Are MOOCs the answer?

They are the buzzwords in the education sector. The popularity of these open courses is gaining steadily, with thousands of students across the globe enrolling online.

Updated - November 17, 2021 12:17 pm IST

Published - August 04, 2013 02:24 pm IST - chennai

Udacity, Coursera, AFTP - name it and you have the course of your choice

Udacity, Coursera, AFTP - name it and you have the course of your choice

The education which does not help the common mass of people to equip themselves for the struggle for life, which does not bring out strength of character, a spirit of philanthropy and the courage of a lion – is it worth the name?

Swami Vivekananda

The quote paints a picture of how education should be delivered in an ideal world. However, the reality is the exact opposite, especially in India. Over the years, there has been a phenomenal growth in the number of students enrolling in higher education. But, looking at the current scenario in India, several hindrances have resulted in students being deprived of the best of education – including easy access to the same, top-quality content, and the ability to translate the knowledge imparted into enhanced job readiness.

With only a handful of institutions in India imparting world-class education, and despite the Government’s recent efforts to increase their number, there is no justice for the rapidly increasing student population. The gravity of the situation was recently noted by the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, who said that despite there being over 650 degree-awarding institutions and over 33,000 colleges in the country, there is a supply–demand gap and a lack of institutions providing quality education. Moreover, there is a dearth of well-qualified professors due to the fact that teaching is not seen as a lucrative profession in India which results in many faculty positions lying vacant across colleges and universities. The President also advocated that it is important to introduce innovative technological solutions like e-classrooms to overcome this crisis.

India has an extremely competitive job market and there exists a disparity between the quality of education imparted and the skill-sets required for jobs. Most school and college classrooms across the country unfortunately have a teacher–student ratio of 1:40, making it very difficult for the teacher to give quality time to each student.

New modes of education like Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are well-poised to alleviate this problem. MOOCs leverage information technology to reduce the burden on on-campus professors and facilitate a more interactive learning experience for large numbers of students. Students can view core course content and collaborate with their peers online, freeing up professors to spend more time focusing on the clarification of the most challenging concepts in class.

Given the above-mentioned scenario, these courses are becoming tremendously relevant for supplementing the current degree programmes in India.

“Flipped classroom”

It is no exaggeration to say that MOOCs are the current buzz of the education sector. They are, without doubt, rapidly changing the game for higher education, executive education and employee development programmes. The popularity of MOOCs has been growing steadily with hundreds of thousands of students from around the world enrolling in online courses offered by faculty from the world’s top schools. This interest is expected to further increase as we hear more stories of students successfully securing jobs and college admissions after obtaining MOOC certification.

A MOOC is an online course aimed at large-scale interactive participation and open access via the web, or simply, e-learning. MOOC providers can be broadly classified into two groups on the basis of the courses offered. The majority of MOOC providers offer courses spanning a broad spectrum of topics in the Sciences, Humanities, and Arts. A smaller number of MOOC providers offer an integrated curriculum of courses in application-oriented disciplines. Examples of the latter include Udacity, which offers an integrated curriculum of computer science courses, and the Academic Financial Trading Platform (AFTP), which offers an integrated curriculum of business and finance courses. There is substantial interest among several top universities and business schools to offer such integrated MOOC courses for credit in a “flipped-classroom” framework, wherein students can engage in online learning from top international faculty at home in order to learn the basics of a topic, and then interact with an on-campus professor to problem-solve and reinforce understanding.

For example, several Indian universities have expressed their eagerness to incorporate MOOC courses such as those offered by AFTP as part of their business and economics curricula. The demand among Indian students for instruction from globally-recognised faculty is a strong driver for these partnerships. Similar partnerships have been developing in the U.S. Examples include the use of Udacity’s MOOC platform for the delivery of remedial math and science courses at California’s San Jose State University and the delivery of a master’s programme in computer science at the Georgia institute of Technology.

MOOCs and open access

MOOCs offer Indian students the opportunity to learn as well as gain certification of course mastery from the best professors in the U.S. and Europe. Given the limited capacity of seats at top U.S. and Indian universities, these features enhance the competitive edge of large numbers of Indian students in the global job market, and can also improve their chances of admission to top U.S. and European colleges and graduate schools. Globally, a number of renowned educational institutions, including Harvard and MIT, have included MOOCs as part of their teaching programme, either directly, or through associations.

Eventually, MOOCs will evolve beyond the delivery of online courses to becoming a pervasive resource where open access to cutting-edge university research (as well as teaching) will play a pivotal role in guiding the decisions of individuals in matters that affect their lives the most.

Raj Chakrabarti is Professor of Engineering and Anisha Ghosh is Professor of Finance at Carnegie Mellon University.

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