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  • Deepan Prabakar, Rakesh Misra, Shail Kumar

India needs to make MOOCs a national priority

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present just the right opportunity for India to provide an excellent education to hundreds of millions of its youth, quickly. How can India capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

India’s future in the 21st century will be defined by how well it educates its 700 million to 1.3 billion youth over the next 35-50 years. Thus, providing excellent higher education and preparing them for their lives and careers is India’s defining challenge and opportunity of the 21st century.

We, at Nalanda 2.0, have recommended implementing 5 big ideas to make India’s higher education system world class. One of them is to leverage MOOCs, technology and related innovations to provide an excellent education to all, quickly. MOOCs stands for Massive (a very large number of students can enroll simultaneously), Open (anyone from anywhere can enroll), Online (all instruction, testing, and discussion are done online, i.e. over the Internet), Courses. In our previous article, we explained why MOOCs are a silver bullet for India’s higher education crisis.

MOOCs present an opportunity to empower anyone with an internet connection to learn any topic of their choice, from the best teachers, at nominal costs. Not surprisingly, the world is latching on to this opportunity. Corporations like Coursera, edX, Udacity and FutureLearn have pioneered the efforts to make MOOCs available to the world. Countries like China, France, Israel, Italy, Jordan, Malaysia, and Mexico have launched nation-wide MOOCs initiatives to address the unique education and skills challenges in their respective nations.

In 2014, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) announced India’s own nation-wide MOOCs initiative, SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds). After several fits and starts, a beta version of the SWAYAM platform was finally launched in late 2016. In his Budget 2017-18 speech, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley highlighted the government’s vision for SWAYAM:

“We propose to leverage information technology and launch SWAYAM platform with at least 350 online courses. This would enable students to virtually attend the courses taught by the best faculty; access high-quality reading resources; participate in discussion forums; take tests and earn academic grades. Access to SWAYAM would be widened by linkage with DTH channels, dedicated to education.”

With MOOCs, India has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform its higher education system, provide all its youth a world-class education, and make its economy more vibrant. So, how well is India capitalizing on this invaluable opportunity?

Based on our review of SWAYAM and its comparison with MOOCs initiatives around the world, we find that SWAYAM falls utterly short of the needs and aspirations of the youth and industry and the tremendous potential of the nation.

1. Aspirations: The government’s aspirations for SWAYAM are low, and approach lacks a sense of urgency. Within three years, China’s MOOCs initiative (XuetangX) has become the 3rd largest MOOCs provider in the world with its emphasis on excellence. Within two years, Malaysia has launched a national policy on credit recognition and transfer. Within one year, Israel is offering MOOCs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. In contrast, many of the MOOCs developed by faculty outside of IITs and IISc that we reviewed on SWAYAM were insipid and uninspiring, indicating a serious lack of emphasis on excellence. There are no clear efforts to implement a comprehensive credit recognition and transfer policy or to make the MOOCs available in Hindi and major regional languages.

2. Leadership: SWAYAM does not have a single leader or a group responsible for its vision, strategy, and execution. The responsibilities and funding are diffused across multiple initiatives, agencies, and institutions such as NPTEL, teachers training initiative, AICTE, UGC, IGNOU, and IITs. The current crisis in higher education is evidence that leadership from existing regulatory agencies does not inspire confidence, innovation, or excellence.

3. Funding: In Budget 2017, there is Rs. 75 crores ($11 million) earmarked for MOOCs, same as in Budget 2016. This allocation represents a mere 0.23% of higher education budget, 0.09% of the education budget, and 0.003% of the national budget. While there appears to be funding to develop courses at the low level of aspirations, there is little or no money to manage the efforts to ensure that the best faculty members are being tapped to teach each subject. There also appears to be no funding to experiment to improve learning outcomes.

4. Pedagogy: Initiatives like FutureLearn (UK) and XuetangX (China) are pioneering innovations in pedagogy to improve the learning outcomes for the students such as making the learning material rich and interactive, rethinking discussion forums to encourage social learning, and personalizing the learning experience for each student. On the other hand, SWAYAM’s approach of simply replacing classroom lectures with online video lectures is largely non-technical and lacks inspiration.

5. Impact: Countries like China, France, and Malaysia are investing heavily in keeping their MOOCs aligned with the changing needs of their industries and societies. However, despite high demand from youth and industry, SWAYAM is largely academic in nature with no clear engagements with industry or society to make an impact.

So, what does India need to do from here? To say the least, the government needs to reboot SWAYAM. Taking a leaf out of how similar initiatives in the past, like Aadhaar, have been successfully executed at the national scale, we strongly recommend that the government takes the following steps urgently in order to unleash the potential of MOOCs in India with scale, speed and excellence.

1. Launch a national mission on MOOCs: This national mission would be tasked to bring world-class education to every Indian’s computer, tablet, and mobile device in a matter of 1-2 years. It would offer over 1000 courses focused on making students ready for life and career, and for solving the needs of the society and the nation. And, the courses would be offered in English, Hindi, and all major regional languages.

2. Appoint a recognized leader: The leader would have significant credibility and network to make an immediate impact. The leader would be someone who has expertise in higher education, technology, and MOOCs. Finally, the leader would be a cabinet-level appointment to show the government’s seriousness and urgency in addressing this challenge and opportunity.

3. Provide authority, accountability, and funding: The leader would have the necessary authority, accountability, and funding to organize a team of experts to make the vision and plans a reality. And, all the related government departments, agencies, and institutions would report to this team for MOOCs-related matters and ensure its success.

“Every crisis is an opportunity”, says an old proverb. In its higher education crisis, India has an opportunity to leapfrog the rest of the world. For that, it desperately needs to make MOOCs a national priority.

The best time to do it was yesterday. The next best time is now.

About the Authors:

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. and M.Tech. from IIT Madras. He was born and brought up in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

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

‡Shail Kumar is the Founder and President of Nalanda 2.0., 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:


This and the first MOOCs article are informed by extensive research and interviews with the following:

  • Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, and Professor, MIT

  • Devesh Kapur, Professor, University of Pennsylvania

  • Deepak Phatak, Professor, IIT Bombay

  • Nikhil Sinha, Chief Business Officer, Coursera

  • Andrew Thangaraj, Professor, IIT Madras

Nalanda 2.0 is a nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank that aims to make India’s higher education system world-class.

Follow Nalanda 2.0 on Facebook and Twitter. For more information view its Website.

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