Why Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Should Be Indias National Priority
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Why Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) Should Be India's National Priority

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present just the right opportunity for India to provide an excellent education to hundreds of millions of its youth, quickly. How can India capitalize on this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity?

Fortunately for Amol Bhave, then a high school student in Jabalpur, his father signed up for Internet access. Soon Amol stumbled onto MOOCs and was immediately hooked. He took several MOOCs offered by edX on subjects such as Physics and Electronics. Encouraged by Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT), Amol applied to MIT. In 2013, Amol was admitted to MIT, something he had not even dreamt of just a year ago!

Karthik Puthraya completed his undergraduate degree in Engineering Physics from IIT Madras. Even at IIT, Karthik had a burning desire to learn machine learning. He took it upon himself to learn all about it by signing up for MOOCs offered by Coursera. He credits his deep knowledge of the field and dream job in Microsoft to MOOCs.

These are just two examples in a rapidly growing list of students and professionals whose lives and careers are being transformed by MOOCs.

So, what are MOOCs?

MOOCs stands for Massive Open Online Courses—”massive” because a very large number of students can enroll simultaneously, “open” because anyone from anywhere can enroll, “online” because all instruction, testing, and discussions are done online, i.e. over the Internet. MOOCs are a recent and natural evolution of distance education (See Infographics: Key Milestones in MOOCs Evolution).

With MOOCs, anyone with an Internet connection has the freedom to learn any topic of their choice, from the best teachers, at nominal or no costs, and at their pace.

MOOCs can be used as a stand-alone learning platform. It can also be used along with in-class discussions and tutorials overseen by a faculty member, sometimes referred to as blended MOOCs. MOOCs also have the capability to provide real-time and personalised assessment and feedback for each student, a boon for students and teachers alike.

How are MOOCs changing the landscape of higher education around the world?

Corporations like Coursera, edX, and Udacity have pioneered the efforts to make MOOCs available to the world. They have also started offering credentials, the Holy Grail in higher education, to those who complete a pre-determined sequence of classes. Coursera’s Specialisations, edX’s XSeries, and Udacity’s Nanodegrees are certificates that students can earn by completing a pre-determined sequence of classes, from the top faculty and universities in the respective fields, by paying a relatively small amount of money compared to traditional on-campus tuition fees.

Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, a nonprofit MOOCs provider, is particularly excited about its recently-launched MicroMasters program. According to Agarwal, students can now take a sequence of courses on edX, roughly equivalent to 25% of a regular Master’s degree, for free. In addition, they can earn the MicroMasters credentials by paying approximately $1,000 and use the MicroMasters credentials in their applications to top schools such as Columbia University or MIT. The students can not only improve their chances of admission with these credentials but also get credits for these classes once admitted. With another new edX-Georgia Tech program, students can get a MicroMasters in Analytics for $1,500 and, if admitted by Georgia Tech, complete their Master’s degree online for a total cost of $10,000. This is just a fraction of the cost of a regular Master’s degree in most top-tier US-based research universities.

Coursera’s Chief Business Officer Nikhil Sinha calls its iMBA program with University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) game changing. According to Sinha, the first cohort of 180 students from this program will graduate in the summer of 2017. Now, students can earn their MBA degree from UIUC for $20,000. Compared to $80,000 for an on-campus program, this is quite a deal.

MOOCs are beginning to get valued by top universities, start-ups, and Fortune 500 companies alike. MOOCs are valuable not just for young learners who otherwise would not have had access to such world-class courses but also for professionals who want to augment their skills and knowledge or who want to re-skill themselves for a new field.

How are national governments and universities leveraging MOOCs?

Not just corporations but also governments and universities around the world have latched on to the opportunity presented by MOOCs to address the unique education and skills challenges in their respective countries.

