India’s education system and higher education institutions in particular, have suffered a severe setback because of the national lockdown declared from March 25 following the outbreak of the novel Coronavirus aka Covid-19 pandemic. With prospects of a reversion to the status quo ante uncertain in the near future, universities and higher education institutions worldwide are taking recourse to online learning in a big way. The crisis has precipitated a paradigm shift in consumer behaviour from face-to-face to online education. However as universities, faculty and students switch to online learning en masse, one needs to pose the question whether India’s Internet infrastructure is ready for this paradigm shift.
In April 2020, QS IGAUGE — the India subsidiary of the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds (publisher of the globally-respected annual QS World University Rankings league tables) conducted a nationwide survey to assess consumer satisfaction with existing Internet service providers.
A total of 7,594 students across the country responded to the online survey questionnaire — 62.16 percent male, 37.82 percent female and 0.02 percent transgender. The respondents were heterogeneous in terms of their age group with 74.33 percent in the 18-22 age group, 18.32 percent aged 22-27 years, 4.91 percent 16-18 and 2.43 percent aged above 27. Moreover, 81.03 percent of the respondents were undergraduates and 18.36 percent postgraduates
The QS IGAUGE Further Academic Interest Report (FAIR) 2020 reveals the extent to which India is ready in terms of infrastructure to meaningfully scale online learning. The FAIR study indicates that to use the Internet at home, 72.60 percent of respondents used a mobile hotspot (i.e, connecting a wi-fi enabled electronic device to the phone’s Internet), 15.87 percent used home broadband (a high-speed communications system that links computers to the Internet using a cable, DSL or satellite modem hooked up to an Internet service provider), 9.68 percent used a wi-fi dongle (a pocket-size device that connects to smart phones, tablets or laptops and allows access to the Internet) and 1.85 percent had poor or nil internet connectivity. Notably, 22 percent of respondents used multiple connectivity devices.
Of the 7,594 respondents, 38.12 percent used the Jio platform, 28.25 percent Airtel, 14.82 percent Vodafone, 10.59 percent BSNL, 3.24 percent ACT, 3.16 percent Idea, 1.29 percent Hathway, 0.53 percent BBNL with 4.64 percent connected through other service providers.
The final segment of the FAIR survey focuses on connectivity quality. The responses reveal that among home broadband users 3.02 percent suffered cable cuts, 53.42 percent reported poor connectivity, 11.47 percent power supply problems and 32.09 percent reported prolonged buffering for data access. Among mobile hotspot users, 40.18 reported poor audio connectivity, 3.19 percent power supply problems and 56.63 percent reported delayed access to data.
Among respondents who experienced inadequate access to the Internet and used no particular provider, 53.49 percent reported poor connectivity, and 46.51 percent experienced signal (data access) issues. Among wi-fi dongle users, 43.30 percent complained of poor connectivity, 9.23 percent reported power cuts and 47.47 percent signal issues. This data clearly indicates that the majority of Internet users experience poor audio connectivity and/or signal issues for data access.
The overall conclusion of the FAIR survey is that Internet service providers do not have the technology to ensure smooth delivery of online education on scale. Moreover, neither government nor private service providers have succeeded in overcoming the technical challenges of providing adequate power supply and ensuring good quality audio connectivity or data access. Although, following the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic there has been a massive shift from traditional face-to-face to online education, because of poor infrastructure, a shift to total reliance on online platforms for the delivery of education seems a distant dream.
Nevertheless, there’s no denying that education systems worldwide are switching to online teaching-learning in a big way. Therefore, it is imperative for Internet service providers and telecom companies to improve the quality of their services.
(Dr. Ashwin Fernandes is CEO of QS IGAUGE and has been with the QS Group since 2012)