MOOC on MOOCs? A novel yet pragmatic approach

The Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, or IIT-K, and the Commonwealth of Learning in Vancouver have teamed up again to offer a novel MOOC that is focused on the design of the course itself. Entitled “MOOC on MOOCs: What you need to know about massive open online courses”, it is aimed at addressing the nuts and bolts of designing and running a MOOC.

Building on their recently completed MOOC, “Mobiles for Development” or M4D, co-leaders Dr TV Prabhakar of IIT-K and Dr V Balaji of the Commonwealth of Learning are hopeful that “MOOC on MOOCs” will produce similarly fruitful collaborations – if not new initiatives – among participants.

Noted Balaji: “The M4D MOOC spawned novel uses of mobile phones in places as remote as Nepal and Mauritius,” adding that this new MOOC offering will also focus on topics that address “daily life concerns”.

The course, taking the tagline Massive Open Online Courses for Development, is part of a growing movement of positioning MOOCs as a means to widen access to learning in the emerging world.

Within this context it appears that among such MOOCs emanating from India there are some distinguishable features compared to MOOCs popularised in North America.

Course design that is based on application (rather than personal interest), and direct government support offsetting pressures on institutional resources are some examples. Taken together, might there be a novel model of MOOCs that is emerging?

Pragmatics – Design, application and audience

Running for four weeks from 5 September 2014, “MOOC on MOOCs” is pragmatic by design. Like many MOOCs, the learning is organised around short video lectures, reading materials and interactions with the instructors and other learners. Topics include: origin, architecture, economics and delivery of a MOOC.

Above all else, the focus of “MOOC on MOOCs” is about application. Prabhakar cites that conventional MOOCs, which aim to replicate the university experience, are “not my interest”. He believes MOOCs should focus less on intellectual curiosity or credentialing and more on training, of which there is an acute need in India and other middle-income countries.

Prabhakar draws encouragement from successful courses such as “Architecting Software for the Cloud” and “Mobile for Malis”, both designed by him and his colleagues at IIT-Kanpur.

The latter course, which was completed in July, targeted farmers lacking good literacy skills with agricultural training over basic mobile phones. Through text messaging and voice prompts farmers engaged with their devices to access lessons and quizzes about varying agricultural practices.

Web-powered analytics captured patterns of learning. This course, he concluded, was a salient example of the “opportunity to provide all kinds of training material across devices”.

In a broader appeal, the aim of “MOOC on MOOCs”, is to expose participants to such potential and to pursue initiatives within their own areas of expertise.

Having contacted past participants in the M4D MOOC and through their own professional networks, Balaji and Prabhakar are confident they are finding a “niche market” of participants for “MOOC on MOOCs”, and perhaps other courses in future.

Although open to all, “MOOC on MOOCs” is aimed at academics or government officials whose work is focused on human development issues, or professionals working in the NGO space.

Prior to the second week of the course enrolment stood at 1,944 participants representing 81 countries.

The Modi government and MOOCs

The genesis of “MOOC on MOOCs” is actually rooted in the larger political establishment in India.

A broad development agenda has been popularised in India under the slogan of ‘Skill, scale and speed’, as articulated by newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

With reference to skill, Modi took this message internationally, stating at the BRICS summit in July that its heads of state, “could also consider establishing massive open online courses for making quality education accessible to all”.

Fast forwarding to September, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development, or MHRD, will launch three MOOCs through its own platform, Swayam, meaning ‘self learning’, later this month.

The courses originated from IIT-Bombay and Princeton University in the United States and focus on computer engineering. Reinforcing Modi’s point about ‘accessible to all’, these courses are in the process of being translated into Hindi and other regional languages.

The government’s positive stance on MOOCs is perhaps a reflection of earlier work initiated by the MHRD’s Technical Education Quality Improvement Program or TEQIP, and the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences, or NAAS. Both, in fact, unknowingly contributed to the genesis of “MOOC on MOOCs”.

TEQIP funded a project that produced a novel MOOC platform, MOOKit. Its website offers information about the platform, including several guiding principles such as, “creating online courses should be as simple as taking them”.

Prabhakar, who led the MOOKit project, asserted that its design was guided by the shortcomings of other platforms, which he described mostly as being “quite messy or complicated”. MOOKit is the platform that is delivering “MOOC on MOOCs”.

The involvement of the NAAS with MOOCs was prompted by a meeting convened by Balaji for the Commonwealth of Learning in March, entitled “MOOCs for Capacity Building in Indian Agriculture".

Major items of discussion included the potential for MOOCs to reach those with limited post-secondary qualifications, and to simply widen knowledge and understanding about MOOCs. The latter point, recalls Balaji, is what “crystallised the idea” to get IIT-K on board and to create “MOOC on MOOCs”.

Differentiation through application and context

MOOCs have conjured up images of barrier free access to higher learning that is delivered by elite Western universities and occurs over sophisticated networked technologies. Such perceptions, argues Balaji, need to be “de-mystified”.

Although the mainstream conception of MOOCs, as espoused by an oligarchy of providers in the US, has popularised the concept, the buzz for “generic” types, as Balaji identifies his and other lesser known initiatives, is where the mass potential lies.

They are not tied to rigid criteria and consequently afford experimentation and add new contours to how MOOCs are conceptualised in a global milieu.

For one, “MOOC on MOOCs” represents a movement towards utilising networked technologies for application, or training, rather than personal interest or credentialing.

This, in fact, follows a trend that pushed one of the original MOOC conglomerates to re-purpose itself. Sebastian Thrun’s revelation that MOOCs from Udacity were a “lousy product”, prompted his company to pivot towards “more vocational-focused learning”. Its online courses, however, are now far less massive, and having introduced course fees, are far less open.

How far India’s IITs, and other non-profit institutions, that are engaged in MOOCs can operate without generating revenue, is a looming issue.

Balaji notes that the focus on application in “MOOC on MOOCs” and its predecessors supports MOOCs as learning tools that “can cut across levels of education”. As evidenced by the course, “Mobiles for Malis”, formal schooling does not have to be a pre-requisite for participation. Nor does training have to occur over sophisticated networked devices.

Simple mobile phones, which are ubiquitous throughout the emerging world, provide opportunities for mass learning yet initiatives of this nature remain largely untapped. Scaling (and creating) MOOCs on agriculture, nutrition or teacher education, are examples of what Balaji and Prabhakar hope will sprout from “MOOC on MOOCs”.

“MOOC on MOOCs” also demonstrates how practitioners in emerging world contexts are confidently re-purposing the Western conception of MOOCs. Prabhakar candidly remarks: “We can’t beat world class providers like edX in terms of a platform, but we can beat them in terms of content. In thought and design, we can be as good as anybody else.”

Moving away from a focus on personal interest towards real world application may be the right model for the context in which institutions of learning and human development operate in India and other middle-income countries. Government support may also be key to add financial support and legitimacy to these ventures.

In the end, however, superior completion rates to those MOOCs in North America will be the defining outcome.

“MOOC on MOOCs” places focus on application with the direct intent of supporting academics and other professionals to advance their own MOOC agendas. The ongoing monitoring of this course will certainly reveal novel ideas.

For those located or connected to other areas of the world where issues of human development persist, participating in the initiatives of the Commonwealth of Learning and IIT-K may be time well spent.