top of page

MOOC: The new buzzword in online education

The world has taken notice! Until a few years back, Massive Open Online Courses(MOOC) was only an idea; today it is an industry. An innovation that has attracted millions of students from across the globe, offers thousands of courses and a global movement in which hundreds of universities have lined up to participate. The questions remain: will MOOC expand access to higher education? Will MOOC help people gain skills for high-quality jobs or satisfy a desire for edification? In a changed scenario where multimedia and other technology has made the world look surreal, the answers seem yes, though in India it may take time in making real inroads!

It was an initiative of Yale, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Threads were picked up by IIT Bombay and BITS Pilani. And now the Ministry of Human Resource Development, Government of India, is geared up to follow suit. The ubiquity of knowledge and the close-to-zero cost of sharing, is creating ‘a flat world’. MOOC, the new buzzword in online education, is aimed at benefitting the willing student with quality content made available online on a massive scale at a minimal or zero cost. MOOC is rapidly gaining popularity in developing nations.

Just as the world has seen technology and globalisation transform media and communication, banking and finance over the last two decades, it is now out for a radical change in higher education. The changes outlined are to open up access to quality education to the masses in a manner previously unforeseen. Until recently, a select few people could get the opportunity to benefit from elite institutions. In the new scenario there are chances that think tanks conduct research and private providers, that are not universities at all, offer degrees. Select fellowships may carry more prestige than top university qualifications and MOOC can take the best instructors globally.

Two courses — Introduction to Computer Programming-I and Thermodynamics— were launched at IIT Bombay in July, for which the platform was put in place last year when the premier Indian institution got into a tie-up with edX-UK. BITS Pilani is also running as many courses using the platform provided by Coursera based on a pilot agreement while exploring more options, for both on and off-campus students. The HRD Ministry is set to rollout an India-specific version of MOOC, named Swayam, billed for a September-end launch. Pursued systematically, Swayam (meaning self-help), has the potential to change the way India looks at education in general and delivering content in particular.

The platform is enormous

Internationally, MOOC has attracted not only students but investors as well. Coursera, one of the largest providers of massive open online courses, has $43 million in new investment money of which at least $10 million is expected to aid its global expansion plans. One of the major investors in this platform is the education giant Laureate Education Incorporated. Laureate’s investment marks the first by a for-profit university in an American MOOC provider. UK too has responded with its own version of a MOOC platform – FutureLearn.

The first open courses were launched by Yale University in December 2007, reaching people from 228 countries on iTunes U and YouTube. Currently, Yale joins Princeton, Columbia, Penn, and Stanford, in posting courses with Coursera.

The enormity of the platform can be established from its sheer size and disruptive potential. The largest provider, Coursera, has drawn five million students, and non-profit provider edX more than 1.3 million.

While the majority of students are based in the US, learners from all over the globe have stepped in to adopt this model. Among EdX’s students, 9% came from Africa and 12% from India. Top universities as well as companies have made courses available online, free for anyone to access.

“Our view is that this new wave of innovation can be leveraged to enhance the experiences of our students — whether it be through lowering the cost of delivery, enhancing classroom pedagogy, or increased learning opportunities. We are thrilled to partner with Coursera and look forward to the opportunity to support as they seek to expand globally.”-Doug Becker , Founder & CEO ,Laureate Education Incorporated

Employers in Tanzania find a mismatch of skills in the local labor market. For this and other reasons, Tanzania is trying to improve the quality of its higher education system. With support from the World Bank, a pilot initiative in Tanzania is seeking to incorporate Coursera offerings to help equip students with market-relevant IT skills.

Due to the fact that they are taught by the best faculty and thought leaders, online courses are witnessing record breaking enrolment figures. 110,000 people have signed up on Coursera for a MOOC on Financial Markets with the 2013 Nobel prize winner and Yale School of Management economics professor Robert J. Shiller.

MOOC in India

In view of the growing demands and rising aspirations of young India, the country will need about 1,500 universities – double the current number — and over a million new faculty by 2030 to meet its Gross Enrolment Ratio (GER) target of 30%. To an extent, MOOC can help in bridging the gap, albeit carried forward with thorough planning and measures to audit the learning outcomes and improvement of general performance level of the student. A free-of-cost facility that the government is envisaging, without any monitoring mechanism, might not be taken seriously by students and the facility could end up being just another search engine. One only hopes it does not go the Continued and Comprehensive Evaluation (CCE) way, introduced in schools a few years ago.

According to one widely quoted calculation, the world would have to construct more than four new 30,000-student universities per week to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age by 2025.

