• Deepan Prabakar, Rakesh Misra, Shail Kumar

A silver bullet for India’s higher education crisis

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are just the solution that India needs to provide an excellent education to hundreds of millions of its youth, quickly. Is India’s higher education system in crisis? What are MOOCs? Why are they the silver bullet (magical solution) to address the crisis in India’s vast and complex higher education system? Find the answers in this article.

India: The Imperative

A tsunami is coming and India is grossly unprepared to face it. Unlike the 2004 tsunami that was triggered by an earthquake, this one is powered by the 20-26 million children born each year in India. Thus, over the next 35-50 years, we have to educate 700 million to 1.3 billion young men and women, and prepare them for their lives and careers. This is India's defining challenge and opportunity of the 21st century.

Now, that is a tall order especially since the higher education system is in crisis. Consider this, most developed nations have a gross enrollment ratio (GER) in the 50-95% range. By contrast, India’s GER is around 24% and lags behind developed countries by a wide margin. The quality of education is dismal, 75-90% of students graduating from colleges are considered unemployable by the industry. And, even after 70 years of independence India does not have even one world-class multidisciplinary research university.

Higher education is the nerve center for any society or nation. For India, this nerve center is absolutely critical. India is an ancient society and a young nation seeking significant economic development. With over one-sixth of the world's population, building a world-class higher education system in India is not just critical for India and its people, but also for the world. With 20-26 million children born each year in India, it is an increasingly urgent issue.

Nalanda 2.0, a nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank, has proposed five big ideas to make India’s higher education system world class. One of them is leveraging Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), technology, and related innovations to provide an excellent education to all, now.

MOOCs: The Opportunity

MOOCs stands for Massive (a very large number of students can enroll in a class simultaneously), Open (anyone from anywhere can enroll in the class), Online (all instruction, testing, and discussion are done online, i.e. over the internet), Courses. MOOCs is a recent and natural evolution of distance education. (See Infographics: Key Milestones in MOOCs Evolution.)

Thanks to MOOCs, anyone with an internet connection can now learn any course of their choice, from the best faculty members from around the world, at a fraction of the cost. Lectures, reading assignments, interaction with peers and faculty, feedback, and tests are all enabled by the MOOCs platform.

MOOCs can be used as a stand-alone learning platform. It can also be used along with in-class discussions and tutorials overseen by a faculty member, sometimes referred to as blended MOOCs. Blended MOOCs are also called flipped classrooms, since students learn the basic concepts on MOOCs and classrooms are reserved for discussions, addressing questions, and solving problems. MOOCs also have the capability to provide real-time and personalized assessment and feedback for each student, a boon for students and teachers alike.

The turning point for MOOCs came in the Fall of 2011 when Stanford University’s Computer Science Professors Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun offered “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to an initial enrollment of over 160,000 students from around the world.

Subsequently, three companies — Coursera, edX, and Udacity have pioneered this field and are among the largest providers of MOOCs. (See Infographics: Key Milestones in MOOCs Evolution, and World’s Top-5 MOOCs Providers.) They have continued to innovate on technical and business fronts. They are partnering with premier universities, best faculty members, corporations, and governments. The learning experience is also being enhanced. In June 2013, edX open sourced its entire MOOCs platform. Branded as Open edX, this enabled other institutions to leverage the platform and quickly launch classes targeted to their students and regions.

These companies have also started offering credentials, the holy grail in higher education. Coursera’s Specializations, edX’s XSeries, and Udacity’s Nanodegrees are certificates that students can earn by completing a pre-determined sequence of classes and by paying a relatively small amount of money compared to traditional on-campus tuition fees.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a nonprofit MOOCs provider, is particularly excited about its recently launched MicroMasters program. According to Agarwal, students can now take a sequence of courses on edX, roughly equivalent to 25% of a regular Master’s degree. Students can take this for free. However, if they want the MicroMasters credentials then they have to pay approximately $1,000. Students can use the MicroMasters credentials in their applications to top schools such as Columbia University or MIT, improve their chances of admissions, and once admitted get credits for these classes. With another new edX-Georgia Tech program, students can get a MicroMasters in Analytics for $1,500 and if admitted by Georgia Tech complete their Master’s degree online for a total outlay of $10,000. This is a fraction of the cost of a regular Master’s degree in most top-tier US-based research universities.

Coursera’s Chief Business Officer Nikhil Sinha calls its iMBA program with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) game changing. According to Sinha, the first cohort of 180 students from this program will graduate in the summer of 2017. Now, students can earn their MBA degree from UIUC for $20,000. Compared to $80,000 for an on-campus program, this is quite a deal.

MOOCs are a game changer in higher education and more than ever before it is an exciting time to be a student. One can — a) learn at their own pace, b) from the best faculty in the world, c) in a wide range of fields, d) at a fraction of the cost, and e) receive credentials that are beginning to get valued by top universities, start-ups, and Fortune 500 companies alike. MOOCs are not just valuable for young learners but also professionals who want to augment their skills and knowledge or who want to re-skill themselves for a new field.

No wonder, the MOOCs revolution is now setting the world on fire!

Around the World: Adoption and Impact

Corporations, start-ups, universities, and national governments around the world are jumping on the MOOCs bandwagon. Universities are experimenting with new models and partners, corporations are using MOOCs for training their employees, start-ups are offering new products and services, and governments are addressing their nation’s education and skills challenges.

For example, in the UK, The Open University along with 12 university partners launched “FutureLearn”, a for-profit MOOC platform that now has 64 university and 45 non-university partners from the UK and outside. It has grown to become the 4th-largest MOOC provider in the world offering nearly 500 courses to over 5 million learners.

