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Can MOOCs Solve the Learning Crisis in India?

If you think Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) are a phenomenon limited to countries with tech-savvy population and high internet bandwidth, this piece of stat will surprise you.

According to Coursera, 8% of its registered users are Indian students. To give you a perspective, around 1.1 million Indians have taken MOOCs on its platform. Anant Agarwal, president of edX believes “India ultimately will be a much bigger market for MOOCs than the U.S.”

Udacity is following suit. It has decided to partner with Google and Indian philanthropy Tata Trust to set up an education centre in India. This is Udacity’s first venture in a country other than the U.S.

India, the country with the second largest number of college and graduate students outside of the U.S. and second largest number of software developers in the world, which is about 3 million, became the logical choice for housing Udacity’s first overseas operations.

Why India Loves MOOCs

The soaring popularity of MOOCs in India can be attributed to country’s fascination with big brands in education. Where you went to study is an important determinant of success in India. An IIT/IIM tag guarantees all the success. The whole economy of dusty town of Kota is based on preparing hopefuls to crack the Joint Entrance Examination (JEE) conducted by the Indian Institute of Technology.

But only a handful make it to these premier institutions. A vast majority ends up in obscure engineering colleges in obscure suburban towns.

It is students in these obscure colleges who are lapping up MOOCs to make up for the learning deficit on account of subpar teacher quality. A very strong reason why MOOCs are so appealing to students from not-so-famous colleges is the bragging rights the students earn on successful completion of the course. A mention of foreign university in the CV or LinkedIn profile makes a candidate instantly desirable in the eyes of recruiters.

Tushar Sharma, a student of engineering at Panjab University, thinks MOOCs are a great equalizer. Considering his mediocre grades and zero practical knowledge, no company could have offered him an internship.

Following his elder brother’s advice, he took a Coursera course on Python programming. Ten weeks later, he had a bunch of paid internship offers to choose from.

But why do Indian students prefer MOOCs (not free) over Youtube lectures (free)?  Surely, getting the certificate from foreign university is great but couldn’t be the only motivator.

Many students choose MOOCs for the active learning experience they offer. You can watch a video, pause it, go straight to exercises and test your learning at will.

Moreover, you don’t just get to interact with teachers but also with fellow course-takers. In his TED talk, Anant Agarwal recalls three sleepless nights he spent answering questions of close to 1,50,000 students after launching his first wildly successful MOOC.

At 2 AM, a student from Pakistan had posted a question. Before Agrawal could type in the answer, two other students had already answered the question. Agarwal ended the thread with “good answer” that night.

Watching a video, on the other hand, is a passive experience. There are no exercises, no virtual activities or simulations to try.

The MOOC Point

Not all professors share Agarwal’s enthusiasm for MOOCs. Some IIT professors think MOOCs require them to “dumb down” their lectures in order to hold the attention of a vast audience with little or no prior knowledge on the subject.

While the prospect of reaching great number of students is thrilling, these professors would rather prefer a dedicated and inquisitive bunch of IIT students anyday. And the fact that 90% of those who sign up  for MOOCs don’t finish the course, some professors doubt if the audience is actually vast.

Steeped in tradition, some professors do not like the informal setting of the MOOCs. “You possibly can’t expect to learn something as complex as data science wearing your pyjamas and half asleep at 2 a.m. in the night,” dismisses one professor on learning about the fact that most edX courses are taken between midnight and 2 a.m.

“A number of well-known educators have said there isn’t going to be much learning in MOOCs, or if there is, it will be for people who are already well-educated,” says Professor David E Pritchard of MIT.

Professor Pritchard, in collaboration with researchers from Harvard and China’s Tsinghua University decided to test whether or not there is learning in MOOCs. They found the learning outcomes of students who took MOOCs were as good as those of students who attended the lectures.

Are MOOCs the Answer?

Vamshi Krishna Beeravelly, an alumnus of IIT Madras and a MOOC taker, thinks traditional educational system isn’t always fit to accommodate different learning styles.

“Traditional system of education presumes that all students have a standard pace of learning. There are some students who cannot keep up with the torrent of information coming from the teacher. This makes them skid over some important foundational concepts. And when some concepts are skipped, the entire structure of learning collapses,” says Beeravelly.

Beeravelly’s sentiment is echoed in the latest UN study on state of education. The report titled “Education for All – Global Monitoring Report 2013-2014” lauds India’s efforts for improving primary enrolment but questions the quality of learning. The report acknowledges India’s “ambitious” curriculum “outpaces what pupils can realistically learn and achieve in the context and time given.”

This is where MOOCs can be a game-changer, thinks Beeravelly. “If you missed the boat of learning in the classroom, just take a MOOC,” he says.

Beeravelly also thinks the standard pace of learning might also ‘stifle’ some unrecognized geniuses and destroy their potential instead of nurturing it.

“What if the cure for cancer is trapped in the mind of a kid in a village who can’t get decent education? How do we recognize and help Ramanujans and other unsung heroes out there?” he says.

To him, MOOCs are a surefire way to enable budding savants to skip unnecessary courses and choose the ones that take their learning to the next level.

MOOCing do with what you have

According to Ernst and Young Report, India needs 1,30,000 private schools by 2022 to meet the rising demand for education. This demand for quality education is fueled by rising middle class with rising disposable income. It is also a well known fact that India’s elite colleges cannot accommodate all who pass from India’s K-12 system, which is also the biggest in the world. How can India bridge this gap between the demand and supply?

Constructing schools and colleges en masse may not be a viable solution as the country also has a terrible shortage of good teachers. UNESCO’s survey of 3,000 schools in India found lack of “teachers who are trained, motivated and who enjoy teaching, who can identify and support weak learners.”

Under these peculiar circumstances of shortage of both talent and infrastructure, Indian education sector can benefit a lot from technology. MOOCs are surely one of the ways to leverage technology to make quality education accessible far and wide in the country.

Government’s ambitious Digital India campaign which has the vision of connecting even the remotest of corners with high speed broadband could be a step in right direction. Imagine a school in Leh delivering MOOCs by country’s best teachers to its students. This isn’t a pipe dream if you know the true story of a 15-year-old boy from Monglolia who aced the MIT’s MOOC on circuits and electronics.

For once, India needn’t look west for best practices. Up north, somebody in Mongolia has got it right.

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