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Volume 20, No. 3, October 2010

Table of Contents


Solving India's PhD Shortage through E-Learning

Steve Foerster

Writer & consultant, Higher education and distance learning issues, U.S.





Since independence, the higher education sector in India has matured tremendously.  Public and private universities abound, offering tertiary education to any who can meet entry requirements and pay modest fees.

Demand for higher education continues to grow.  As India develops economically, it increasingly participates within a global business environment and integrates within an ever more tightly woven multinational framework.  This means that the Indian workforce must develop to international standards, and the long established international standard for the professional class is a university degree.  Because more and more of the Indian workforce is becoming professional with the transition from agriculture to industry and a service economy accelerates, pressure on the higher education sector to prepare more and more students to enter that workforce continues to increase.

As part of this liberalization of knowledge, the government of India has said it needs one thousand more institutions of higher education (IHE) in order to meet the demands of its twenty-first century workforce (Davidson, 2010).  But universities and other IHEs are not simple to establish.  One does not simply go to the university store and purchase seventeen thousand of them off the shelf.  Each IHE requires its own specific vision and mission, competent leadership, and a capable faculty if it is to be a meaningful part of the higher education solution.


This is where the first difficult challenge arises.  India has a serious shortage of holders of doctoral degrees: with a faculty shortage of 67 percent, there is an overall need for at least one million additional instructors (Basu, 2010).  It is these people, who are trained to the highest level in research, teaching, and academic administration, who are necessary to be the heart and soul of new IHEs.  Without a bold, immediate initiative to increase the number of doctoral degree holders in India, any rapid expansion to the higher education sector is doomed to fail.


This paper discusses how taking a new look at distance learning, specifically e-learning, may be one such initiative.  It is fortunate that there has already been much done to make use of distance learning at the university level in India, but more – much more – will be required if the shortage is to be reversed.


What Is E-Learning?

What is distance learning?  At its simplest, distance learning is a form of education where the student and the instructor are not in the same place.  It stands as an alternative to the traditional form of education in which the instructor and his or her students attend class together in a campus or other physical setting.  Distance learning can take many different forms.  It can take the form of correspondence, where the student receives instructional materials in printed form, by post or some other distribution channel, and interacts with the instructor through those means.  It can take the form of radio or television, where students listen to or watch lectures and other presentations.

More recently, it has taken the form of e-learning, which is distance learning made possible by the Internet.  Even within e-learning there are a number of different approaches.  The primary categorization is between synchronous learning and asynchronous learning.  With synchronous learning, the students and instructor are online at the same time, and interact live as though in a class together.  This makes use of such technologies as video and audio conferencing, and technologies such as Cisco WebEx, Elluminate, WiZiQ, and Skype.  This type of learning is more often used in a corporate setting, but can also be used to conduct live university courses online as well.


Asynchronous e-learning differs in the sense that none of the participants need be online at the same time as any of the others.  Students and instructors participate when it is convenient for them as individuals, rather than coordinate a common time.  Discussion takes place on bulletin board-style discussion, where students and their instructor will post responses, and conversations can take place over the course of several days, or even weeks.  Lectures are usually pre-recorded, and students view them on their own time.  This is the most common type of e-learning used by universities in the United States.


Why have so many organizations started to employ e-learning as a means of providing training and higher education?  It has a number of key advantages that make it an attractive alternative not only to classroom-based instruction, but also to non-technology mediated forms of distance learning.


The first advantage is its low cost of provision.  It requires a web server, and it requires all participants to have access to a networked computer, but compared with the infrastructure required for classroom-based instruction, the costs are quite manageable.  It is important to note that the computers used by participants do not need to be owned by them, so even those participants who live in remote areas and do not own their own computers can participate in e-learning if they have access to a cybercafé or other telecentre.  There are a variety of different software packages designed to serve those who offer e-learning courses, and many of these packages are open source, and thus free for all parties.


Another advantage of e-learning is that it affords great convenience to all parties involved in it.  Asynchronous e-learning allows university-level interaction among participants who are not even available at the same time.  This is of particular benefit to working adults who are students, and part time instructors who hold other positions.  One need not find transportation to the classroom setting with e-learning.  In fact, one can complete an entire programme through e-learning without ever setting foot in a school facility.


