Exploring the World of Higher Education

Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow Karan Bhola talks about how higher education institutions and systems are built, governed and sustained in India and the United States.

Karan Bhola is a 2018-19 Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellow, working with 9.9 Education, a New Delhi-based consulting firm that specializes in higher education institution building and transformation. Through his work, Bhola has helped it establish blended-learning professional development programs for the University of Pennsylvania’s Online Learning Initiative in New Delhi. Most recently, he was working with the Government of India’s Ministry of Railways in setting up the country’s first university focused on transport sector-related education, training and multidisciplinary research.

Excerpts from an interview.


Could you tell us about your work at 9.9. Education?

Prior to commencing graduate study, I worked on several projects with 9.9 Education. These ranged from helping shape certain functions of existing institutions or programs in the Indian higher education sector, working on projects with U.S. institutions on blended learning initiatives and, most recently, working with key stakeholders from the Union government to help establish a new public university.

I was blessed to have a lot of flexibility, autonomy and support in all the projects I did. This was supplemented by mentorship and problem-solving with several senior leaders. 


You worked with the Ministry of Railways and in the education sector. Could you tell us how these two spheres fit together?

I worked on this project for a little over a year prior to going to the United States for graduate school. I was part of a team that was helping the Ministry of Railways establish a university focused on research and training for the transport sector. It was a very intense, fast-paced and demanding project, as it involved everything from conceptualizing what this would look like, to actually launching an institution. But it was also very humbling, as a first-time engagement directly with key personnel in the government and to see their commitment to building this institution. I learnt a lot about working on a multi-stakeholder high-stakes project, and truly understood how collaboration between and among different entities can advance work in a meaningful way.


You’ve done interesting work with blended online learning, through the University of Pennsylvania’s program in India. What were the major successes of this work, and what do you think about the future of online learning?

Using technology to aid the learning process is indisputably a central feature for our future, and possibilities are, of course, limitless. I have come to understand this to be a question of adaptability, replicability and accountability. Can we adapt pedagogy to suit how a learner might learn better online? From another lens, this is also a question of whether or not each learner feels a sense of belonging in their online learning experience; which I feel is a key question.

For a country like India, this is an opportunity to provide access to high-quality education, at scale. India is home to the second largest population in the world, with the golden opportunity to reap its demographic dividend. That is probably the most important consideration we need to have while we plan for our education system to deliver on its multiple goals and aims. The exponential growth in the number of communities that are shifting toward a norm of college-bound children also implies that higher education institutions will tap online resources to keep up with demand.

In my work going forward, as it relates to online learning, I will seek to balance the pros and cons of online classrooms, and find ways to maintain the socially and culturally precious bond between teacher and student.


What are some of your primary aims as you move forward in your work with education systems?

While my long-term goal is to contribute to various facets of higher education, I also realize that no problem can be solved by one individual or stakeholder.

I aim to work on capacity building within administration of higher education in the near-to-medium term. My short- to medium-term goal is to contribute to establishing higher education as a field of study, practice and research in India, in many ways inspired from how the system is in the United States. Of course, even the United States faces challenges within higher education, but I have seen how institutions focus on institutional or system-wide research and data, on training administrators and university leaders, and how people take up careers within higher education.


How has your experience with U.S.-India interactions, especially the Fulbright-Nehru Master’s Fellowship, helped to deepen and develop your work?

To my mind, the India-U.S. interactions stand at the center of how I am thinking about higher education in general, and my role in it, specifically. Higher education in the United States, for many reasons, has been a source of inspiration around the world. My Fulbright experience at Harvard University, in the United States, and in the country’s relationship to India has been humbling and fulfilling. The program has offered a stimulating learning environment, with the intellectual and cultural breadth each scholar offers. You become part of a global community of people committed to making things better for others. Being a Fulbrighter is an important responsibility that I am grateful for. It has strengthened my desire to pay it forward.


Trevor Laurence Jockims teaches writing, literature and contemporary culture at New York University.