Sunday, August 18, 2013

MOOCs click with Indians

Sankalp Garud, 17, has taken a course in mathematical thinking at Stanford, calculus at UPenn , social psychology at Wesleyan and mechanics at MIT. All while staying put in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. In Delhi, media manager Tituraj Kashyap is learning about the history of photojournalism from the star professors at University of London and is topping it with a songwriting course from the Boston-based Berklee College of Music. Techie Anand Sathe's academic basket includes eight courses ranging from machine learning to the theory of irrational behavior (the latter  --- taught by Dan Ariely from Duke University --- is one of the most popular MOOCs).

They are a rapidly growing number of Indians opting for MOOCs --- massive open online courses that have made global classrooms a reality. For Indians, who have a thirst for premium, western education, MOOCs make perfect sense. If you can't make it to the Ivies, why not bring Ivy-level learning to you, and that too for free.

The three top US-based MOOCs --- Coursera, Udacity and EdX --- now have a huge percentage of Indian students. The biggest of these Coursera --- it has 4.3 million students from across the world --- says it is 'astounded and humbled' by the interest shown by Indians.

"Our students in India represent the largest percentage of Coursera students outside of the US, roughly 10%. In the past 6 months, Coursera has seen a 139% increase in India student enrollment," says Stanford professor Daphne Koller who, along with her other computer science colleague Andrew Y NG, set up Coursera. EdX, a non-profit created by Harvard and MIT, has pegged its Indian participation at 13% and Udacity says that India is one of its "top geographic drivers of traffic". Hardly surprising then that IIT-Bombay is set to join the group of institutions that are partnering with EdX.

MOOCs are seemingly easy to do --- you sign up for a course which could stretch over 12 to 15 weeks and dedicate a certain number of hours of study time per week entirely at your convenience. The 'workload' could be lectures, reading assignments, quizzes, tests, demo videos and so on. At Coursera you could if you wish ask for a certificate (called Signature Track) or even a web-supervised exam --- these are charged and make for an important part of Coursera's revenues.

A lot of students juggle multiple courses. These serial MOOCers often start with a course, take introductory classes and then drop out or move on to other subjects. This flexibility is also MOOC's biggest disadvantage. The fact that the course is free, designed for ease and does not have to end in a degree means that you need supreme levels of self discipline to complete a course. "The focus on self-learning means you have to devote enough time to not only watch lectures/read papers but also do background reading as needed," says Sathe. Quite a few MOOC addicts agree that the quality of MOOCs can fluctuate wildly from excellent to mediocre.

Big MOOCs like Coursera have an eclectic mix of courses --- ranging from programming to Beethoven's piano music --- that could appeal to techies, students, or hobbyists. Udacity, on the other hand, sticks to more serious, career-centric stuff. "We have chosen to focus on computer science, programming, mathematics, engineering, design, sciences, and entrepreneurship as we have strong relationships with industry in these fields and our goal is not to just advance our students' education, but also their career opportunities ," says Clarissa Shen, VP of strategic business and marketing at Udacity.

For a lot of driven Indian youngsters like Garud, MOOCs are a big part of resume building (he has taken both a Signature Track and a supervised exam for around $150) and, of course, a means to supplement school learning. He has managed to crack calculus at levels way beyond his classmates thanks to MOOC. "Maths lessons in school tend to be so boring," says Garud who is doing his bit for the MOOC wave by creating free, fun math videos for school children in his locality.

Dispassionate observers point out that MOOCs work best for broad-based subjects. "If breadth is what you desire, these courses work fine. Depth is not something you are going to get given the lack of interactivity and the compressed format. So 'Introduction to Mayan mathematics' might work well but 'An in-depth look at the role of sodium in the human' would likely fail," says Sathe. It is unlikely MOOCs will ever even partially replace classroom education. As Koller says, they can at best bolster the existing systems. "In India, where meeting capacity over the next few years means building and staffing new 1,500 universities, we see Coursera playing a new role in increasing institutional capacity by augmenting in-class teaching with online content," she says.

Source: The Times of India, August 18, 2013

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