E-education platforms, their Generative AI chapter

Global online education brands do not seem to be shying away from experimenting with regenerative AI tools

Updated - June 13, 2023 12:04 pm IST

Published - June 13, 2023 12:08 am IST

‘Time will tell whether regenerative AI tools will really shore up the economic fortunes of online education platforms’

‘Time will tell whether regenerative AI tools will really shore up the economic fortunes of online education platforms’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Salman Khan flourished even at the peak of the world economic crisis of 2008. The Khan Academy’s online education videos attracted thousands of learners that year. It has gone from strength to strength since then. Khan’s not-for-profit enterprise is funded by the likes of the Gates Foundation, Google and Elon Musk. Today, the academy has 130 million learners from across the world, ranging from school-goers to graduate-level learners. Such is the enduring popularity of online education.

Scaling up

As the world recovered from its economic setback by 2011, a new genre of online courses titled ‘Massive Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) made their entry, driven by reputed institutions of learning. Though MOOCS have been around since 2008, their institutional origins can be traced to three free online courses offered by Stanford University in 2011. Peter Norvig, Sebastian Thrun, Jennifer Widom and Andrew Ng conducted these courses. Buoyed by the large turnout of learners for these ‘pilot’ courses, Thrun launched his online education outfit, ‘Udacity’, in late 2011 as a for-profit company. A year later, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller followed suit with their venture ‘Coursera’, which was also registered as a ‘for-profit’ company.

Also read: Learning in the Internet age

Not to be left behind, MIT and Harvard joined forces to create ‘edX’ in May 2012, as a non-profit MOOCS Company. Anant Agarwal, the visionary founder of edX, is widely credited with open sourcing and internationalising the company’s ‘open edX tech stack’. Although edX was acquired by the for-profit EdTech company, ‘2U’, in November 2021, the company continues to follow ‘non-profit considerations when it comes to servicing its open-source stack.

All the three outfits succeeded in launching MOOCS on a global scale, in partnership with the world’s leading universities and institutions. As far as India is concerned, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and the Indian Institute of Management Bangalore have been the early movers . Both institutions offer a variety of MOOCS courses through the edX platform.

As of 2021, there existed nearly 35 MOOCS Learning Management Systems (LMS) spread across North America, Asia and Europe. The list of large LMS platforms from the developing world includes India’s ‘Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds’ (SWAYAM) launched in 2017 by the Ministry of Education, Government of India. It is one of the world’s largest learning e-portals. According to ‘Class Central’, the number of MOOCS learners in the world (excluding China) was 220 million in 2021. Coursera accounted for 97 million learners, while edX and India’s SWAYAM had enrolments of 42 million and 22 million, respectively.

Why Generative AI?

Despite their seemingly high enrolment numbers, the financials of MOOCS platforms are fragile. The operating expenses of a MOOCS platform are high, partly due to maintenance expenses associated with the LMS tech stack, and partly due to steep marketing costs incurred for enlarging the learner base. On the revenue side, the practice of offering entry-level courses gratis (or at low fees) aggravated the financial crunch faced by these platforms. Although MOOCS platforms, by and large, rely on degree-earning courses to earn revenue, such courses have few takers. A key metric that determines learner enrolments for MOOCS is the probability of potential learners discovering LMS platforms through web-based search engines. Even when a learner stumbles on a platform of her choice, she would still struggle to locate courses that suit her needs from the crowded portfolios of Coursera, edX and Udacity. What compounds the problem is the high rate of dropouts by entry-level learners. In turn, drop-outs reduce the catchment of learners for degree granting programmes.

These factors perhaps explain why Coursera, edX and Khan Academy have gone in for regenerative AI. edX’s Chat GPT plug-in helps aspiring learners to successfully locate platforms and courses that suit their requirements. The Khan Academy’s chat box ‘Khanmigo’ challenges learners with thought-provoking questions, while edX’s ‘edX Xpert’ and Coursera’s ‘AI Coursera Coach’ function as virtual assistants that answer queries, provide feedback on assignments, generate quick summaries of voluminous content, and swiftly turn out exam scores. As learning gets interesting and engaging, drop-outs are bound to come down, resulting in more learners progressing to degree granting programmes.

In India

India’s SWAYAM has yet to spell out its approach to AI. However, the platform is in for interesting times. The SWAYAM-user community will drastically scale up by 2025, when India’s active Internet users become 900 million strong. This rapid scale up will necessitate the utilisation of AI-based learning and teaching services by institutes affiliated to the platform. Unlike the United States and Europe-based platforms, SWAYAM is publicly funded and is driven by the National Education Policy’s tenets of inclusivity and cross-disciplinary learning. Indeed, in the coming years, the drift of SWAYAM courses is more likely in the direction of cross-disciplinary course offerings that utilise unstructured data. SWAYAM is thus ideally positioned to derive benefits from the evolving semantic web.

Time will tell whether regenerative AI tools will really shore up the economic fortunes of online education platforms. What is clear at the moment is that global online education brands will not shy away from experimenting with regenerative AI tools.

A. Damodaran is Distinguished Professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER)-Prosus Centre for Internet and Digital Economy, ICRIER, New Delhi. The views expressed are personal

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