You can now study economic development at Oxford, free and online.You can learn about genetics via India’s union HRD ministry and its new Swayam e-courses.
You can even dabble in nuclear energy management via edX.
As massive open online courses, or MOOCs, catch on, the number of students registering is climbing by as much as 70% a year, and hallowed institutes that never offered them before — like Oxford University — are opening their doors virtually too.
This is encouraging industry to be more embracing of MOOCs too, and the result is a virtuous cycle that gives the Indian student the ability to pick a field of study, anywhere in the world, and pursue a course in that field right from home, and usually free.
“MOOCs used to be seen as almost an extra-curricular activity. But even the book-centric Indian students are learning that it can be very enriching, personally and professionally, to attend a prestigious foreign university virtually,” says education consultant Karan Gupta. “It also helps expand the horizon when it comes to higher study options, as MOOCs allow students to opt for standalone courses in topics like game theory, antimicrobial resistance or 3D printing.”
The numbers speak for themselves. Coursera, a US-based platform that partners with universities to offer online courses around the world, registered 70% rise in number of registrations from India between 2014 and 2015, to reach 1.1 million users in the country; and that number has since risen further to reach 1.8 million this year.
Meanwhile, Oxford launched its first MOOC, From Poverty to Prosperity: Understanding Economic Development, in November.
Even the union government is betting big on MOOCs. The Swayam initiative (Swayam is Hindi for ‘by yourself ’), which opened for registrations in November, is already offering 216 free courses, with plans to expand to 10,000 over the next two years, according to Anil Sahasrabudhe, chairman of All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE).
“The growth in digital education has been massive and the main factor driving it is changing student perceptions,” adds Andrew Thangaraj, a professor of electrical engineering at IIT-Madras associated with Swayam. “Even though a majority of students are still inclined towards classroom learning, the acceptance of online courses in rising rapidly.”
Read: Self-learn with HRD ministry’s free online courses
“Online courses are very customisable and manageable with academics,” says Sunny Gurbani, 20, a management student from Kalyan who has completed four courses in digital marketing and entrepreneurship over the past year, from Cloudera and edX. “They help increase job prospects and learn niche skills, so they are quite popular among students.”
Mohit Kariya, 19, a commerce student at MMK College, Bandra, for instance, decided to boost his career in the NGO sector with an online course module called Improving Leadership and Governance in Non-Profit Organisations. “The threemonth course really helped me understand the sector and I got a promotion at my workplace partly because I had taken the initiative and done the course,” he says.
While most of the students signing up for MOOCs are looking for high-tech skills and certifications precisely for such a career boost, many are also looking to pick up skills in areas that are not covered by India’s relatively stodgy formal education system.
“The university curriculum does not offer the topics I need, such as multi-threading and SQLite programming, so I learn them online, on platforms such as Udemy,” he says. “They help me upgrade my information with industry-relevant subject matter and are a convenient supplement to my college life. They have also helped me get internships because they gave me skills that many other students didn’t have.”
Udemy, incidentally, offers more than 42,000 online courses and has over 13 million users worldwide.
In an interesting twist, the union government is now proposing to make Swayam modules part of mainstream curricula too.
“The eventual plan is for at least 20% of the curriculum to be done either partly or entirely through online courses,” says Sahasrabudhe. “That way, students from Tier 2 and Tier 3 cities get access to the same level of education and remote areas can benefit from material uploaded by the faculty of premier IITs and reputed universities, improving the quality of education across the country.”
Acceptance is also growing among industry, with companies recognising online courses as credentials when hiring. “Many industries, in fact, now use online courses to reskill employees after hiring them, so they are only too happy to have the recruit already trained in those modules,” says HR consultant Medha Kanan.
The courses are working best in the towns and cities with no reputed universities. “The future of online courses is brighter in such places and they get more takers as the students there demand an outcome-based curriculum that will help them get employment,” says Kanan. “The best part is that they suit to all income groups and help reduce skill gap.”
The future of the education system in India will be an integration of models, where the student will be able to choose whether they want to study online, offline or in a combination of the two, says Uday Salunkhe, group director of WeSchool, Matunga. “The key to delivering excellent education through online courses is to impart equal commitment and quality as what is offered through the traditional campus-based programmes. Online courses then also become a gateway for self-employment and entrepreneurship, promoting excellence in the growing number of niche careers.”