With edX and Coursera taking classrooms to the cloud, Australian Universities join in to offer special courses of interest to Indian students

The percentage of people engaging with online learning through Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) has soared in recent times.

According to a Coursera representative, although the dominant group eyeing online courses on Coursera is from North America, Indians form the second largest group with around 8 per cent of Coursera’s 6.3 million students based in India.

While several academics believe that online teaching can never be an alternative to classroom teaching, they do recognise the advantages of Coursera in providing education to a diverse audience by means of collaborating with other universities, often on subjects that are not taught in much depth in some countries.

For instance, study of veterinary sciences is lagging behind in India not just because there are only a few takers for the subject but also because there are only a few experts.

Novel courses

“As a university, we realise that one of our responsibilities is to help provide greater access to education,” says Professor Marnie Hughes, Deputy Vice Chancellor (Academic) of Australian National University (ANU). “We have tied up with edX as it is a not-for-profit organisation and allows the flexibility to offer courses both in Hindi and English which is helpful for Indian students,” she says, adding that India is the second biggest market for edX.

The main advantage of MOOCs is that they are not aimed at a specific audience. If a Class VII student feels his competency level is above that of the class, he can supplement his learning through an online course. Similarly, a working professional may like to take up a course to learn something new. On successful completion of the course, the learner also receives a certificate from the university offering the course. Universities also offer novel courses through these platforms, which are not part of the university’s general curriculum itself. For instance, the Australian National University is set to offer two courses on edX this year — one in astro-physics in March and another in Engaging India in April, both of which are not offered on the campus. By 2015, ANU plans to introduce four more courses on edX.

Different approach

MOOCs work in different ways. Some courses may require preliminary reading while some may require absolutely none. The timeframe for every course is listed clearly and so is the method of assessment which may include quizzes, tests and assignments. Often, videos are incorporated in lectures to enhance their quality and make them more interesting. However, besides technical glitches with respect to the bandwidth that may occur from time to time, copyright is emerging as a major issue of contention in this regard.

Professor Mark Elgar of Melbourne University, who teaches a course in Animal Behaviour on Coursera says, “We want to be able to incorporate more YouTube videos in our lectures but are not able to do so because of copyright issues. Moreover, we need to make sure that we update the course content every year as new developments in any particular field cannot be ignored.”

While last year the University of Melbourne offered six courses on Coursera, this year, it plans to double the number.

Rutwik Kharkar, a frequent taker of online courses says, “I was teaching myself C++ about two years ago but I wanted a more direct and guided approach. I have only taken introductory computer courses so far but even they have been very helpful in showing me how people approach programming problems.” Besides this, Rutwik has taken a variety of courses in literature and philosophy. In a country like India where most struggle for opportunities in education or are not able to afford it, the introduction of these online courses has been widely hailed.