The average time a Mumbaikar spends commuting is estimated at about 50 minutes; time generally spent on a quick nap or reading newspapers. Rashmi Jain, 34, uses that time to study. Every day, enroute to work, she is hooked to her cell phone, watching internet video lectures on game theory, marketing and consumer psychology by faculty from Duke and Michigan State University.
“I was looking to acquire new skills”, says Jain, who works at Reliance Communications ADAG. Three months ago she signed up for a MOOC- Massive Open Online Course- which is a college class based on lecture videos delivered via the internet. It is “massive” because thousands of students can enrol for a course unlike a regular classroom lecture which has limited seats; “open” because all one needs is an internet connection; “online” is the manner of delivery and “course,” because like any regular college program there is homework and tests. At the end of the course, usually ranging between three to 18 weeks, students pass or fail. A large number simply stop showing up.
Be it engineering, humanities or mathematics, many top notch universities around the globe offer a range of programs, free of cost, via MOOCs. In the last few years, elite, Ivy League schools like Princeton, Harvard, MIT, UC Berkeley and Caltech have pledged millions of dollars to MOOC development. IIT Bombay recently tied up with EdX, a non-profit consortium founded by Harvard and MIT, making some of its regular courses available online, for free. “We have a huge repository of lecture materials,” says Dr Devang Khakhar, director, IIT-B. ”In addition there could be other elements like discussions, quizzes,tests, etc”.
The prospect of a foreign education is one that is attracting Indians by the thousands; not surprising, given how stringent admissions criteria to some of these universities can be, or the exorbitant college fees. ”Our students in India represent the largest percentage of Coursera students outside of the US, roughly 10%,” says Dr Andrew Ng, co-founder, Coursera (https://www.coursera.org/). Coursera is among the leading education start-ups that act as go betweens, by packaging courses and designing online interactions between students and schools. ”In the past 6 months, we have seen a 139% increase in India student enrolment”, adds Dr Ng.
Coursera currently produces the largest number of MOOCs, worldwide. It offers programs from 83 universities, among them Ivy League schools like Brown and Princeton. For a small fee, with the option of financial aid, it also gives students a certificate to share on their resumes.
Another prominent start-up, Udacity (https://www.udacity.com/), born out of a Stanford University experiment, also has a significant Indian presence. “We have students from over 190 countries enrolled with us”, says Clarissa Shen, VP, Strategic Business and Marketing. “After the U.S., India is our second biggest country in traffic”. In May, Udacity tied up with Georgia Tech to offer the first professional online Masters degree in computer science.
While there are no country specific statistics, a large category of Indians enrolled in MOOCs are those looking to enhance their careers, says Dr Ng. Like Mumbai-based Nitin Jain, who works with National Stock Exchange’s IT division, and is taking finance and software interface courses with UC Berkeley and Michigan University. “I work on software development and the course gives me a basic understanding of how software works on the ground. I do believe it gives you an edge in the industry,” believes Jain.
Can the online experience come close to matching the on-campus experience? Clearly not. Neither do the providers make the claim. But they make the point that MOOCs brings it a little closer to those who don’t have the access.
“We believe that online education will never completely replace the value of interactions with students and professors that a university provides”, says Dr Ng. “We built Coursera to encourage learning without limits, in the face of rising university costs and lack of accessibility to quality education. By offering courses from top universities, we can grant students more opportunities to continue their educational pursuits.”
Helping to recreate some of that on-campus experience are local community groups where students can learn from their peers around the world. “The student community has proven to be an important aspect of the learning environment,” says Shen. “We have what we call “super user” students who are very active, organizing jump-offs to platforms like Facebook, Google+, and Skype, and organizing local Meetups with other Udacians.”
Kolkata-based Abhinav Biswas, who is enrolled in a MOOC in start-up engineering from Stanford University, find these forums useful. “You don’t feel the absence of a teacher because there are so many peers across the globe to help you”, says Biswas, 23. “If I post a query, I get a response within a couple of hours.”
Mumbai-based Vikram S., who has been through both, the online and on-campus experience at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees. A banking professional, he has completed courses from Caltech, University of Melbourne and Columbia University. ”You have to be self-motivated. You can watch lectures early in the morning or late evening. If you miss deadlines, you are penalized. There is no bias as there is reasonable anonymity. I do miss certain aspects of teamwork, but communication is easy as there are enough tools and teaching assistants working with the professor.”
But do online courses actually help in career advancement given the largely conservative mindset at the Indian workplace? “Unfortunately not”, believes K Sudarshan, managing partner at executive search firm EMA Partners International. “We always measure the difficulty of getting into a program. Even within the IIMs there is a ranking in terms of how tough it is to gain admission. Something that comes by easily is not seen as such a big deal.”
That will change, believes Vikram S. “I took the courses with a perspective that if I don’t get to apply what I learn at work, I can apply it elsewhere. What matters is what all you carry at the back of your head. If you have an optimistic bent of mind, it is a great experience. Currently a degree may mean a big deal, but acceptance will come slowly.”
This piece was published in the Mint newspaper under the title “Hooked to Learning on the Net”. To view click on