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MOOCs could be the answer for world’s largest student population

ht view Updated: Aug 13, 2014 22:56 IST

A few months ago, IIT-Bombay launched three MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) — Introduction to Computer Programming Part 1 and 2 and Thermodynamics. With this, India has truly stepped into the MOOCs era.

There are at least three reasons why MOOCs need to be part of the solution to higher education challenges: First, they can reach students who do not have physical access to higher education. Rather than build new colleges in accessible areas, it makes sense to improve broadband connectivity so that students can register for MOOCs. Second, we have the world’s largest student population — 315 million. These numbers will rise due to population growth and the NDA’s commitment to raise the Gross Enrolment Ratio from around 20% today to 30% by 2020. In response to the growing demand for tertiary education, there has been a significant increase in the number of colleges — from 12,806 in 2000-01 to 35,539 in 2011-12. However, colleges are not being built quickly enough.

Finally, it is no secret that most Indian colleges offer poor-quality education, leaving their graduates underemployed or unemployed. A student is better off signing up for IIT-B’s Thermodynamics course than attending her professor’s lectures at the local college.

It is not surprising that a record number of Indians are signing up for MOOCs, second only to Americans. We are a populous, young country; most MOOCs are in English, making them more accessible to us than to, say, Chinese students; and our colleges lack qualified faculty, whether to teach mathematics, Shakespeare or something else.

Given the large student population, it makes market-sense to produce MOOCs in India. However, there are some big issues of concern. There is evidence that a majority of those registering for MOOCs are those with an undergraduate degree or higher. MOOCs remain elusive for those who could benefit from better access to education — women, the less educated and the poor. India’s challenge will be to make MOOCs reach these social groups.

Second, India-made MOOCs have to compete with MOOCs by star professors at Stanford and MIT. Can IIT-B, for example, create a more suitable if not better product?

Third, we cannot be limited to producing technology- and science-focused MOOCs.

According to the All India Survey on Higher Education’s (AISHE’s) 2011-12 report, just over one-third are in the arts stream, a fifth in engineering and around 12% in science. At some point soon, India’s leading institutions such as Delhi University and Jawaharlal Nehru University must step in and take the initiative to develop India-specific courses in the humanities and social sciences.

India-specific MOOCs — in areas such as Indian history, politics, philosophy and culture and offered in English as well as in regional languages — will serve a larger social purpose in providing better-quality education to a larger number of students.

It is an irony that edX’s first bilingual India-specific MOOC in Hindi and English — Engaging India — is produced by the Australian National University and not an Indian university.

(Pushkar is assistant professor, department of humanities & social sciences, BITS Pilani-Goa. The views expressed by the author are personal.)