Will India’s tryst with online courses pay off?

The opportunity to transform higher education is enormous. Yet much will depend on whether faculty in our places of higher learning are able to handle the transition to this brave, new world

Indrajit Gupta

[Photograph by StartupStockPhotos under Creative Commons]

For a little less than four weeks, I’ve enrolled for a MOOC (massively open online course) offered by MITx on the edX platform Leading from the Emerging Future. Otto Scharmer’s highly rated eight week course is into its third edition and has already attracted more than 85,000 participants in more than 183 countries in its first year. One of the more distinctive parts of the course is its reliance on the concept of local learning hubs. There are nearly 350+ hubs that participants have set up to come together and learn. At Founding Fuel, we set up one of our own, where a carefully curated group of entrepreneurs meet to watch live sessions, work on exercises, discuss and reflect on learnings.

For us, it was an experiment to see how learning communities work. And so far, while it is still early days, the feedback on the meet-ups have been very encouraging. Participants have turned up for the meet-ups after a long day at work, remained highly engaged for nearly three hours, shared their experiences candidly, and what’s more, most of them have tried their best to invest 5-7 hours a week to complete the course work as well.

But here’s the moot point: It really makes me wonder why India hasn’t innovated enough to embrace technology-based learning. God knows that we need it urgently. We lack enough good high-quality higher education institutions, and more importantly, we don’t have enough trained faculty. And making education accessible in a country that’s the size of a continent through a brick-and-mortar infrastructure is far from easy.

In case you didn’t know, the Central government has had an ambitious MOOCs programme of its own lined up for launch for the past two years. And like any government initiative, it has had its own share of controversies and challenges. But there’s hope that Swayam—as the programme is known—will see the light of day sooner than later. The project is interesting not just because it allows faculty in University Grants Commission (UGC) certified educational institutions to offer more than 2,000-3,000 courses in management, engineering and humanities on a single platform, but because students can now get 20% of credits in the university system by enrolling and completing these courses on their own. Now that’s a big step forward. At a conceptual level, it automatically injects more choice into our rigid university system. For instance, a student based in Arunachal Pradesh can now get access to the best faculty that she would never had imagined possible. For a faculty too, there’s an opportunity to step out of the confines of their own system, and engage with a wider community.

Just how many places of higher learning are currently geared to handle the transition to this brave, new world is another matter altogether. For instance, it took more than two years for IIM Bangalore (IIM-B) to get off the blocks, largely thanks to the prodding, cajoling and pushing by its erstwhile director Sushil Vachani. Today, IIM-B offers about 20+ online courses on the edX and Open edX platform, with nearly 300,000 enrolments, with over two-thirds coming from outside India. Now, that’s a pretty good start, given that, as Vachani told me on a Skype call from the US, they started out almost like any scrappy start-up with a frugal approach in mid-2014. Less than a couple of weeks ago, IIM Calcutta teamed up with NIIT to offer a blended post-graduate certificate programme in general management for working executives.

Think about it. There’s been considerable debate over whether IIMs should globalise. This way, it has taken IIM-B considerably less time and resources to build visibility and attract students than any brick-and-mortar presence outside India could do, avers PD Jose, the current faculty in charge of the MOOCs initiative at IIM-B. What’s more, even as any of the new IIMs—in Nagpur, Shillong, Sambalpur, or even Jammu—struggle to attract faculty, the new MOOCs could potentially offer opportunities for blended learning, and thereby take some of the load off the existing faculty and allow for asynchronous, self-paced learning. Or indeed follow the flipped classroom model, where the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.

The real challenge though is capacity building and getting faculty to relook at their pedagogy. Otto Scharmer’s course at MIT is assisted by a team of Ph.D students, who work as teaching assistants. The quality of videos, the interactive graphics, the quizzes and assignments, the discussion boards, access to thought-leaders at MIT like Edgar Schein and Peter Senge and of course, the course design (especially the reliance on local hubs) have clearly raised the bar. The user experience (UX) certainly needs improvement, but the sheer responsiveness from the MITx team to participant queries has helped tide over the teething troubles.

Next month, Vachani will be in India to lead faculty development programmes in Bengaluru and Delhi. And that might actually be the best starting point, if ambitious government projects like Swayam are to take off.

So what have we learned so far from our hub?

