India has officially jumped on to the open online courses bandwagon with the government announcing Swayam, an initiative that aims at providing affordable and quality education to citizens for free.
The move is a welcome step in India, which battles a shortage of infrastructure and qualified teachers in higher education, with the model also having the potential to democratise higher education, experts say.
MOOCs or massive open online courses is a system aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. It does not always quantify as formal education but provides a platform to study quality courses from institutions offering them, usually for free.
The government had announced the programme as part of the initiatives undertaken by the ministry of human resource development (HRD) in its first 100 days in office with the aim to reach out to 10 million students.
HRD Minister Smriti Irani said that the initiative was undertaken in the light of concerns expressed over the quality and affordability of education. She also said that an Indianised version has been provided to students.
Welcoming the initiative, experts said that the availability of the model was a "great asset" for motivated students.
"MOOCs have the potential to become a teaching/learning platform, with universities certifying the competence (degrees) and providing the opportunity for networking and developing other skills. In this scenario MOOCs are like textbooks," T.V. Prabhakar, professor, department of computer science and engineering at IIT-Kanpur, told IANS.
Describing MOOCs to have the "potential to democratize higher education", Pushkar (one name), a professor in the department of humanities and social sciences at BITS Pilani, said that it offers India's young population a platform to get themselves an education "despite the nation's failed higher education system".
He, however, added that young Indians and their parents are more interested in degrees than in education per se.
"So as long as one can get a degree after doing some MOOCs, it is all good," Pushkar told IANS.
At a recently held higher education event, Irani had said: "Recognising the need for affordable and quality education, the government has set up a platform of the Indianised version of MOOCs..."
She said in this, all the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), central universities, Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs) and selected best colleges and institutions of India will provide graduate, undergraduate and post-graduate courses free of cost to all Indians.
She added that those seeking a degree or certification can sit for an exam at a nominal cost in that particular institution.
In the first phase of Swayam (Study Webs of Active-learning for Young Aspiring Minds) IIT-Bombay, IIT- Chennai, IIT-Kanpur, IIT-Guwahati, University of Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru University and IIM Bangalore, among others, alone as well as with the help of faculty from foreign universities, will offer courses in areas of management, social sciences, basic sciences, engineering education and energy.
Explaining the benefits, Richard C. Levin, CEO, Coursera, a global online education company, said its advantage is "multi-faceted".
"For one, MOOCs are recognised teaching programmes in renowned educational institutions, including Harvard and MIT; world-class institutions ensure globally accepted learning and recognition; and there's flexibility in learning time frame.
"Globally, MOOCs are seen as the future of higher education. India can further benefit from online education as Indian learners are hungry for skills to help them get a jobs or get into colleges/universities," Leven told IANS.
He said that the IT surge in India has fuelled significant demand for online courses among the country's knowledge-seeking population, adding that India is Coursera's largest market outside the US.
But, can MOOCs be taken as a substitute for university education?
"I think yes eventually, as technology becomes more readily available. Right now, the way most of the MOOCs are organized is that there are platforms where one can create content and create lectures (and you) can pick what you want. But it's only a matter of time before a lot of these lectures are going to get organized into what a university has to offer.
"And in that sense, some universities have already started offering online courses," Vineet Gupta, pro-vice chancellor of Ashoka University, Sonepat, told IANS, adding that it was for the universities to see if they wanted to use MOOCs as a way to substitute university education or actual education in the classroom.
According to Prabhakar, while MOOCs will make good courses, taught by good teachers, available to the students, "we will have to make sure that these courses reach the remote parts of India. Otherwise, we will create another form of digital divide".
Sundar Balasubramaniam, dean, academic and resource planning, BITS, Pilani, while agreeing that MOOCs can provide a manifold increase in the reach of quality content and pedagogy, told IANS: "University programmes and courses provide students with an opportunity to intellectually engage with peers and mentors over an extended period in a focussed environment. That is hard to replace."
(Shweta Sharma can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)