An additional key advantage of e-learning is that it is location neutral.  That means that the advantages and disadvantages of being in a certain location do not apply.  Not only do instructors and students have to be in the classroom together, they need not even be in the same hemisphere.  As we will see, this benefit may be of particular value to solving India's PhD shortage.


Finally, e-learning allows for logged interaction.  Whatever happens during the course can be audited by university administration.  Any dispute among students or between students and their instructor can be fairly arbitrated since everything is inherently documented and nothing is hearsay.  All records of the course are also easily searched.  This advantage of e-learning is not only not available in a classroom setting, but is not available through other forms of distance learning such as correspondence that do not make use of ICTs.

E-Learning and Doctoral Study

Now that the basic problem has been highlighted, and e-learning has been described, the question becomes how e-learning can become part of the solution for training more Indian academics at the doctoral level. 

Firstly, it is important to note that doctoral study is not the same format as taught degree programmes.  A conventional e-learning course consists of a number of students and usually a single instructor, with the role of the students and instructor clearly defined.  In a research program, a faculty mentor is guiding the doctoral student through a particular research programme that leads to a dissertation or thesis.  Still, however, the advantages of e-learning are there. 


The low cost of e-learning makes it possible to scale out a serious expansion of doctoral programmes without the untenable expense that might otherwise be associated with such an endeavor.  The only required infrastructure is in information systems and office space.  No campuses with lecture halls, accommodations for living and dining, student service, computer labs, or other facilities are required.  In a higher education system where maintenance of infrastructure is already a challenge (Young, 2010b), this advantage alone makes a feasibility study of an expansion of doctoral distance learning worthwhile.


The convenience of time allows students and their faculty mentors to communicate when there is available time, rather than coordinate possibly conflicting schedules.  This is of great value for those who wish to change careers from some area of practice to academia, but who must maintain employment whilst pursuing their doctoral ambitions.  Since India will need to accommodate career changers to meet its staggering needs for faculty, these sorts of considerations are crucial.


A related advantage is location neutrality.  Like many developing countries, India has a large, well-educated diaspora.  And like many developing countries, the potential usefulness of that diaspora is not always considered and utilized.  Many Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) themselves have earned doctoral degrees from prestigious universities abroad.  It would make sense to encourage such individuals to participate in the development of India by serving as faculty members by distance for Indians at home who are engaged in doctoral study.


The final relevant benefit is logged interaction.  This applies to doctoral mentoring as well as to any conventional course.  Disagreements can take place between any individuals involved in a cooperative activity, and doctoral study is no exception.  When everything is logged, there can be no mistake what the actions of any parties have been.

Steps To Use E-Learning To Mitigate India's Doctoral Shortage

There are a number of steps that are required for India to make better use of e-learning to alleviate the shortage of those with doctoral degrees in its academic workforce.  But as a preamble, it should be noted that the situation is not that there has been no use of it whatsoever.  In particular, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU), India's own mega university and one of the largest institutions of higher education in the world,  has taken a lead in using distance learning, especially e-learning, as a means to educate Indians at all academic levels, including through doctoral programmes (Young, 2010a).  However, there has been disagreement between IGNOU and the central government in whether it is permitted to use e-learning as a means to conduct doctoral programmes.


The first step, therefore, is for government to withdraw its objections to the use of distance learning and e-learning at the doctoral level, and indeed to change to a policy of explicit approval for it.  Without the removal of public policy barriers, there is no chance for the successful use of e-learning to solve any problem.  A related issue is that there must be no barrier to the use of NRIs and foreigners as faculty members in distance learning institutions.  Indians who have been educated abroad are increasingly willing to return home to teach the next generation (Mishra, 2010), but this trend can be greatly accelerated if they do not have to return home in order to participate in India's academic development.


The second step is to consider these thousand universities that are planned (Davidson, 2010), and designate the first set of them as a means to train the faculty and administration that will staff the rest.  For example, if the first hundred or even fifty of these universities are designed to rely primarily on e-learning as a means to train academic personnel, the remaining IHEs that are established have a much better chance to fulfill the objectives that are laid out for them.  It is not even strictly necessary that all of the training is at the doctoral level.  For those who seek position as non-academic staff, a Master of Educational Administration qualification could be developed that is akin to an MBA but that specifically trains university administrators.