One, our learning culture in India perhaps still places a lot of reliance on the faculty to do the heavy lifting for us, instead of taking responsibility for our own learning. To be sure, the MITx course places a premium on self-learning and group learning. Of course, there are live classroom sessions. But if you step in for a live session without having read or seen any of the course material, there’s very little value that you’re likely to derive from it. However, instilling discipline isn’t easy. So MITx has sensibly tried an honour code to transfer the onus of completing the coursework on the participant. Besides, the group learning process also puts pressure subtly on participants to come to speed.

Two, most participants in our Hub clearly see value in the group learning approach. After all, Scharmer’s course is pretty intense—and having a group to discuss and reflect is vital. Without that, most people would have simply dropped off. Also, much like Jaipur Rugs, there is a clear opportunity for more business and social organisations in India to create their own communities of practice that help them address specific business challenges. To MITx’s credit, they have tried to organise the effort with clear guidelines on how to host a hub—while at the same time, they’ve left enough leeway to the Hubs to add a layer of local context.

Three, thanks to the unprecedented growth in social media, social learning offers new opportunities to widen perspective and develop connections. On this course, some of us have enjoyed being a part of the U.Lab community on Facebook and Twitter, posting questions on the discussion boards on the U,Lab community site and also reading about how other Hubs are grappling with local issues of their own. In their own little way, these virtual connections help expand one’s social field and also help build a sense of belonging to a community of change makers.

It is pretty obvious that MOOCs will continue to evolve in the years to come. Two years ago, Clayton Christensen and Michelle R Weise wrote an important piece in the Boston Globe arguing that the potential of MOOCs to disrupt—on price, technology, even pedagogy—in a long-stagnant higher education sector is only just beginning to be seen. I can’t agree more.

(A shorter version of this column appeared in Business Standard)

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Ramesh Rao on Nov 20, 2016 8:23 p.m. said

Three years ago, MOOCs were all the rage, but now the response from educators and university administrators is "Really?" Online courses offered by universities have become more rigorous, and faculty have been asked to get "Quality Matters" certification before they begin building online courses, and they have been urged to get their courses QM certified. But MOOCs are another issue, and having signed up for one with my teenage son, and given up after a couple of weeks, I know the completion rate for MOOCs is low, and the whole RPG (retention, progression, graduation) issue that a large number of US universities are struggling with will not get resolved through MOOCs. Building MOOCs is expensive, and the excitement and enthusiasm to get on the MOOCs bandwagon that I saw three years ago is no longer there. See this for a more comprehensive report on MOOCs: https://www.onlinecoursereport.com/state-of-the-mooc-2016-a-year-of-massive-landscape-change-for-massive-open-online-courses/

Moksh Goyal on Sep 29, 2016 3:14 p.m. said

Totally agreed. MOOCs are going to shape the educational system in times to come. They are short , crisp and to the point and with loads of practice on industrial problems. With the advent of Coursera, EDX, Udemy, Datacamp etc, access to quality education has become easier and economical.

About the author

Indrajit Gupta
Indrajit Gupta

Co-founder and Director

Founding Fuel

Indrajit Gupta is a business journalist and editor with over two decades of experience. He was the Founding Editor of the Indian edition of Forbes magazine. Within four years of its launch, Forbes India became the most influential magazine in its space.

He is the co-founder and director at Founding Fuel.

He has served in leadership positions at many of the leading media brands in the country. Before taking up the assignment to start up the India edition of Forbes magazine, Gupta was the Resident Editor of The Economic Times in Mumbai and before that, the National Business Editor of The Times of India.

Over the years, Gupta has built a reputation for grooming talent and creating highly energised and purposeful newsrooms. He has interviewed several leading global thought-leaders and business leaders including CK Prahalad, Ram Charan, Wayne Brockbank, Sumantra Ghoshal, Carlos Ghosn and Nitin Nohria, and also led cutting-edge joint research-based projects with McKinsey & Co, The Great Place to Work Institute, Boston Consulting Group, KMPG and Coopers & Lybrand.

He won the Polestar journalism award in 2010 and was awarded the Chevening fellowship by the British Foreign office in 1999. Gupta is an alumnus of the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research, Mumbai and a B.Com (Hons) graduate from St Xavier's College, Calcutta.

Gupta teaches a course on Business Problem Solving at his alma mater. He writes a column named Strategic Intent in Business Standard’s edit page. He lives in Mumbai with his wife and two young daughters.

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