The use of digital platforms to access educational content has skyrocketed during the pandemic. Access for all is necessary, but publishers’ rights must also be protected.
After a gap of more than a year and a half, educational institutes across India are beginning to open their doors to students once again. Learners are gradually returning to conventional modes of classroom teaching, and are being able to access physical libraries and academic resources.
Both globally and in India, however, the COVID pandemic has jump-started a hitherto sluggish trend—the use of digital platforms to access learning materials. There is every indication that this trend is now irreversible. As a new study points out, India’s online education market for classes 1-12 is poised to grow more than six-fold to become a US $1.7-billion market by 2030, while higher education is likely to grow almost four-fold to become a US $1.8-billion market in the same period.
The rise of a platform economy in India has been a key driver of the surge in online learning. Alex Moazed, CEO of Applico, describes a platform as a ‘business model that creates value by facilitating exchanges between two or more interdependent groups, usually producers and consumers. To make these exchanges happen, platforms harness and create large scalable networks of users and resources that can be accessed on demand. Platforms create communities and markets with network effects that allow users to interact and transact.’ Online platforms, in particular, tend to create value on an exponential level by harnessing the Internet’s network effects.
India’s online education market for classes 1-12 is poised to grow more than six-fold to become a US $1.7-billion market by 2030, while higher education is likely to grow almost four-fold to become a US $1.8-billion market in the same period.
In the sphere of online education, therefore, a digital platform translates into a network that brings together educational publishers and content providers on the one hand, and learners on the other, facilitating transactions between them such that the value of the platform grows with the volume of transactions, publishers, and learners on it.
Open and closed educational platforms
The distinction between open and closed educational platforms is an important one, with implications both for access to content by learners and control over content by publishers.
Open educational platforms refer to those whose contents are freely available, and on which publishers or research institutions can place their academic products on the basis of their proven credentials as content providers. By contrast, closed educational platforms tend to be commercially driven—access to content is restricted by paywalls; a commercial publisher or ed-tech firm could be the platform owner; and multiple publishers might enter into an arrangement with the platform to make their contents commercially available.
In India, the pandemic has triggered an explosion in the demand for educational resources across both kinds of platforms. For instance, SWAYAM, the government’s national platform for massive open online courses (MOOCS) has seen traffic increase exponentially since the COVID outbreak. Similarly, the National Digital Library of India (NDLI)—an open platform offering free access to over 55 million educational resources—has experienced an unprecedented spike in use since March 2020; and in October this year, the number of NDLI e-resources viewed and downloaded crossed the 100 million mark. Closed platforms too have witnessed spectacular growth. Ed-tech platform upGrad’s revenues grew by over 100 percent in 2020. And BYJU’s, India’s largest ed-tech company, has reported that 40 million new users have joined its platform since the pandemic began.
The National Digital Library of India (NDLI)—an open platform offering free access to over 55 million educational resources—has experienced an unprecedented spike in use since March 2020.
Clearly, there is a burgeoning market for subscribed content and price is not necessarily a deterrent for certain audiences. But if quality educational resources are to reach a wider user base while also ensuring that publishers’ rights and incentives are protected, a more sensitive balance between open access and access to paywalled content will have to be found.
Finding a balance
‘One of the biggest clashes in our time,’ says historian and writer Timothy Garton Ash, ‘is between the movement towards open access and the defence of intellectual property, including copyright.’[i]
The open access (OA) movement was born in American and European universities in the early years of the 21st century as a reaction to the prohibitive subscription fees charged by scholarly journals. The movement has since gained traction worldwide, resulting in the fairly widespread promotion of OA and the use of Open Educational Resources (OER). OER have been defined as ‘the teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property licence that permits their free use and repurposing by others.’ Today, OER are often licenced under ‘Creative Commons’ licences that determine whether an educational resource can be used, reused, adapted or shared, including combinations of these actions.
Votaries of OA insist that knowledge must be free, while commercial publishers emphasise the need to protect and monetise intellectual property.
Taken together, the growing popularity of open contents and the digital platforms that host them are unsettling publishers who are still anchored in the ‘all rights reserved’ settings of traditional copyright law. This has led to a sharp polarisation of the debate on open versus paywalled educational resources. Votaries of OA insist that knowledge must be free, while commercial publishers emphasise the need to protect and monetise intellectual property. What is becoming increasingly clear is that a middle path must be found. As Garton Ash says, ‘This is not a simple battle between the global, emancipatory spread of knowledge, on the one hand, and antiquated reactionary property rights on the other. The maximisation (in quality as well as quantity) and spread of knowledge itself requires a carefully redrawn, strictly limited but then also effectively enforced protection of intellectual property.’[ii]
Towards balanced models in India
The pursuit of access models that balance user benefits with publishers’ commercial interests pre-dates COVID, but the pandemic has imbued the quest with a new level of urgency. The four following approaches are being applied or explored in India, but the country still seems to be testing the waters before broad-basing its adoption of a particular balanced model.
Free content initiatives: Since early 2020, several publishers in India and elsewhere have made previously subscribed bundles of content freely accessible for home teaching and learning, or for COVID research. But providing free content is not sustainable in the long run, and some means of monetising these resources will need to be devised. Indeed, as the pandemic wears on, publishers are beginning to cut back on their free content initiatives.
One nation, one subscription: The bold ‘One Nation, One Subscription’ (ONOS) scheme that the Indian government is currently deliberating upon could benefit both publishers and learners. ONOS would require the government to negotiate and purchase a single unified subscription from a consortium of academic book and journal publishers, after which their educational resources would be available to all citizens and publicly funded institutions.
Green OA, by contrast, does not involve an APC, but requires authors to post pre-print versions of academic papers in an open online repository, sometimes immediately after publication.
National licensing: Somewhat similar to ONOS, though on a more limited scale, national licensing is a creative arrangement instituted by the Ministry of Education and the NDLI. Thanks to a bulk subscription paid by the Ministry to a range of publishers and digital platforms, their contents can be accessed for free exclusively through the NDLI platform. Accessing them directly from their source platforms, however, requires a payment or a subscription. The availability of nationally licensed contents has proved to be enormously beneficial to learners.
Gold and green open access: Gold open access refers to the practice of making authors—or their institutional funders—pay journals an article processing charge (APC), after which their articles are made available on an OA basis. This approach, while reasonably common in developed countries, has proved to be less popular in India because steep APCs are often beyond the reach of authors and funders. Green OA, by contrast, does not involve an APC, but requires authors to post pre-print versions of academic papers in an open online repository, sometimes immediately after publication. It remains to be seen whether India will formally adopt green OA as a publishing standard.
Launched at the height of the lockdowns, the transformational National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 repositions education for the India of the future. The NEP insists that ‘Digital platforms and ICT-based educational initiatives must be optimised and expanded to meet the current and future challenges in providing quality education for all.’ Platforms are optimised when there is a critical mass of easily accessible content and a steady stream of new content. Presciently, the NEP envisions mechanisms for enabling ‘content developers to create user friendly and qualitative content’ for digital platforms.
As growing numbers of learners flock to platforms and publishers expand their programmes to meet the rising demand for content, we must ensure that learners everywhere can avail of the educational resources they need, and that the publishers who produce them are rewarded. The idea of access for all should not throttle publishers; but neither should quality academic content be beyond learners’ means. A fine balance must be maintained if education is to be reimagined.
[i] Timothy Garton Ash, Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World (London: Atlantic Books, 2016), p.164
[ii] Garton Ash, Free Speech, p.167
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).