do not develop their own technology but partner with edtech companies like Coursera and EdX.

In India, some universities have tried to develop their own technology and miserably failed. There are others who go with generic technology developers such as TCS and other enterprise software developers who claim they can build e-learning software. In reality, these companies are way too behind the curve. The best idea will be for universities to go with specialized education technology platforms that have gained good traction. You should even use it yourself and see if it is user-friendly. Get feedback from students as well. If your students like that platform, it is probably good.

Launching an online course does not just require technological investment, but it also requires a lot of other investments in the form of infrastructure, time, human resource and energy. Universities are good at creating and imparting knowledge, but the tech is best left to the experts who are specialized in it.

Here are the major areas where good tech will make a difference for world class online courses:

  • Learning management system
  • High-quality encryption that prevents copying or unauthorized download of content
  • Student management system
  • Online exam and automated invigilation software
  • Email and marketing automation software
  • Sales automation and lead tracking software

What is a better option?

In countries like the US, where edtech is an extremely expanding industry, India is not left exactly far behind. With various startups now venturing into the online education system, finding a correct technology and content digitization partner is no big deal. Startups like iPleaders have been doing great in this area for the past 7 years, with collaboration from premier law schools like NUJS. There are a number of ways in which your university can partner with startups like these for conducting webinars, content developing and digitizing, and course collaborations. These startups are generally at par with international technology standards and can help your course come a long way.

2# Abundance of free content on the internet

There is an abundance of free content on the internet. There is Wikipedia, Google, and millions of tutorials on youtube. There are blogs and white papers and academic journals that are available publicly. Knowledge is unlimited, accessible, and free for anyone who wants to access and learn.

A question thus arises, “why would anyone wish to pay for courses when there is free content available online to learn?” The reason for it is same as “why would anyone opt for a school/college when there are books available?”

As much as the internet is swamped with wisdom from all ages and around the world, it also has an equal proportion of fake news, withered, unnecessary and unsystematic information and a lot of distraction. Separating the grain from the chaff has become harder over the years as the internet continues to explode with information.  Online courses are designed to not just provide information or reading material alone. They are about specific teaching aimed at a certain outcome and skill development.

Good online courses streamline the vast information available and guide you through a learning process. The information being available really does not lead to learning. There is a process through expertise can be developed. This is where online courses have a role to play. Plus, you are tested and monitored over a period, and you can track your own learning like never before thanks to high technology.

However, this is very difficult to achieve in reality. Online courses are really competing with everything from Wikipedia to educational channels on youtube. To succeed, it has to continuously evolve, and provide a lot of value than just content.

Here are some ideas to explore:

    • Can you provide a community or space where discussions, brainstorming, and arguments can take place?

      Yes, this is becoming a critical part of online education. In iPleaders courses, for example, while reading the textual material, one can start a discussion anywhere within the text, thanks to technology. People who read the same material later can benefit from these comments, and leave their own comments. There are moderators who ensure that unnecessary or irrelevant comments are kept out. There are also slack channels or Whatsapp groups where much discussions, information sharing, clarification of doubts and even arguments over academic issues take place. There are also webinars where people participate and raise questions. We must encourage this in any form of online learning.

    • Give the students an opportunity to produce publishable work as part of the course.

      If it is a technology class, let them make something and put it online. Maybe run a Kickstarter campaign around it if it has enough fizz. If it is an online law course, like most of the iPleaders courses, we can have the students organize an online moot court competition. We ask our students to write articles that they can publish anywhere, and we even allow them to publish the good ones on blog.iPleaders.in. What if you introduce a policy for your online courses that published work gets full marks no matter what.


  • Provide a recruitment interface.

    Yes, just like you have to provide recruitment support for your offline students, you need to do the same for online students as well. However, the way you do it differs a lot. From the beginning of our online courses, we made it a point to provide some sort of recruitment support and it worked beautifully.


  • Organize physical meetups.

    This is very powerful. Online courses should lead to powerful online communities, which work as the backbone of further growth of your online course. Promoting and facilitating physical meetups is a wonderful idea. Consider calling your best students, mentors, faculties in one place and facilitate them.

The numbers in India are in favor of online courses

As per a survey by Times of India, “82 percent Indians agreed that online courses provide benefit for career advancement and 76 percent for educational advancement benefit. 91 percent of Indians saw different benefits as against the global average of 88 percent and 68 percent. 30 percent more Indian learners are likely to take admissions in these kinds of academic programmes, highest as compared to other countries.”

This necessarily means if you can develop a course that really adds value to the students and provide quality education, it is on its way to success.

3# Mindset of University Staff and Faculty Members

Your university might boast of excellent staff and faculties. They must be extremely passionate about what they do and bring laurels to the university. Their support and dedication must have made what your university is today. However, when it comes to online education, they might completely crash and burn. Online education is a very different ballgame in many ways when compared to traditional classroom education, and what works in classroom rarely works online. It is an entirely different skill set, and more importantly, it requires a very different mindset to run a successful online course. Most people who have been working at universities for years completely fail to grasp how online courses are to be run despite so much experience in the education sector.

If you look at various reports by Washington Post, Techcrunch, UniversityWorldNews, and a bunch of other reports, most faculties all around the globe seem to hate the concept of online education.  As per Techcrunch, 72% of professors believe that the students should not even be credited to get official college credit, even if they performed well. There can be three basic reasons for that.

