Going beyond classroom

Online courses offered by reputed universities are helping students and professionals gain valuable knowledge at zero cost.
Shoaib Zaman/Money Today        Print Edition: August 2014
How online courses help gain knowledge at zero cost
Indian students watch a downloaded videotaped lecture at the Quantum Institute in New Delhi (Photo:Reuters)

When the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said "Change is the only constant in life," he probably did not have thousands of professionals staring at a desktop at their workstations in his mind. However, it is a well-known fact that your progress is directly linked to the skills you acquire as you trudge along in your career.

There are a lot of people who would have wanted to pursue certain subjects at some stage in their careers but could not do due to many reasons. They can now find help on the ubiquitous internet in the form of massive open online courses (MOOCs). While most of these are free, one also has the option of completing a certificate course after paying a fee.

WHAT ARE MOOCS?

As the name suggests, these are online courses which provide college-level knowledge on a range of subjects and disciplines. All lectures and course materials are available online. The study can be followed by online tests. In some cases, there is also a provision for peer review.

"There are two aspects to MOOCs. A technology platform that can enable new pedagogy and mode of delivery that increases the reach to a much larger audience," says SS Balasubramaniam, dean, academic and resource planning, BITS Pilani. He added that a number of aspects of MOOCs complement conventional learning and open up new modes of learning. Such courses are likely to benefit students of various age groups, he says.

Isaac Chuang, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science and physics who also coleads the research team from MIT and Harvard, shares the vision and thought behind MOOCs. "MOOCs may lead to the spread of knowledge worldwide and improvements in on-campus education in universities like MIT and Harvard," he says.

Stanford, another worldrenowned university, runs its own version of an open-source online learning platform (Stanford OpenEdX) that supports research and experimentation in instructional design. In a report on MOOC 2013, John Mitchell, vice provost, Stanford, was quoted as saying, "Stanford's vision is much broader than MOOCs. We're thinking about how we will best educate students for generations to come."

There are two directories which track all major MOOCs available online: www.mooclist. com and www.class-central.com. Depending on their priorities, students can either first select the university followed by courses offered or search for specific topics and then decide on the university. Among the most popular MOOCs are Coursera, edX, saylor.org, Canvas, Alison and Udemy.

VALUE ADDITION

Abhay Tandon, an employee at Scaale Capital's business advisory division, took a course through Coursera from the University of Maryland on 'Developing Innovative Ideas for New Companies'. He says that his MBA degree gave him good theoretical understanding, but Coursera classes gave him a firm practical basis. For instance, it helped him understand how investors in Spain differ from those in the UK.

Ketan Kapoor, co-founder and CEO, Mettl, a skill-based online assessment platform, says that the industry has moved from knowledge-based hiring to skill-based hiring. "If people take up the initiative of upgrading their skills, they come across as motivated individuals to the hiring teams," he says. But he adds a word of caution. "The candidate applying with a certain skill set learnt from MOOCs will be at a disadvantage against an experienced professional who has used that same skill set in his projects," he says.

Ashutosh Telang, EVP & global head HR, Marico, concurs with Kapoor. "While potential talent within the organisation can upgrade its domain knowledge through online courses, what really matters is the ability to apply this knowledge in the work context to make a difference," he says.

FUTURE OF MOOCS

Telang is of the opinion that access to curriculum through MOOCs conducted by reputed institutes enhances the credibility of education. "As more people enrol in MOOCs, organisations will have to take cognisance of this and revise their hiring guidelines," he says. Chuang points out that the average age of learners registering for MITx courses is between 26 and 35. "Many of these folks are professionals seeking to learn new things and this will be of interest to corporations seeking to improve their work force," he adds. Balasubramaniam of BITS Pilani is of the opinion that MOOCs are forcing educators and administrators to re-think about learning and education.

TIMING ISSUES

Scheduling is an important criterion if you are a student/working professional. Some MOOCs allow you to join any time during the year. They have the semester system. Some allow you to learn at your own pace while some have strict schedules for lectures and assignments. Some courses provide you with a certification and some don't. But remember that each course has its own demand. That's why you must select carefully.

