When I started my college, I had two choices: rant about India’s education system or do something about it. I chose the latter,” says Sanyam Bhutani, 21, a BTech student at SRM College, Chennai.He decided self-education was the best way to fill the gaps in the educational system and started doing online courses in areas such as computer vision, flying car, self-driving cars and deep learning, when he was in his second year. He chose Udacity — a massive open online course (MOOC) platform that allows users to study courses offered by some prestigious global universities, sitting in their bedrooms — to get ahead of the rest. Bhutani, who is in his final year of college, was soon able to equip himself with adequate skills to float a startup called neuroascent.ml, which pitches for global projects in machine learning and computer vision.Bhutani’s days are packed — he is busy in college from 9 am to 5 pm and then logs into Udacity for additional learning and also finds time to do projects for his startup. He makes do with very little sleep. “These courses have helped me plug into a global network of teachers, students and people who do work in cutting-edge areas like artificial intelligence and flying cars. Our association continues even after the course is over.”
Bhutani is among the thousands of students and working professionals who have used MOOCs to enhance their learning or to upgrade their skills. Courses on the platforms are often from top global universities. They are mostly free, especially if the user does not want a certification, and anyone with an internet connection can join a course.
It all started in 2011 when a few sought-after Stanford professors put their courses online for free. Their dream was to make high-quality education free for everyone, everywhere. The buzz was such that The New York Times called 2012 the year of MOOCs, with a host of platforms like Coursera and EdX emerging, supported by top global universities. But the buzz did not last long due to a range of factors, including poor learner experience, impersonal self-regulated learning, poor employer recognition and high dropout rates.
Though the hubbub subsided over time, MOOCs have been quietly evolving and growing. Factors such as a tighter embrace of virtual living, better and cheaper internet bandwidth and the shifting dynamics at workplaces, among others, have made MOOCs more mainstream now. For people like Bhutani, MOOCs are fast emerging as a viable bridge that can fill the gaps in the country’s education system. For executives who cannot leave their jobs to pursue education, MOOCs are a career enhancer in a world where reskilling and upskilling have become crucial to stay relevant.India is the world’s second large market by subscriber base, after the US, and also among the fastest-growing markets for such online platforms.The platforms have also evolved their business models by experimenting with initiatives such as blended online-offline learning, paid cutting-edge nano-degrees and focusing on enterprise customers. “Monetisation is the biggest trend and all big MOOC platforms are exploring it,” says US-based Dhawal Shah, founder of Class Central, a MOOC aggregator startup that helps students make informed online-learning decisions.
In 2017, the government of India, too, launched a MOOCs platform called SWAYAM, which offers digital classrooms in remote corners using internet and satellite connectivity. It hosts courses up to postgraduate levels in areas ranging from engineering to law. Institutions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru University, the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Indian Institutes of Management, among others, have come together for SWAYAM, which plans to offer 2,000 courses. Reportedly, 2,300 courses on edX will soon be co-hosted on SWAYAM.Globally, about 800 universities offer 9,400 courses on MOOC platforms. There were 81 million MOOC users globally in 2017, and 23 million new learners joined that year, says Class Central. Coursera is the largest platform by user base, followed by EdX, Chinese XuetangX, Udacity and UK-based FutureLearn. Founded by Stanford University professors, Coursera has 30 million users, adds Class Central. Of this, 7.8 million are in the US and 3.4 million in India.Coursera analysed its database to offer some insights into MOOCs in India. Expectedly, Indian learners are young (93% are in the 18-39 age bracket, compared with the US’ 74%). About 48% in India, and 56% globally, are employed full-time. This shows that MOOCs have become an important tool for working executives to reskill and upskill. About 25% of Coursera learners are unemployed and looking for work, possibly using MOOCs to update their skills in the meantime. Technology-related courses like those on machine learning, neural networks and deep learning, bitcoin and cryptocurrencies seem to be among the most popular courses globally. Learning How to Learn and The Science of Well Being are among the top nontech courses.“Globally, people come to Coursera to learn the skills of tomorrow,” says Raghav Gupta, director (India & APAC), Coursera India. “But in India, they also come for the skills required today, like business management and finance.”
