Circa 2017. Chennai-based Ranganath Kumar Sami was working as the principal research engineer for Modine Thermal Systems. He was a reputed technocrat and reporting to the CXOs. "But when I started climbing the leadership ladder, I felt I should have a better grip on other crucial business aspects such as marketing or finance." A full-time, on-campus MBA course was ruled out as he was not willing to leave his family (or stay away from his job, for that matter). Then he came across an online programme conducted by the University of Illinois in partnership with Coursera, a provider of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. These short-format video lectures and self-assessment tests can be accessed remotely by all whether they are commuting to work or have managed to snatch some free time when their babies are napping. Now Kumar Sami puts in 10-14 hours a week from the comfort of his home and has finished six semesters over the past two years.
Unlike traditional online courses with limited enrolment opportunities and high tuition fees, MOOCs are the knowledge highways for self-motivated and evolving learners. They have been around since 2008 but became a global phenomenon three years later when Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun and Google's Director of Research Peter Norvig uploaded on the Internet a free course on artificial intelligence. The aim was to bring the best education to the remotest corners of the planet and help learners expand their professional and intellectual horizons. It was an instant hit and saw thousands of enrolments within the first few weeks.
Kumar Sami is a part of the cohort, taking advantage of the $3.9 billion global market, according to data from Pune-based market research company MarketsandMarkets. The MOOCs market is estimated to grow at a 40 per cent CAGR and reach $20.8 billion by 2023 as professionals keen to master 21st-century skills eagerly seek online degrees. Global players such as edX, Udacity and Coursera have partnered with top universities to bring their courses online, but one will also find marketplaces like Udemy (now in India), Edureka and Simplilearn where subject matter experts create content to improve job-related skills. The platforms have also introduced B2B verticals, where they offer a curated set of courses to companies.
How India Fares
India is the second-largest market for MOOC providers after the US. According to data from MOOCs aggregator Class Central, globally, 101 million students could access 11,400 courses from over 900 universities in 2018. But unlike the West, where learners often take up programmes based on personal interests, Indians are mainly pursuing online education to ensure career advancement. Coursera says over 94 per cent of its 4.2 million learners in India are in the age bracket of 18-39 and 40 per cent of these courses cover business and technical topics. Understandably, local players such as upGrad, Unacademy and Jigsaw Academy (acquired by the Manipal Group in June 2019) have joined the race to tap the 'massive' opportunity.
The government has also come forth as India aims to attain a gross enrolment ratio of 30 per cent in higher education by 2020 compared to the current 25.2 per cent. In July 2017, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) built SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds), a platform for MOOCs developed in India. Academicians from IITs, IIMs, NCERT and IISc have created course content for eight categories, and the platform has seen 10 million enrolments to date. Last year, the University Grants Commission (UGC) introduced a credit transfer system for courses on SWAYAM and it currently allows eligible higher educational institutions (HEIs) to offer all regular and open and distance learning courses online. The quality parameters for the HEIs are quite stringent as they must be in existence for at least five years and get a minimum of 3.26 accreditation by UGC's National Assessment and Accreditation Council on a four-point scale. Besides, they should be among the top 100 institutions on the NIRF (National Institutional Ranking Framework) for at least two years out of the previous three years.
The rush for online programmes or subject matter preference is not surprising, given the subpar quality of education and outdated curricula in many institutions. In contrast, MOOCs offer access to top courses from all over the world. "They help in knowledge distillation and can complement (traditional) learning," says Partha Chatterjee, Associate Professor and Head of Economics Department at Shiv Nadar University (SNU). MOOC platforms are not competing with offline universities, though, as they are partners in course content creation. But there is enough competition among providers to strike deals with top universities, says Dhawal Shah, Founder and CEO of Class Central.
Although MOOCs are mostly regarded as quick-fix career-enhancing programmes, they could generate deeper understanding and strong interest among participants. Tech professional Sushil Menon has become a lifelong learner as these courses brought about a meaningful change in his career. Five years ago, he was looking for a career switch and decided to study data analytics and machine learning for six-eight months. "The courseware from the best universities helped me understand the new concepts in those fields and I landed an interesting job," he says. "Even now, those concepts are quite relevant at work." Menon is currently pursuing a course on statistical learning, designed by Stanford Online.
