There are two important roles of an education institution — imparting key skills and competencies that prepare one for a profession; and granting a certificate that proves that the training in a chosen field has been successfully completed.
As the population of young people in India increases, the focus has leaned more towards providing these certificates, rather than the preparation. The number of universities granting degrees has increased, but the quality of education received at a majority of these institutions is so poor that the degrees are practically worthless.
India’s dire education situation was what prompted Dr Craig Jeffrey, a professor of development geography at Oxford University and an expert on India’s unemployed youth, to observe in a 2014 interview with the BBC, “In the past, India was seen as the country of the bus conductor with a BA. Now it is the country of the MA manual labourer. It has got so much worse.”
Not career ready
Put simply, the majority of our so-called graduates are not career-ready. Online education may well be the answer to India’s education problems. On one end, a student enroled in a sub-standard institution can take refresher or even advanced courses online to learn skills that the institution should teach in the first place. This would make the student more career ready. At the other end, students can consider completing their entire degrees online from reputed institutions from around the world.
Distance learning is not a new concept in India. Even as early as the 1970s, for-profit companies sent study materials by mail to applicants eager to score well on entrance exams like the IIT JEEs. Open universities such as the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) have granted lakhs of degrees over the years.
Online learning is a more high-tech form of distance learning and comes with many more bells and whistles. High-definition videos bring professors to your living room. You can download the entire video lecture to your desktop/mobile device and view it as many times as you wish. Often, transcripts too can be downloaded. This helps non-native English speakers to understand foreign accents. You can network with a community of learners across the world using discussion threads and chat rooms. But the most important feature is that you manage your course load and study at your own pace.
The most popular form of online education is a Massive Open Online Course or a MOOC. It is a course of study offered by an online provider which manages the platform. The two biggest MOOC providers are edX and Coursera.
edX is a partnership of MIT and Harvard along with schools such as UT Austin and UC Berkeley. Coursera partners with the likes of Stanford, Yale and Princeton. All you need is a computer, an Internet connection, the interest to participate in the course, and voila! You can get the course at your home — some courses are even free. It doesn’t get any better than this.
Dr. Charles Vest, the late president of MIT, was the pioneer of the vaunted institute’s OpenCourseWare project, which is the precursor to the MOOC courses of today. Now, over 2,000 MIT courses are available online for students to take.
Harvard’s popular CS50 MOOC computer science class is the same as the one that is offered on campus (the online version is simply the video version of the live class). In effect, enrolling in such MOOCs is much like watching a cricket match on TV — the experience is not quite the same as being at the stadium but is still so good that it is not to be missed.
MOOCs are great if you want to strengthen your knowledge in an interest area and become more proficient in it. For example, a Civil Engineering student could take a refresher course in engineering mechanics from Carnegie Mellon or a business student could learn more about macroeconomics from Rice University. Some MOOC providers may charge a nominal fee for a certificate of completion but this may be well worth it as it will give you bragging rights.
From MOOC to MOOC2
MOOCs have become so popular that some US universities are experimenting with them to varying degrees (no pun intended). Georgia Tech now offers its entire Computer Science Master’s degree online using the so-called MOOC2 model. Students never need to leave their home countries but can get a full Georgia Tech degree for a fraction of the cost of attending Georgia Tech in the US. Admissions and acceptance rates, however, continue to be competitive.
Some of the biggest public universities in the US are already promoting their MOOC2 programmes, including Arizona State University, the University of Cincinnati and Utah State University. This makes sense as MOOC2 degree programmes are less expensive to run and there is potential for higher rate of enrolment from around the world, bringing in much needed money. There is no limit to the number of students who can sign up for an online course — you can have hundreds, even thousands taking the same degree programme and the marginal cost of adding a student is minimal. This is nothing but technological efficiency at play.
There are so many online programmes to choose from and competition for students is tough. So some US schools are offering one online course for free in the hope that students will pay full tuition for the remaining courses. Think of this as getting a free pizza when you buy nine regular sized pizzas at full price. Who would have ever thought that institutions would employ a loss leader pricing strategy for education?
Indian employers look down on distance learning credentials — such as those earned at IGNOU — as sub-standard. But they may look at foreign online credentials differently given how nearly identical these online programmes are to their excellent brick-and-mortar offerings. However, foreign university officials need to do a better job of educating Indian employers. On the bright side, they can cater to an unbelievably large market for their services and at a very low cost.
Looks like it’s a win-win situation for all!
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