In China, a consortium of ten leading Chinese universities spearheaded by Tshingua University and supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education, launched “XuetangX”, a MOOC and blended learning portal. Built on Open edX, it now offers nearly 400 courses to over 6 million learners and is the third largest MOOC provider in the world behind Coursera and edX. (See Infographics: Key Milestones in MOOCs Evolution, and World’s Top-5 MOOCs Providers.)

To address a shortage of data scientists, in 2014 and as part of its SkillsFuture initiative, Singapore partnered with Coursera to upskill its workforce. The Singapore-Coursera program was a runaway success.

The list of countries adopting and investing in MOOCs is quickly growing and includes countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Malaysia, Jordan, and Israel.

MOOCs in India: A Silver Bullet

India must urgently address the crisis in its higher education system. However, it is severely constrained by lack of world-class faculty, infrastructure, resources, and time. Thus, MOOCs are the much-needed silver bullet for India. With relatively modest resources it can provide EXCELLENT EDUCATION TO ALL in the very near future. And all the courses could be offered in English, Hindi, and several regional languages.

India has a relatively strong starting position to take advantage of the MOOCs revolution. It has invested in several related initiatives over the years at the national scale such as the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). NPTEL is an initiative led by seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institute of Science (IISc) for creating course contents in engineering and science. There are also various colleges and universities such as IIT Bombay, IIT Kanpur, IIT Madras, BITS Pilani, and IIM Bangalore that are offering MOOCs. Many of these are using Open edX platform. In addition, companies such as Coursera and edX are partnering with various Indian companies and educational institutions to provide a world-class education to India’s youth and professionals.

Deepak Phatak, Professor of Computer Science at IIT Bombay, is leading its MOOCs initiative and a national-level teachers training initiative with a goal of teaching 10,000 teachers at a time. A champion of blended MOOCs model, Phatak is catalyzing the adoption of MOOCs in colleges and universities around the nation by preparing faculty members to be active users of MOOCs in their respective institutions. According to Phatak, 150,000 teachers have already been trained. Phatak’s efforts demonstrate the compelling value of MOOCs for professionals—faculty members and teachers.

Two national initiatives have the potential of bringing MOOCs revolution to every Indian’s doorstep, desktop, and mobile phone — SWAYAM and Digital India. SWAYAM, which is an acronym for Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, is a recent Government of India (GOI) initiative and is India’s MOOCs platform of choice with the backing of MHRD, UGC, and AICTE. Digital India is one of Prime Minister Modi’s signature initiative — “The vision of Digital India programme is to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.” If SWAYAM is the tank filled with knowledge, skills, and credentials, then Digital India, which will deliver broadband connectivity, is the pipeline connecting SWAYAM with the learner. Together they are a potent combination.

Done well, SWAYAM and Digital India together can be the much-needed panacea for India's thirst for education, skills, and credentials. And, there is a lot to be done on both fronts and that too quickly. For SWAYAM, the decision makers must focus on making the platform accessible and attractive for the students. This means that classes must be offered by the best faculty members in each field. It should be easy to use, interactive, and bring all available innovations to enhance student’s learning. Grades earned in MOOCs should lead to credits and credentials that are recognized by respective college and universities as well as the industry. Digital India, must also be expedited to reach the remotest corners of the nation.

For India, MOOCs are a clear and present opportunity. For the first time India has all the pieces of the puzzle to make the goal of providing excellent education to all a reality. India has access to the best faculty members in the world, ability to provide internet connectivity, technology prowess, and the resources to make it all happen. After several fits and starts beginning 2014, in 2016 GOI selected Microsoft India to create an indigenous platform for SWAYAM. India cannot afford any more such delays.

MOOCs revolution is in its early stages of development. It is guaranteed to evolve and grow. While it is not expected to solve the research, innovation, start-up, and many challenges facing India’s higher education system, it will most certainly address the education needs of learners of all ages. Thus, successful implementation of MOOCs is vital for India’s youth, industry, and the economy.

Wouldn’t it be great if, in the next few years, your son or daughter, nephew or niece, brother or sister could earn a prestigious degree in Computer Science, Math, English, or Economics using MOOCs and pursue a productive life and career?

Let’s make it happen. Now.

Jai Hind!

(Note: The authors will share detailed recommendations for SWAYAM in a forthcoming article. Stay tuned!)

About the authors:

Rakesh Misra is a core team member of Nalanda 2.0. Co-founder of a Silicon Valley start-up, he completed his Ph.D. from Stanford University and B.Tech from IIT Madras. He was born in Bhubaneswar and brought up in Berhampur, Odisha.

Deepan Raj Prabakar Muthirayan is a founding team member of Nalanda 2.0. A post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University, he completed his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley and B.Tech. from IIT Madras. He was born and brought up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

‡ Shail Kumar is the Founder and President of Nalanda 2.0. The author of “Building Golden India: How to unleash India's vast potential and transform its higher education system. Now.” and former administrator at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego, he received his MBA from Indiana University, Bloomington and B.Tech. (Hons.) from IIT Kharagpur. He was born in Khadakvasla, Maharashtra and grew up around the country.

‡ Corresponding author: info@nalanda2.org

Acknowledgments: Akash Keshav Singh for designing the infographics, and Subhamoy Das and Shailabh Kumar for reviewing the article. They are all part of Nalanda 2.0’s founding team.

Nalanda 2.0 is a nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank that aims to build a world-class higher education system in India. The Nalanda 2.0 team will conduct research, write articles and blog, make presentations, inform policy, educate stakeholders, partner with like-minded organizations, and advise governments, universities, and corporations.

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