ADVANTAGES

The most common benefit of these courses is that since these consist of visual courses, you can pause and rewind as many times as you want until you understand the concept. In a traditional classroom, this is not possible. Second, one study anywhere, as per one's convenience. Third, classroom participants come from all over the world, and so a lot of new ideas are added in the form of different perspectives on discussion forums.

A WORD OF ADVICE

Telang suggests that one should select content that is targeted and meaningful. "Choose courses with videos, case studies and other application-focused learning activities," he says. It is important to recognise that each one of us has a distinct learning style. Being aware of it and choosing the right course can go a long way in building one's capability.

 



SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE: Abhay Tandon, global solutions manager, Scaale Capital

Abhay Tandon, global solutions manager, Scaale Capital
Q. How did you come to choose Coursera? Did you check other sites on MOOCs?
A. While I was working in Paris I was advised by my friends to try Coursera to take up certain courses on finance and economics pertaining to the European market. I was told that this could be beneficial since these subjects haven't really been covered in an MBA programme and are designed by professors from leading institutes across the globe. Stanford Online and Doulingo were a couple of other MOOCs that I browsed through. Doulingo deals with only language-based courses while Stanford Online has limited courses. Coursera gives an advantage by offering some very specific courses related to different geographical markets.

Q. Which courses did you choose? Was it out of interest or was it to further your career?
A. I have taken up multiple courses at Coursera dealing with entrepreneurial ecosystems, finance, economics, business strategy, etc. It helps me stay abreast with the latest trends in the industry through the insights of professors. It also makes me learn about new technologies and standards. These further my career prospects.

Q. Did it pay off? How?
A. One of the courses by Coursera dealt with identifying and evaluating the business models of emerging companies. As a global solution manager at Scaale Capital's business advisory firm, I provide consultative solutions to the target market of seven European countries through multiple financial products and services. The course helped me by re-affirming my approach and showcasing perspectives of CXOs of companies while they are pitching for investment. It helped me understand the psyche of entrepreneurs better and utilise it to deal with daily situations at work while interacting with clients.

Q. Based on your experience, what were the challenges in completing this course?
A. While the course was well-balanced in terms of preparation pressure, the part of evaluating other candidates in the course to gain additional points was challenging.

Q. Do you have any advice based on experience on how one should select the course?
A. Apart from personal choices, I think the course selection is very easy on Coursera. They have classified the courses under various categories, from business and management to finance and economics. You can search by choosing any of these topics and further sort it through the start dates of these courses to get the right results.


SPEAKING FROM EXPERIENCE: Ankit Khandelwal, Chemical Engineer/Freelance Writer

Ankit Khandelwal, Chemical Engineer/Freelance Writer
Q. Where are you doing your course from? Did you check other sites for MOOCs?
A. I have taken courses from both MOOC as well as from Open Course Wares (OCWs). Though I have registered and checked courses on almost every MOOC platform, I have taken courses mainly from Alison, Coursera, Edx, NovoEd and Open2study.

Q. Which course did you choose? Was it out of interest or was it to further your career?
A. Instead of joining an MBA college, I took courses from various international universities with the aim of creating my personalised 'International Management Study' programme. Over the past two years, I have taken more than 20 courses from different universities with focus on general management as well as interdisciplinary areas. During this period, I tried learning three foreign languages and extensively studied news from 8-10 parts of the world to get business/political updates around the globe.

Q. What were the biggest challenges in completing this course?
A. Lack of high-speed internet connection was a big challenge for me. But for many it was lack of time, lack of motivation and difficulty levels.

Q. What advice do you have for people looking at online courses?
A. My advice would be to not treat this as a regular course. If you already know what you want to study or if you are new to MOOC, then it can be a good idea to start a course in a familiar area or in the area you are eager to explore. Every course enlists syllabus and list of concepts that are going to be covered and you should check if it is going to interest you or not. Also, remember that the time zones can vary, so try to develop a mechanism to adjust your schedule for a few days.

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