Friday, July 19, 2013

US-based MOOCs consortia in tie-ups with local universities for taking content online

For 29-year-old Anil Kumar, a business consultant at Cognizant Technology Solutions, an online course in 'gamification' fast-tracked his career, earning him a consulting project for his firm in the US. Kumar learnt the concept from Coursera, a social entrepreneurship firm partnering with 33 top universities in the world that offer courses online for anyone to take for free. "Since gamification (application of game elements to non-game problems, such as business and social impact challenges) is a new topic, I was able to scale up fast and have become a subject matter expert," says Kumar, who has done his engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology and MBA from IIM Indore.

Bhuvanesh Baberwal, an engineer and MBA from IIIT-Gwalior who is preparing for his civil services exams, has completed 60 courses from Coursera and has also enrolled into similar platforms, Udacity and edX. He says the courses opened up world class "good quality education" that would have cost him millions of dollars in a traditional classroom environment of one of the top global schools.

Kumar and Baberwal are among many participants in the global education revolution called MOOCs, or massive open online courses. Interactive learning content is delivered online to any individual, anywhere in the world for free. The lectures are delivered in video chunks and students can watch them at their convenience. Students can also participate in interactive quizzes, short video lectures, open forum discussions and assignments. Though it's early days yet for MOOCs and experiments on certification, assessment, pedagogy and other aspects are on, they have opened up high quality education opportunities like never before.

India is the largest driver of traffic for the courses outside of the US, according to data from the three MOOCs consortia from the US - Coursera, edX and Udacity - which offer courses from the world's elite universities. Udacity also has a strong tie to industry and bridges workforce-related skills in their courses. At edX, Indian enrolments are the second highest across all courses. And with nearly 100,000 visits last month alone, India is the largest driver of traffic outside the US for Udacity.

Coursera and edX are exploring associations with several top Indian institutes of higher education, including the IITs. Udacity too sees India as a huge opportunity and is keen on making inroads. A few weeks ago, IIT-Bombay joined edX, and some of its regular courses will be available to lakhs of students in the world. And after the success of its experimental course on web intelligence and big data on Coursera last year, IIT-Delhi is planning to repeat it this year. "We are open to partnering with other institutions so that their students can have access to IIT faculty and resources," says Prof Huzur Saran, head of computer science department at IIT-Delhi.

Coursera is developing a mobile application so that students from economically weaker backgrounds in India can access courses on Akash tablets, which the government is keen to take to people at Rs. 1,500 a piece. "In India, students face the problem of intermittent internet connectivity. With the mobile App we are developing, students can download course content when they have connectivity and access it later," says Andrew Ng, one of the co-founders of Coursera, which has about 400 courses and 4 million students. In the past six months, Coursera has seen a 139% increase in Indian student enrolment.

Coursera is also discussing with several Indian universities a model called "flip classroom". Students can listen to lecture material at home and then come to collaborative classroom teaching. It has introduced an option called Signature Track, which will give students in select courses the opportunity to earn a verified certificate for completing their course on payment of about $50.

AFTP, a MOOC platform that provides application-oriented business courses, is pursuing partnerships with IIT-Kharagpur, IMT-Ghaziabad and IISWBM-Calcutta to offer courses for credit in a "flip classroom" framework. It is also pursuing partnership with employers like CMC to offer courses to new hires. "India is one of our most important target developing nations," says Raj Chakrabarti, one of its founders and professor of systems engineering at Carnegie Mellon University.

While MOOCs promise to change the higher education landscape, they are still in the evolving stages as far as pedagogy, assessment - online tests are open to plagiarism and proxy - and authenticated certification are concerned. The drop-out rate too is very high, with only about 10% of the registered students completing courses.

"Some students are hoping that a certificate of completion can enhance their employment prospects, but we don't have rigorous enough standards and methods for evaluation to put a lot of weight on these certificates," says Larry Diamond, Director, Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University, who teaches a course on democratic development on Coursera.

Experimentations on pedagogy are on. One observation is that half the students start working on their homework before watching video lectures, which could lead to professors assigning homework before the lecture. "It appears that students get more excited about learning when they try to puzzle out a problem," says Agarwal of edX.

"We are learning about teaching methods with research that can translate to on-campus teaching," he adds. For example, at MIT, researcher David E Pritchard has been studying how people learn. The data from the first prototype course alone, one that Agarwal taught on Circuits & Electronics, is staggering and can fill 110,000 books. "We recorded every click - all 230 million of them," he says.

Critics say online courses cannot replace traditional classroom teaching methods and university degrees. However, there seems to be a significant scope for MOOCs as a complementary teaching method, particularly in the context of continuing professional education and 'lifelong learning'. "We do not believe MOOCs will replace on-campus teaching. But we do see MOOCs as enriching college courses, through blended or hybrid courses," says Agarwal. In such courses, the lecture portion of a course is delivered online, outside of classroom time, and instructors use class time for more interactions with students on campus.

What form MOOCS eventually take is hard to predict, but for now, they can be a priceless supplement.

Source: The Economic Times (Online Edition), July 19, 2013

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