For example, in the UK, The Open University along with 12 university partners launched FutureLearn in 2012, a for-profit MOOCs platform that now has 64 university and 45 non-university partners from the UK and outside. It has grown to become the 4th-largest MOOCs provider in the world offering nearly 500 courses to over 5 million learners.

In China, a consortium of ten leading Chinese universities spearheaded by Tshingua University and supported by the Chinese Ministry of Education, launched XuetangX, a MOOCs and blended learning portal. Built on Open edX, it now offers nearly 400 courses to over 6 million learners and is the 3rd largest MOOCs provider in the world behind Coursera and edX. (See Infographics: World’s Top-5 MOOCs Providers.)

To address a shortage of data scientists, in 2014 and as part of its SkillsFuture initiative, Singapore partnered with Coursera to upskill its workforce. The Singapore-Coursera program was a runaway success.

The list of countries adopting and investing in MOOCs is quickly growing and includes countries such as France, Spain, Italy, Malaysia, Jordan, and Israel.

Why are MOOCs critical for India?

India’s future in the 21st century will be defined by how well it educates its young men and women. With 20-26 million children born every year, over the next 35-50 years an estimated 700 million to 1.3 billion of India’s youth will require access to higher education. Providing them with excellent higher education and preparing them for their lives and careers is India’s defining challenge and opportunity of the 21st century.

However, India’s higher education system is in crisis. Today, India’s gross enrolment ratio (GER), which is the percentage of the population in the age bracket of 18-23 years that is enrolled in an institute of higher education, is less than 24% (this is in sharp contrast to most developed countries, who have a GER of 50-95%). In other words, more than 76% of India’s youth do not even have access to higher education. And the youth who do have access to higher education receive such dismal quality of education that 70-90% of the college graduates in India are considered unemployable by the industry. And, even after 70 years of independence India does not have even one world-class multidisciplinary research university.

India needs to urgently address the crisis in its higher education system, otherwise, it’s future is at risk. However, it is severely constrained by lack of world-class faculty, infrastructure, resources, and time. In this context, MOOCs can be the much-needed silver bullet for India. If India embraces and adopts MOOCs successfully, it can provide an excellent education to all in the near future with relatively modest resources.

How is India’s effort on MOOCs?

In 2014, India’s Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) announced India’s own nation-wide MOOCs initiative, SWAYAM (Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds). After several fits and starts, a beta version of the SWAYAM platform was finally launched in late 2016.

Based on our review, however, we find that the SWAYAM platform falls utterly short of the needs and aspirations of India’s youth and industry, and the initiative is way below the global standards in several aspects.

  1. Aspirations: The government’s aspirations for SWAYAM are low, and approach lacks a sense of urgency. Within three years, China’s MOOCs initiative (XuetangX) has become the 3rd largest MOOCs provider in the world with its emphasis on excellence. Within two years, Malaysia has launched a national policy on credit recognition and transfer. Within one year, Israel is offering MOOCs in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. In contrast, many of the courses developed by faculty outside of IITs and IISc, that we reviewed on SWAYAM, were insipid and uninspiring, indicating a serious lack of emphasis on excellence. There are no clear efforts to implement a comprehensive credit recognition and transfer policy or to make the MOOCs available in Hindi and major regional languages.
  2. Leadership: SWAYAM does not have a single leader or a group responsible for its vision, strategy, and execution. The responsibilities and funding are diffused across multiple initiatives, agencies, and institutions such as NPTEL, teachers training initiative, AICTE, UGC, IGNOU, and IITs. The current crisis in higher education is evidence that leadership from existing regulatory agencies does not inspire confidence, innovation, or excellence.
  3. Funding: In Budget 2017, there is Rs. 75 crores ($11 million) earmarked for MOOCs, same as in Budget 2016. This allocation represents a mere 0.23% of the higher education budget, 0.09% of the education budget, and 0.003% of the national budget. While there appears to be funding to develop courses at the low level of aspirations, there is little or no money to manage the efforts to ensure that the best faculty members are being tapped to teach each subject. There also appears to be no funding to experiment to improve learning outcomes.
  4. Pedagogy: Initiatives like FutureLearn (UK) and XuetangX (China) are pioneering innovations in pedagogy to improve the learning outcomes for the students such as making the learning material rich and interactive, rethinking discussion forums to encourage social learning, and personalising the learning experience for each student. On the other hand, SWAYAM’s approach of simply replacing classroom lectures with online video lectures is largely non-technical and lacks inspiration.
  5. Impact: Countries like China, France, and Malaysia are investing heavily in keeping their MOOCs aligned with the changing needs of their industries and societies. However, despite high demand from youth and industry, SWAYAM is largely academic in nature with no clear engagements with industry or society to make an impact.

