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Can MOOCS be a substitute for campus education?

Rajiv Rao  |  New Delhi 

At first glance, a massive open online course (MOOC) appears to be a boon to Indian and American students, though for different reasons. In the US, educating oneself has almost become a luxury, where the average cost of a BA is now upwards of $100,000 (Rs 55 lakh) and families often mortgage their houses in order to afford it. Educational debt, at $1 trillion, has now surpassed credit card debt in the country. An Indian, on the other hand, has to score absurdly high marks to even be considered for admission into a college of some repute. He will very rarely end up with his discipline of choice and, more often than not, is destined to receive a sub standard education thanks to poor quality of teaching.

This makes MOOCS irresistible. But learning is a complex social and emotional process that promotes critical thinking, say MOOCS critics. It’s all right to learn technical classes online, but what about ones that traverse the Socratic path of dialogue and debate, which in turn equip us humans to negotiate, analyse and articulate life’s more thorny issues?

“Purely online will never replace the campus experience,” says MIT’s Agarwal, who also is a professor of computer science and a former director of the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). Andrew Ng, co-founder and co-CEO of Coursera, points out that in Princeton, online lectures play an important ancillary role, where the student is required to view them almost like homework, leaving classes for a more deepening engagement with the subject matter.

Moreover, a Coursera class often springs to life offline. The company has 1,669 groups worldwide and 93 in Delhi alone where students schedule meet-ups to benefit from physical interaction. “Still, we need to do a better job of the online social experience,” says Ng, who says that his company is working on pilots that will soon introduce plug-ins, like instant video chats.

Yet, the chief challenge that the MOOCS revolution faces is something more practical: How do you give students what they really crave for almost as much as the education itself, namely proof of accomplishment? In today’s world of name-brand degrees linked to good job prospects, informal letters of accomplishment, whether they are from Harvard or MIT, don’t cut much mustard.

Coursera says it will soon charge a fee for university branded certificates, which means that if you have taken a Stanford online computer science class and have passed, you can brandish this in front of anyone you want to sweet talk into a job or college admission. At the moment, both Edx and Coursera are waiting to be approved so they can give college credit for a fee to their students for certain classes. EdX recently announced that students would get a chance to take their invigilated finals at Pearson VUE’s test centres around the world. Coursera similarly plans to charge for an offline, proctored exam. Its most daring, and untested, endeavor, however, is an online exam process proctored by a video camera.

These are good ideas. Even a nominal fee of $5 per product could generate a revenue of $250,000 for an eight-week course of 100,000 students if you expect at least half the class to pay for their course diploma. The magic in this approach is that the business model, unlike a college campus with the physical limitations of classrooms and students, is almost infinitely scalable. MIT’s Agarwal says that a 400-student analog circuit design class that he used to teach at the university required a professor and two assistants. The same crew apparently now manages 10,000 of them online and can accommodate more than a hundred times that size.

If this is true, then a MOOCS company with a solid brand and popular courses could make mind-boggling profit margins, considering the ease of almost infinite replication of classes, as well as other lucrative avenues for making money. “Many of the whose products you’ve probably used in the last 24 hours have approached us to hire our top students, especially in software engineering,” says Coursera’s Ng. “We’re running a pilot program to try and make this happen.” If this works well, Coursera could give Monster a run for its money. has further catalysed this possibility by introducing ‘Passport,’ a new classroom app that enables instructors and advisers to hand digital badges out to students to indicate mastery of skills.

This seemingly spells doom for the Indian higher education sector and certainly diploma courses look most vulnerable as do poor quality second- or third-tier institutions. But Indian Institute of Management — Bangalore’s Professor of Quantitative Methods and Information Systems, Shankar Venkatagiri, who has been keeping tabs on this space, doesn’t regard MOOCS as such a huge threat. “We are a generation that has been mollycoddled and spoon-fed every single thing. Let’s not kid ourselves about self motivated learning,” he says. Shankar points out that the average college student in Karnataka is not particularly impressed with a MOOCS course. “He will be much more focused on passing the syllabus. Only the exceptional student will say, wow, this is awesome,” he adds.

Instead, Shankar says that the MOOCS revolution provides a rare opportunity to finally reform the education system. “Universities are rarely sub-standard, teachers are,” he says. Shankar recommends a public-private partnership where like Wipro and Infosys collaborate in jump-starting a pan-Indian online education venture, maybe even with certain structural similarities to the UID. “We have designed God alone knows how many information systems for the West. And I know that neither Wipro nor Infosys are short of the Stanford AI types in their labs. It’s time for us to build a kick-ass Coursera over here. It’s a no brainer.” The project will have the added advantage of forcing all the tier 2 colleges to submit to a unified syllabus if they want to take advantage of a massive and influential educational platform.

MOOCS represent a fledgling industry, evolving at a furious pace and still grappling with inherent flaws. How do you prevent plagiarism, or even cheating? Can online classes actually be considered equal to an offline one? How do you ensure that peer-grading remains qualitatively high if just about anyone can sign-up for a course?

However, the fact remains that in the turbulent world of rapidly changing technology, where skilling is not just a buzzword, but a survival strategy, MOOCS become a crucial lifeboat to hang on to. It can also be a lifeline for vast populations of underserved youth. “There are unmined pearls in the vast beaches of tier 3, tier 7 and tier 11 colleges,” says Shankar. “MOOCS gives them a pathway out of hell.”

First Published: Mon, November 26 2012. 00:22 IST