  1. A radical shift in classroom vs. online teaching

Most of the faculties are so well acquainted and comfortable with the classroom teaching approach that they almost refuse to adapt to anything new. Their comfort levels and principles act as a major roadblock to any change. They feel that online education will tamper or ruin pedagogy and won’t benefit the students at all. They fear that the lack of face to face interaction, or human involvement might also lead to social reclusion of the student.

More importantly, though, the fact is that they are completely unequipped to teach online. They have no idea what will work, and it is often a fear of change and general inertia about something radical like online education paralyzes them from doing the required experimentation and learning. It is like asking an accomplished guitar player to start with drums.

Interestingly, famous professors rarely make great online teachers. Usually, the online teachers are a different breed altogether.

  1. You have to compete at a global level with other online courses

While a faculty of any university might teach whatever they like in the class and get away with it. Even if you are mediocre in a mediocre university, it is hardly a problem. You can still have your class, your job and students will line up to get an education. This is not how it works with online classes.

Instead of 20, 50 or 100 students, your class can become a massive thousand of students. Because there is no problem in accomodating a large number of students in an online class, students do not have to opt for a sub-par class. All of them can go for the best. This means that every course is competing at the global level with the world’s best courses.

That is very difficult for most faculty to digest, or deal with. Being the best in the world is not everyone’s cup of tea.

Moreover, unlike the conventional classroom, the success rate of the course is now solely dependent on them, which means, they are more accountable than ever. While this is leading to the creation of a generation of superstar teachers who become famous, there are others who would not make the cut.

In the world of online education, you need a very different breed of teachers.

  1. Overburdening, absence or unwillingness to work.

Given the already hectic schedule of most academics, no one wants to take up the extra and daunting responsibility of creating, launching and running online courses. An online course comes with a lot more responsibility than to just create content. It includes moderation, mentorship, continuous support and test conducting at the appropriate time, which is no mean task. Universities have to either hire online education experts in-house or outsource some of the work to companies like iPleaders.

Most of the universities often find it difficult to develop highly specialized world-class courses.  It is a very new thing. Even the university staff is used to catering to the captive body of students rather than thousands of online students who expect top notch customer service and no bureaucracy. These online students are ready to write terrible reviews online if they are not satisfied with the course, which becomes an added reputation management burden on the university. Hence, the decision to launch online courses should not be taken lightly.

4# Acquisition, retention, and management of customers

Established Indian universities are amongst those few in today’s world who do not believe in the concept of customer service. How can students be customers? They are just students. Who are lucky to study at our institutions and must accept the way we function if they want the privilege of studying here. This worked very well in hallowed halls of learning – but in the online world, this does not work at all.

Online education is a very different world, where the students are the king. They have many options to choose from. Hence, just like other online service providers and e-commerce stores, online education providers also must scramble to provide great customer experience, no matter how distasteful they find it, and how much they think that it is selling out.

Online education thrives on marketing and advertising. Even the IIMs have to advertise online when they offer online education courses. Online education platforms heavily invest in social media promotion, content marketing, sales teams, quality control, customer service teams, and state of the art software in order to align the organization towards giving the customers a great experience. Most academicians, in the meanwhile, will refuse to call the student a customer, forget considering that they have to serve the customer.

While the private universities in India spare no opportunity to advertise themselves, most of the state and autonomous universities run just on their brand value. Especially the engineering, management, law, and medicine – central and state universities do not need any advertising as there exists a common notion that a government college is any day better than any private university. They do not have to struggle to get students, students line up themselves. However, online education is different. It can require orchestrated selling efforts even in launched by the most famous university because the economics is very different here.

Managing the students is also a big challenge. Universities are used to having a few students in the class. When they have thousands of online students, they have no idea as to how they can manage even the phone calls that pour in before every exam, submission or important date. It is indeed a challenge to master simply because universities never deal with the scale that they face when they launch online courses. It is good news for coffers, but only as long as the administrators figure out what to do.

5# Legal uncertainty in India

India is still trying to evolve its legal framework of online education. Earlier, there was a lot of confusion regarding the validity of online education and its certification as the University Grants Commission refused to recognize online courses. Online education in India was covered in the clouds of uncertainty until last year when a lot of UGC members went on record to state that such educational programmes will have no validity. This also led to a lot of chaos for various universities which either backed off from conducting an online course or discarded plans of launching courses that were in the making.

Nonetheless, UGC in 2017 has come up with UGC (Online Education) Guidelines, 2017 which would allow students to obtain degrees accredited by the UGC. This would lead to a sudden boost for online education market as the students will see this courses as more credible and trustworthy. This would also open up doors for various universities to enter the market and be on par with other countries which are already setting new standards for online education globally.

The challenges to online education are rather easy to solve if the intention is at the right place. However, the greater challenge and mission is to make higher education available to everybody in India. India does not lack talent. However, stale classroom teaching has ruined many generations of the student. World class online courses could change that for once and all.  

There is a void in the education sector for specialized and skill-based knowledge delivery which needs to be filled at the earliest. The most convenient and easy way to achieve it is through online education. Once the universities agree to step out their comfort zone and really embrace online education, there will be magic in terms of higher education that will be finally available for the people of India who live in small towns and villages. This has the power to change every facet of this country on every front. India could certainly emerge as a global superpower in online education.

Let the online education revolution begin.

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