Up until India became independent in 1947, a decent education was a privilege accorded to very few citizens. A strongly enforced caste system came in the way of unrestricted access to this resource. Options for higher learning were scant, and only the well heeled could afford it. Fast forward to 2015. In a recent report, UNESCO declared that the country has achieved "universal" primary education. However, enrolments in secondary schooling as well as colleges continue to pose stiff challenges to successive governments, which have made suboptimal budget allocations to these areas. The private sector has been sluggish in building capacity for higher education.
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In this set-up, a new caste system has been established. A select 10 per cent enrol into top institutions like IITs and IIMs and are showered with opportunities at every step. The remaining 90 per cent must suffer through a substandard education, which vastly affects their ability to find jobs or to pursue higher learning. Four million Indians enrolled in open universities have demonstrated their receptivity to technology-mediated learning (TML). However, the quality of India's online institutions leaves a lot to be desired. Many faculty members do not have a PhD or possess the relevant professional experience to contribute to streams like MBA.
Enter the MOOCs
The ascendancy of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) over recent years promises to finally bridge the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Listing over 1,000 courses by universities such as Stanford, Princeton and Pennsylvania, Coursera is a commercial MOOC platform with 15 million students enrolled in its courses. Close on its heels is edX, a non-profit entity that lists over 600 courses by heavyweights such as MIT, Harvard and Berkeley. The sticker price for a premium educational offering like this will stop you in your tracks: it is anywhere from $25 (Rs 1,600) per course to zero, depending on whether the student wants "certification" or not.
To sceptics, the MOOC phenomenon might appear to be just a flash in the pan. Schools have historically experimented with educational technologies and failed. Radio-based classes started to be tried out in the 1930s, whereas classroom sessions were broadcast on TV starting the 1970s. Both these are regarded as pedagogically inadequate. Why must the online route be different? Contrast this with the disruptive effect of the "e-channel" on domains such as commerce and advertising. It has virtually eliminated storefronts and the need for companies to advertise their products on hoardings. Could MOOCs have the same disruptive effect on educational institutions?
The Promise of Technology
Many colleges have matured in their use of technology. It is now common practice for an instructor to carry her slide deck on a USB drive and launch it from the classroom computer. She can publish these slides on a networked drive. Students can always walk into her office if they have any doubts. Of late, schools and colleges with substantial enrolments have embraced learning management systems (LMS). An LMS such as Moodle helps the instructor build a dedicated website for her course and keep in touch with students beyond the classroom. Students can download course materials, take part in chat sessions, post queries on discussion forum and even attempt quizzes from outside the campus.
College managements are constantly exhorted to step up enrolments and open their programmes to anyone qualified who possesses a laptop with an Internet connection. It is simplistic to think that this objective can be achieved by connecting the "hose pipe" of the college's network to the public Internet. In reality, digital learning platforms in use must be designed for scale. The institution's IT set-up has to be ramped up from a small collection of servers to a professionally managed data centre, so as to handle traffic from the hundreds or even thousands that are enrolled in the courses. This can be a costly exercise, with no guarantee of returns.
Going Massive and Open
In 2002, MIT launched its Open Courseware (OCW), and published syllabi, lecture notes, assignments and readings for hundreds of courses across disciplines. Anyone with an Internet connection can access its website and download the materials for free. Indians turned out to be the third-largest visitors outside the US. There was one drawback: most of the content was static, with a heavy emphasis on text. Slide decks were incomplete - the faculty might have reserved the missing portions for the classroom. Even though substantial dynamism can be conveyed using video clips, a mere 90 of the 2,000+ courses there are classified as "full video".
A decade later, history was made once again in the field of distance learning. Two Stanford professors threw open their course on Artificial Intelligence, which saw 1,60,000 people enrol from around the world. The term MOOC or Massively Online Open Course is self-explanatory. MOOCs take the "flipped classroom" approach to the next level, by providing the necessary scaffolding to help learners master a subject without an instructor's constant intervention. While videos form a central component of most MOOCs, there are reading assignments, exercises, quick quizzes and a final exam too. Learners interact with one another via discussion threads.
A typical MOOC runs for four to 10 weeks. Anyone with the stated prerequisites can register, either as an honour code student or as a Verified candidate. From an instructor's perspective, floating a course to a faceless crowd of thousands spread across the globe may appear like a daunting task. It is indeed so, without the backup of a capable team. This is education round the clock - as the sun sets over one geography, students in another hemisphere begin to "log into" the course. Any doubts they have about the subject matter must be resolved in good time, in order to build rapport with the class. Also, many students may not be proficient in the language of transaction.
In 2014, the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore (IIM-B) became India's first business school to join edX as a Contributing Member. Although the initial recordings were made in December 2014, it was not until July 2015 that the first MOOC from IIM-B went live on the edX site. This course was titled Statistics for Business I or SFB1.
We floated a survey to get a better understanding of the backgrounds of the participants. SFB1 drew a global audience, dominated by Indians, followed by Americans. Because the age profile of the survey respondents agreed with that for the whole course, we believe that the sample was adequately representative. A good 85 per cent participants were over 22. Most learners possessed a college degree. The real have-nots are those without a college education and who can ill-afford to get one because of their current personal situation.
We had pitched SFB1 at an "Intermediate" level of difficulty, with a requirement of five-seven hours spent in study each week. Nearly a thousand participants obtained a completion certificate from edX. A passing percentage of 5 per cent is considered impressive for MOOCs on the edX platform.
Several articles in the popular press point out that the MOOC phenomenon might be going through a "hype cycle". Although it is early to make definitive conclusions, we believe that MOOCs are here to stay. Not all MOOCs are alike: their efficacy varies just like the courses offered by faculty within a brick-and-mortar set-up. MOOC platforms have begun to offer specialisation tracks in areas such as data science, business foundations, astrophysics, computer programming, and so on. On a much larger scale, Georgia Tech has taken its masters programme in computer science online via Udacity.
In a growing economy such as India, corporate hiring is vastly constrained by the numbers graduating from top schools. MOOC platforms have made arrangements with professional networks like LinkedIn to display a student's certificates. Moreover, some competencies such as data science are in great demand while not even being a subject of discussion at top tier institutes. This makes a compelling case for companies to reach out to the growing community of MOOC-certified candidates.
(The writer is a professor at IIM-B. Sunil Reddy Kunduru, doctoral candidate, Quantitative Methods & Information Systems, also contributed to the article.)