What does India need to do to unleash the potential of MOOCs for its youth?

To say the least, the government needs to reboot SWAYAM. Taking a leaf out of how similar initiatives in the past, like Aadhaar, have been successfully executed at the national scale, the government needs to take the following steps urgently in order to unleash the potential of MOOCs in India with scale, speed, and excellence.

  1. Launch a national mission on MOOCs. This national mission will be tasked to bring world-class education to every Indian’s computer, tablet, and mobile device in a matter of 1-2 years. It will offer over 1000 courses focused on making students ready for life and career, and for solving the needs of the society and the nation. And, the courses will be offered in English, Hindi, and all major regional languages.
  2. Appoint a recognised leader to the national mission. The leader would have significant credibility and network to make an immediate impact. The leader would be someone who has expertise in higher education, technology, and MOOCs. Finally, the leader would be a cabinet-level appointment to show the government’s seriousness and urgency in addressing this challenge and opportunity.
  3. Provide authority, accountability, and funding. The leader would have the necessary authority, accountability, and funding to organise a team of experts to make the vision and plans a reality. And, all the related government departments, agencies, and institutions would report to this team for MOOCs-related matters and ensure its success.

“Every crisis is an opportunity”, says an old proverb. In its higher education crisis, India has a unique opportunity to provide an excellent education to its people and leapfrog the world. For that, we desperately need to act urgently to make MOOCs India’s national priority.

If India succeeds in this national mission then students like Amol Bhave, Karthik Puthraya and hundreds of millions of India’s youth and professionals will transform their lives and careers. Now, that is a legacy worth creating.

About the Authors

Deepan Raj Prabakar Muthirayan is a founding team member of Nalanda 2.0. A post-doctoral researcher at Cornell University, he completed his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley, and B.Tech. and M.Tech. from IIT Madras.

Rakesh Misra is a core team member of Nalanda 2.0. Co-founder of a Silicon Valley startup, he completed his Ph.D. from Stanford University and B.Tech. and M.Tech. from IIT Madras.

Shail Kumar is the Founder and President of Nalanda 2.0., Former administrator at UC Berkeley and UC San Diego. He received his MBA from Indiana University, Bloomington and B.Tech. (Hons.) from IIT Kharagpur.

Corresponding author: [email protected]


This article is informed by extensive research and interviews with the following:

  • Anant Agarwal, CEO of edX, and Professor, MIT
  • Devesh Kapur, Professor, University of Pennsylvania
  • Deepak Phatak, Professor, IIT Bombay
  • Karthik Puthraya, Software Engineer, Microsoft
  • Nikhil Sinha, Chief Business Officer, Coursera
  • Andrew Thangaraj, Professor, IIT Madras

Akash Keshav Singh for designing the infographics, and Subhamoy Das, Shailabh Kumar, and Sreeja Nag for reviewing the article. All of them are Nalanda 2.0’s founding team members.

Nalanda 2.0 is a nonpartisan and nonprofit think tank that aims to make India’s higher education system world-class.

Follow Nalanda 2.0 on Facebook and Twitter. For more information view its website – Nalanda2

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Editor : The Logical Indian

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