Students flock to MOOCs to complement studies

Kritika Desai, a final-year student of English literature at Jadhavpur University in Kolkata, has just enrolled for an “Introduction to Finance” on Coursera – a platform providing massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The course is offered by the University of Michigan.

“In India, no university provides a combination of literature and finance. It is assumed that if you are studying literature you wouldn’t be interested in economics or finance. The MOOC has made it possible for me to study an extra subject from a top American university free of cost,” Desai told University World News.

Desai is among thousands of Indians flocking to MOOC platforms offering free online courses from the world’s top universities including Stanford, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard and Yale in the United States.

On edX, a non-profit venture spun out of MIT and Harvard, Indians form the second-largest group of students. On Coursera, 8.8% of those enrolled are from India compared to 27.7% from the US.

The Academic Financial Trading Platform or AFTP, a MOOC platform dedicated exclusively to business education, was primarily launched with the vast Indian community in mind, said AFTP co-founder Raj Chakrabarti, a professor of systems engineering at Carnegie Mellon University in the US.

Supplementing the curriculum

MOOCs provide cross-disciplinary options. Students from some of India’s top business schools, including the Indian institutes of management (IIMs), the Institute of Management Technology in Ghaziabad, and Delhi University’s faculty of management studies as well as the prestigious Indian institutes of technology (IITs), have enrolled.

“Students are looking to supplement their education. A large number of students from engineering backgrounds want to migrate to business management-related jobs. For them, these courses have proved very helpful,” said Chakrabarti.

“Given the limited capacity of seats at top US and Indian universities, MOOCs enhance the competitive edge of Indian students in the global job market and improve their chances of admission to top US and European colleges and graduate schools,” added Chakrabarti.

For thousands of Indian students the lure of MOOCs is not just courses taught by a top international university. Students also see MOOCs as providing opportunities to study with world-renowned professors, to add to existing qualifications and to increase job prospects.

According to Vishwesha Guttal, an assistant professor at the Centre for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science in Bengaluru (Bangalore), institutions can also use MOOCs to supplement and complement the curriculum.

Guttal said many biology and ecology students who are passionate about research in ecology had taken no extra mathematics courses since high school.

“Although we do teach quantitative skills in our department, I believe the quality of the class and of learning can go up substantially if students can revise their basic maths skills and perhaps add a bit more,” said Guttal.

“We do not have the bandwidth needed to offer more courses. So we plan to recommend [that] students take certain MOOCs,” said Guttal, adding that local mentors and teaching assistants would help to ensure students do not drop the MOOCs – a reference to high MOOC dropout rates recorded elsewhere – by assisting them with problems during the course.

Prashant Saxena, postdoctoral researcher and chair of applied mechanics at the University of Erlangen Nuremberg in Germany, has completed six MOOC classes.

“A very large group of [MOOC] students from India in the mathematics and computer science courses are current or recent IIT graduates who are interested in computer science but were probably stuck in college with some other branch which they didn't like,” said Saxena, who described the quality of the MOOC assignments as top-notch.

Saxena, who graduated from IIT Kanpur and has a PhD from the University of Glasgow in the UK, said that although he was formally studying mechanical engineering, he leaned most of the mathematics through online courses.

“At IIT Kanpur I couldn’t find enough electives to suit my taste, and at Glasgow, there are very few courses available for graduate students,” he noted.

Transforming learning

As MOOCs are becoming increasingly popular in India, education experts believe they could transform the way higher learning is delivered to the country’s 150 million 18- to 23-year-olds.

Microsoft Research India has rolled out a pilot project with Visvesvaraya Technological University (VTU) in Belgaum in southern Karnataka state, for a MOOC-like experiment blending online education with classroom learning. VTU delivers its curriculum to almost 200 affiliated colleges.

As part of its Massively Empowered Classroom project, Microsoft Research is offering free online certification of analysis and design of algorithms courses for engineering students. Some 2,000 students across 27 engineering colleges have enrolled for the semester-long programme so far.

“The recent excitement for MOOCs is subtle and obvious. Technology has made students the centre of learning as opposed to [being] constrained by a classroom,” P Anandan, managing director of Microsoft Research India, told local media.

The course offers video lectures, online quizzes and tests at the end of each topic. Besides obtaining a certificate from Microsoft, top 10 students will have the opportunity to intern at Microsoft Research.

However, in a country where degrees and diplomas count for more than the actual skill or knowledge gained, lack of accreditation may be a teething problem for MOOCs.


AFTP’s Chakrabarti said his team was exploring integrating MOOCs with the existing curriculum in Indian universities.

“We expect to see more partnerships between MOOC providers and Indian universities, where MOOC courses are integrated with existing Indian courses in a ‘flipped classroom’ framework,” Chakrabarti told University World News.

Another model being explored is distance learning partnerships.

A number of Indian institutions already offer distance learning courses to students in Africa and the Middle East. For example, IIM Calcutta offers distance education taught exclusively by its own professors. A possible tie-up up with AFTP could incorporate courses from international universities and professors, according to Chakrabarti.

However, Guttal believes that the quality of courses offered and the pedagogy will also decide the success of MOOCs.

An Indian MOOC where courses are taught by excellent professors from IITs and the Indian Institute of Science “was conceived and started several years before the now famous UDACITY or Coursera came into the picture", said Guttal.

“Videos need to be a lot more interactive, and engaging…there is potential for MOOCs, but only if it is done in the right way.”

For example, India’s National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning, or NPTEL, a government sponsored educational programme led by seven IITs and the Indian Institute of Science, offers free web- and video-based material for basic undergraduate science and engineering courses.

Its web-based courses – there are around 600 – went online in October 2012, receive millions of hits from Africa, South East Asia and even Europe, and are used for supplementary education in Indian technology schools. Over 100 courses under NPTEL are also accessible on YouTube.

But students who have experienced MOOCs feel that despite providing access to some of the best lectures from the IITs, NPTEL hosts static classroom lectures that are not as interactive as foreign MOOCs.

A projected 330 million Indians will have internet access by 2015, making it the second largest connected population in the world. However, problems of low bandwidth persist. This may hamper access to MOOCs, which mostly consist of videos.

“Internet connectivity is non-existent in several villages and towns and where it is available the bandwidth is so slow that often videos don’t open. This is a major challenge to MOOCs,” said Sarat Jain, nodal officer of the National Knowledge Network at Bhopal’s Agriculture University.

Jain said the Indian government, through the National Knowledge Network, had begun to address the issue. The network was launched in 2010 as a state-of-the-art multi-gigabit network across India that will connect higher education institutions.