The third step is the other approach.  Rather than expecting the building of internal capacity to meet all the need for training doctoral level academics, there should be an effort to partner with foreign universities that have a capacity to oversee doctoral study.  The for-profit university sector in the U.S., for example, has a variety of different providers, some of which may be open to cooperation with Indian objectives on favourable terms.  There is precedent for cooperation with foreign universities (Thrift, 2010), and this sort of joint venture approach is part of the solution.


This potential cooperation with the American proprietary university sector raises another issue, that of the lack of entrepreneurial culture within Indian higher education (Wildavsky, 2010).  Indeed, one reason that an important step in the overall process is to create new institutions rather than simply to add e-learning campuses to existing brick-and-mortar universities is that, it is an opportunity to start fresh with a new corporate culture.  This can be accelerated by encouraging the private sector to shoulder part of the burden, through establishing an expanded programme of tax holidays for those who start new institutions of higher education.


When these steps are implemented, e-learning will become a more powerful part of the solution for India's lack of doctorally trained academic faculty, and for India's higher education development in general.

Anticipated Objections

No plan is perfect.  But in this section some possible objections to the steps previously outlined are listed and discussed.

The first is quality control.  Building a large number of new institutions will serve no purpose if those institutions do not offer quality education.  But while distance learning is often wrongfully perceived as being of lower quality to that which takes place in a classroom, there is ample compelling research to demonstrate that there is no significant difference in educational outcome based solely on whether instruction takes place in person or online (Russell, 2001).  Moreover, the quality of higher education in India is already often dubious (Altbach, 2010), showing that this is a program that must be approached, but not at the expense of considering adding additional capacity.


Another possible objection is related, and that is whether credentials from new Indian institutions will be recognised internationally.  Especially with an initiative to greatly expand the number of distance learning institutions, there is a possible solution in accreditation.  Either a new accrediting body can be established specifically to oversee distance learning at Indian universities, or an existing international accreditor such as the Distance Education and Training Council may be employed.


A third possible issue is the reverse, the easy acceptance within India of academic credentials earned abroad.  In order to make the best use of those who have taken degrees in other countries, there must not be bureaucratic barriers in place preventing them from being recognized when it comes time to employ them as faculty members and administrators.


The most serious objection may be that any plan that shakes up the status quo in Indian higher education is likely to face resistance from established Indian universities and their stakeholders, as well as from their allies in government.  Considering how encompassing the need for expansion of Indian higher education is, however, there should be more than enough capacity building to go around for all. 


To summarize, e-learning can be part of a successful expansion of Indian higher education so that the needs of the national workforce in the twenty-first century can be met, and the rapid pace of overall economic development of the country can be maintained.  It will take a far reaching approach that includes new e-learning institutions, including in the private sector, joint ventures with foreign universities to expand e-learning capacity, and expanded e-learning campuses offered by traditional universities.  But it can be done.


Altbach, P.G. (August 8, 2010). India's higher education quality deficit. Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/the_world_view/india_s_higher_education_quality_deficit

Davidson, M. (May 10, 2010). 1,000 new universities for India? Telegraph.co.uk. Retrieved from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/expateducation/7634544/1000-new-universities-for-India.html


Mishra, A. (August 15, 2010). Higher education opportunities lure back talent. University World News, 135. Retrieved from http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=20100813203341645


Russell, T.L. (2001). The no significant difference phenomenon (5th ed.).  Montgomery, AL: IDECC.


Thrift, N. (July 28, 2010). 'India, India, Listen to My Plea'. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/India-India-Listen-to-My/25829/


Wildavsky, B. (July 22, 2010). Indian higher ed: Two steps forward, one step back. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Indian-Higher-Ed-Two-Steps/25706/


Young, J. (September 24, 2010a). Amid cows And cacophony, an online university expands its global reach. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Amid-CowsCacophony-an/27186/


Young, J. (September 22, 2010b). On many campuses in India, infrastructure is still a problem. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/On-Many-Campuses-in-India/27113/