Echoing Menon, Sourabh Dev, Founder of Gurgaon-based start-up Engorithm Tech, narrates what has driven him. The techpreneur wanted to master cloud technology and artificial intelligence, but had few options and started his journey in 2005 with Coursera and edX. "I am a graduate in Computer Science, but what we learn is quite outdated. So, I had to delve deep in order to create a cloud set-up for my company," he recalls. As the company grew, Dev switched to management skills and has already completed 100-plus courses across several platforms.
Twists and Turns
How useful are MOOC certifications when job seekers approach recruiters? While young people are often appreciated for their self-motivation and passion for learning, recruiters are overcautious and take these certifications with a pinch of salt. After all, MOOCs work well for technology courses where self-learning and practising are crucial, but they may not be ideal for marketing or communications programmes where classroom discussions and interactions with peers play a significant role.
MOOC providers are facing yet another challenge. In spite of the content quality and the extremely convenient anytime-anywhere access, student engagement on these platforms is quite low. The key reason: Adult learners are often pressed for time due to work and family commitments. For instance, Menon, an avid learner, completed seven courses but dropped out of 20 because of his overcrowded schedule. Dev, too, encouraged his friends to take up MOOCs, but very few were in it for the long haul. On the other hand, he felt compelled to continue as his company's performance was at stake.
To enhance learner engagement, platforms are shifting most courses from live-lecture format and time-bound modules to shorter, pre-recorded sessions that can be accessed and perused at one's convenience; in-between, there are multiple-choice quizzes or short tests. Peer networks are created, and both alumni and teaching assistants have become part of those groups for better guidance, problem-solving and brainstorming. "We are currently building a community of mentors, primarily our alumni, who can support students more effectively," says Lalit Singh, Chief Operating Officer of Udacity.
Irwin Anand, India Managing Director of Udemy, says that failure to retain students means 'instructors revenues' are at stake (it works on a revenue-sharing model). So, the trainers always respond to students' queries and upgrades the courseware if it is required. "Sixty per cent of our courses have been upgraded in the past six months," he adds.
Shah of Class Central also asserts that fewer people are now joining MOOCs - from 23 million in 2017 to 20 million in 2018 - but the number of paid users has increased. And that brings us to another critical factor that increases course stickiness - cost. Earlier, courses were free, but students seeking academic credentials or other services had to pay fees. Now companies have introduced paywalls with additional benefits. For instance, Udemy offers a 30-day money-back guarantee in case a student feels the course has not benefited her, says Anand. "The money-back option allows people to experiment and keep them engaged. Also, when one pays for a programme, she is likely to complete the course." Udemy claims to have 40 million students and 50,000 teachers globally who teach 1,30,000 courses while fees range from Rs 360 to Rs 12,800.
According to Raghav Gupta, India Director of Coursera, paid learners here have a completion rate of around 60 per cent, the highest from all countries as Indian consumers seek value for money. Furthermore, it has a strong focus on super-specialised programmes. Coursera calls them MasterTracks, which cost Rs 1.5-2.6 lakh and takes six-nine months to finish. However, other courses and specialisations offered by the company are competitively priced at Rs 3,500-5,500. Its competitor, Udacity, offers a set of free courses apart from several super-specialised technology programmes called nano degrees, each costing a monthly fee of Rs 22,299.
Working out the kinks may not be easy, though, says Chatterjee of SNU. MOOCs get the thumbs up for ease of access and scale. But they may have misplaced focus or may not be reaching the right kind of people, say, a first-generation college-goer. A look at the ground realities will also confirm this. For example, 70 per cent of the users who log in to MOOCs are from top Indian cities. Also, there is a strong focus on topics such as analytics and data science that can be easily monetised instead of broadening and deepening the content across disciplines. "Currently, even the introductory courses are designed after the US system. As most of the lectures are in English and the faculty often speaks with a strong foreign accent, it could easily put off the non-native speakers here," says Chatterjee. Besides, a lot of these professional courses may not find many takers among the remote learners, hailing from the small towns and beyond. Unless the ecosystem evolves and offers education at every level, in every major Indian language, MOOCs may fall short of Thrun's vision.