Equal access to higher education requires the introduction of massive open online courses

With a staggering population of 1.25 billion — and almost half of it under the age of 25 — India is confronted with enormous challenges while it plans to fulfil the aspirations of its people. Despite these challenges, it has the potential to become a leading nation in many areas of development, including education. If we accept that knowledge-based societies develop at a faster rate, then providing access to good education, particularly higher education, becomes crucial.

The current model of higher education in India, mostly adopted from developed countries, is largely campus-based, limited in its range of learning, and essentially attempts to comply with the needs of the industrialised world. While it is true that higher education has enabled social mobility for many in India, it is also true that those who have access to higher education belong to the more privileged sections of society. To bring about a change in this restrictive character of higher education and meet the ever-increasing demands of students and teachers, we need to evolve and adopt innovative ways of teaching and learning. Providing equal or at least more equitable access to higher education cannot be brought about through changes in the existing model; it requires a clear and genuine disrupter that will usher in sea change.

Virtual learning

Introducing Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs in higher education in developing and densely populated countries like India and China could be one such intervention. MOOCs are online courses with unrestricted participation and open accessibility. However, they are different from other distance-learning programmes. First, they are essentially structured courses and not programmes that award degrees or diplomas. Second, they are interactive — there is continuous teacher-learner contact and assessment. Third, they allow a distinct possibility of virtual community/group learning.

MOOCs were initiated in 2008, but their potential as a valuable tool in higher education was fully recognised by 2012. A large number of universities in the U.S., Europe and other parts of the world now offer these courses to supplement their teaching-learning programmes. In India, MOOCs have still not formally entered the wider university system, barring some IITs which have floated their own MOOCs. Yet it is interesting and impressive to note that about one-fourth of all MOOCs enrolment worldwide is from India, second only to the U.S. This clearly underlines the fact that learners in India are quick to adopt new technologies. But it must also be noted that successful completion rate of MOOCs worldwide ranges from 5 to 15 per cent only.

Can MOOCs be useful in a country like India? The most attractive feature of these courses is the ease with which both students and teachers can access available content. MOOCs are very useful in providing high-quality conventional courses like engineering and basic sciences to people in different locations, thereby bridging the gap between well-established teaching institutions and those that lag behind.

MOOCs can be a real boon to those who seek extra knowledge in specific domains and are not necessarily looking for a degree/diploma qualification. These courses could, for example, be a great asset in teacher training and enhancing teaching capabilities. MOOCs can also become very valuable in acquiring skills and knowledge that are suited to specific industry-related jobs. Traditional education is often considered inadequate for entering industries like information technology, pharma, healthcare and biomedical sciences. Tailor-made MOOCs for specific jobs can be provided and can be pursued by those who wish to enter these job markets after finishing their graduate programmes. The industry could participate in the development of specific MOOCs for this purpose. Needless to say, all this would require active collaborations, involvement of experts and most importantly, establishment of easy access to internet across the country.

A powerful disrupter

While possibilities are many, several issues need to be addressed for MOOCs to be successfully adopted. First, if MOOCs do not contribute towards acquisition of a degree/diploma, then what would be its attraction to a learner seeking higher education? This is particularly true of a country like India where degree qualifications are considered an absolute necessity for entering the job market. However, if MOOCs were to be credited towards a degree, then those enrolled would have to be assessed by their universities and the online course educators. This is possible, but would be an added responsibility for the course-providers. Also, will well-established universities make MOOCs a part of those programmes that award formal degrees? And if they do, would the prospective employers be willing to consider MOOCs-based education/training as being on par with institution-based degree/training and accept it?

What is perplexing is the rationale of top universities in the developed world in floating almost free courses in collaboration with service providers like edX, Coursera, and udacity, when the cost of higher education in these universities is becoming prohibitively expensive. These universities may well be developing business models for their version of higher education. They also, perhaps, see no competition between MOOCs and their established and much sought-after degree courses. It is not hard to predict that MOOCs may not be offered for free once they become financially gainful. In fact, some universities in the U.S. have already put in place degree-yielding MOOCs at a considerable cost.

It is quite clear that MOOCs can be a powerful disrupter in providing and enriching higher education in countries like India. At the same time it is also obvious that platforms like these will need to be adapted to suit the specific needs of a large number of young people who have every right to seek and receive higher education. For India to become a knowledge-based society, it is imperative that higher education and training in skills are made accessible to as many as possible, and at the earliest. MOOCs can play an important role in the government’s agenda to expand the reach of higher education. Whatever the future may be, these virtual courses can only be seen as complementing and not substituting traditional degree courses.

(Virander S. Chauhan is former director at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology, New Delhi, and member, University Grants Commission.)

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