Sourav Dev, 27, is one such person, having done over 60 courses on Coursera. The computer science engineer and founder of Engorithm Technology has done courses on web development, AI, project management and cloud computing. “I always wanted to create tech startups. I began doing courses since my second year of college. It has been very helpful.” Intensive courses, top-class pedagogy (where one can go from a beginner’s to an advanced course) and the convenience of time made him choose MOOCs.But MOOCs have some serious constraints. Dev says most of his friends found it hard to study via MOOCs because of virtual classrooms with cookie-cutter courses. The courses also require enormous discipline and self-regulation. “Also, on such virtual platforms, one cannot learn social skills,” he adds. Poor virtual-classroom experience is among the biggest factors for high dropout rates on MOOCs platforms.
But MOOCs are constantly evolving to overcome hurdles. Players have multi-pronged strategies to grow, keep learner engagement high and to monetise better. Three macro trends are emerging: focus on enterprise customers and professional lifelong learners; thrust on blended offline-online learning; and the rise of short courses in multiple monetisation levels. According to Class Central, Coursera plans to launch 15-20 degree courses by 2019, while FutureLearn will launch 50 degrees. “The rise of micro-credentials should be seen as a trend towards modularity and stackability in higher education,” says Shah of Class Central. “Unlike university degrees, though, microcredential courses are platform-specific with no standardisation.”
Enterprise customers find MOOCs valuable. “MOOCs are essential. We need to create an ecosystem of MOOCs to address the increasing demand for upskilling and reskilling,” says Vaishali Pathak, group function head, technical learning, Tech Mahindra.Three factors make it attractive, notes R Sridhar, head of corporate human resources, ITC Ltd. MOOCs help build capabilities in new cutting-edge areas, offer staff a wider forum with a global network of learners and also make available a wide variety of courses from mechanical behaviour of materials to science of happiness. ITC started using EdX for its executives in 2018 and has over 400 managers doing various courses. Some like GE and TechMahindra are using EdX certifications to screen potential recruits. In a push to blended learning, it has tied up with Pearson globally and NIIT in India.
Amid the push to go behind paywalls, not-for-profit platform EdX offers courses, mostly free, from the top 140 universities. But learners have to pay to get a certification. Its platform is userfriendly even for dyslexic and people with speech, sight and hearing impairments. “Our $60 million MOOC platform is open source and outfits like Teach for India, Jio use it to offer our course material to their staff,” says Amit Goyal, head (India & Southeast Asia), EdX India. In 2016, the platform launched micro-master’s programmes, unbundling university semesters into shorter modules. This helps a student joining, say, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Indian Institute of Management-Bangalore finish a part of the course online. The student in the classroom programme also gets 25-50% credit discount, reducing cost and time.
Coursera has partnerships with 160 universities and 30 firms, including Google, IBM and Cisco, to create content. It began its enterprise thrust two years ago and has over 40 firms in India and 1,400 globally. It has a tie-up with Manipal Academy of Higher Education. “We introduced a monthly subscription model last year. You pay Rs 3,500 and can take unlimited courses,” says Coursera’s Gupta.The for-profit Udacity, focused on technology, offers nano-degrees in AI, data analytics and data science, among others. “We have two big differentiators,” says Ishan Gupta, managing director, Udacity (India). “For our nano-degrees content, we partner with industry and not academia. For example, with Nvidia and BMW for courses on self-driving cars. Two, we go beyond content and offer a gamut of services.”
The thrust is to build the classroom experience in the virtual world. Udacity students work in study groups and execute real-world and realtime projects. “To build a community effect, we have one cohort a month with courses having a start and an end date,” says Gupta.Amid the shifting corporate landscape and the constant need to reskill and upskill, companies and executives realise that the learning curve is tied to the earning curve. MOOCs offer a cost-efficient way to stay relevant.
Read more: economictimes.indiatimes.com