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Technology-driven higher education: Are we addressing ethical issues?

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By Shiv K Tripathi

Last two decades have witnessed significant increase in adoption and integration of technology in all levels of education, including higher education. In context of higher education, the technology interface can be viewed from the three perspectives: first, the use of technology in support processes with aim to enhance user experiences and process efficiency; second, use of technology in core processes like instruction-delivery, examination and assessment, etc; and finally, the virtual learning systems with technology as a driver of all core and support processes. While the use of technology to complement the higher education contributes to efficiency and transparency in higher education, the other two areas raises some ethical concerns, which need to be addressed carefully.

The increasing access to smart-phones, development of technology-bases learning applications, developments in artificial intelligence (AI) application and continuously evolving virtual/mixed/augmented reality technologies are some of the factors driving the technology in higher education core operations. However, looking into the nature of higher education service, it appears that many issues need to be addressed before implementing the technology-driven education in our universities in colleges, particularly in core higher education operations.

Online education market is growing at rapid pace. As per an estimate, global online education market is likely to be of US$286.62 billion by year 2023 with expected annual compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 10.26 per cent. In India, the growth of online education is likely to be 20 per cent (CAGR during 2018-2022), which is double of the projected global rate. The higher education has about 77 per cent of the total online market share in India. The huge growth in online higher education is good news for many, as it will help in enhancing the access to higher education and ‘Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER)’, which was estimated to be 25.2 per cent as per 2016-17 All India Higher Education Survey. However, on the other hand, it also raises a number of challenges, which need close examination. Some of the arising issues have been discussed below with emphasis on context of emerging, developing and less developed economies.

Technology and purpose of higher education
During recent years, there has been intense debate on purpose of higher education. One school of thought emphasizes on ‘meeting the industry demand or labour-market need’ while other views focuses on development of overall capabilities and values of students in a generic manner. In developing and emerging economies, a large number of students do not have affordability to pursue higher education. Taking the advantage of the commercialization potential and lack of transparency, many players have flooded technology-driven virtual courses that claim to replace the conventional process of higher education and providing opportunity to earn certificates/ degrees virtually. One must note that the purpose of online education, as is commonly understood, is to provide opportunity to those: a. who other-wise can’t access the higher education; and b. who have required learning opportunity (example; work-linked learning). Over a period of time, the situation appears to have completely changed. Are we moving in right direction?

Balancing the teaching-learning requirements
Any higher education programme comprises of a number of courses. Nature of the courses varies and so the learning-needs. For example; STEM and other technology subjects could be fit for complete online learning with minimal face-to-face support, however, there are courses that need face-to-face peer-learning and tutor support. Although, there have been some efforts to bridge the gap using innovative technological platforms for real-time knowledge sharing, still a long way to go. Also, with the so much fascination about everything to pack in ‘outcome’, the issue of learning diversity and varying capability must be addressed in higher education. The technology-driven education is primarily based on the fundamental premises of ‘standardization’. While designing and delivering online programmes, the challenges arising due to these course-related and learner-related variations must be addressed carefully. Are we doing it?

Students’ data use
The more we integrate the technology, more vulnerable we are in terms of our personal data. However, many institutions have the ethical policies regarding creation, use and sharing of student data knowingly or ignorantly, still there appears many grey areas that need closer attentions. Also, the data sharing issues can be at many levels. It could vary from simple sharing of student’s information with other interested commercial service providers to sharing the more internal and complex information, which may affect student’s freedom and fundamental rights. The use of data by cross-sectoral user-groups may make the situation even more challenging. How to ensure responsible data-usage in an open online learning environment is a major area to look into.

Support-system and capacity building issues
For effective technology-driven education, two issues appear to be quite important: first, availability of the required good-quality enabling infrastructure support system; and, well-trained facilitators and instructors. In many contexts, one can see massive penetration of online education without having the required infrastructure. Similarly, the training of instructors and faculty members in effectively and responsibly using the technology is another important are to focus on before venturing into the attractive world of ‘technology-drive’ higher education.

The use of technology can, no doubt, improve the education-delivery effectiveness and process efficiency. It can also help in improving towards user-friendly and transparent higher education system. However, when we move towards technology integration into core-education processes, it requires a number of ethical issues to be addressed for sustainable higher education planning and delivery using technology.

(The author is Sr Professor and Dean at CMR University, Bangalore)

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