Tread with caution

CCE has produced disparaging results. Contrary to expectations, it helped public schools, whereas the ‘no failure’ policy till class nine proved to be counter-productive for Government-run institutions, with learning levels dipping to an all-time low. The basic aim of bringing down the ‘drop out’ rate has not been achieved nor for that matter have Skill Development programs picked up in right earnest. The higher education system in the country is quite weak. The result: only 30 per cent graduates continue to be job worthy. Employability worth among engineering graduates is still low at 23%. Small wonder, no Indian university figures in the latest top 200 universities list in the world?

Swayam provides a podium to move away from regular ‘brick and mortar’ universities and enhance the quality of education, on a scale that is required in India, by embracing technology and the internet. The catch being that the device of MOOC has to be planned, handled and monitored meticulously. It is a path that needs to be tread with caution!

Limitations and way forward

Like any other online program, MOOC too will have limitations of acceptability, scalability, completion rate, reduced human interaction between the teacher and the learner and the use of English as a medium of instruction. For technology-based courses, the absence of practical sessions also poses a major challenge. In addition, despite claims to the contrary, the biggest obstacle is lack of widespread Internet access in the country, a pre-requisite for such a platform.

The foremost task at hand is to lend credibility. So far, both employers and universities do not accept online or Distance Learning courses at par with conventional degree programs. After the Government disbanded the Distance Learning Council operating out of the IGNOU campus in Delhi, correspondence courses have become an unwanted child of the UGC.

To address these limitations, one tends to agree with Prof Deepak B Phatak of IIT Bombay. One of the proponents of the system, he suggests a blended model of MOOC for engineering education that integrates face-to-face teaching with online content with the following features:

  • Students study online material on their own and attend tutorials & problem-solving sessions under the guidance of a local university teacher

  • Align offline and online content, which is possible in India where the syllabus is well defined

  • Make local teachers responsible for supervising and certifying online exams (For this the local teachers/subject experts will have to be trained to adapt to online medium)

  • Conduct practical sessions under the supervision of subject experts

  • Improve infrastructure to support Technology Enabled Learning

  • Rope in UGC/AICTE for accreditation

Students have the option to either audit the course for free using online access to all course materials or pursue a Verified Certificate of Achievement for about Rs 1,500 ($25). IIT Bombay plans to ramp this up in phases. In the next two years it hopes to offer at least one core course in the first year of engineering across India online under MOOC.

Seven IITs, TCS, Infosys, Nasscom and Cognizant have joined hands to launch high-quality free online courses that could make students job ready.

With 100 smart cities scheduled to be developed in the ensuing years and cities like Pune and Bangalore slated to be completely Wi-Fi enabled in the not-too-distant future, the scalability issue could be taken care of. However, in India, the last mile connectivity issue still plagues, as also lack of adequate bandwidth making content delivery somewhat of an issue.

True, there are going to be initial glitches and teething troubles. That the Government of India is serious about implementing the MOOC model successfully is clear from the following steps being mooted. Though not recommended, the platform will be free of cost and there are plans to offer courses in several languages. All the Central UGC-funded funded universities will be Wi-Fi ready by October 2014. Measures are also afoot to rope in all IITs, NITs and other centres of excellence.

Despite constraints MOOC is surely the way forward for India, if handled by a dynamic head. The icing on the cake would be if the operations of MOOC and Distance Learning (DL) are brought under one department. Gone are the days when notes were dispatched in DL programs. Today study material is available on the net; assignments are given and accepted online. There are number of other areas where integration of the two is possible. Against this background it could be suggested that two mechanisms could co-exist and proliferate moving hand in hand! Internationally too, the way cost of quality education is growing more than the rate of inflation, MOOC can provide the answer.

Some of the suggested steps that could be possibly implemented in India are:

  • Generate revenue from certification fees and sponsorships

  • Form tie-ups with potential employers

  • Invest in widespread use of affordable computers like the ‘Akaash Tablet’ ($50-$100), with a dedicated educational bandwidth infrastructure

  • Launch programmes for mass consumption such as IT, language courses and 1styear courses at B.Tech level

  • “Catch them young” (start emphasizing the importance of higher education at the school level using MOOC. FutureLearn in the UK is already doing this)

  • Draft and implement a suitable distance learning education policy in terms of for and not-for-profit models within six months

  • Implement a responsive and contemporary industry-oriented regulatory body capable of dealing with future IT technologies within a year

  • Offer practical sessions in a gaming format and save crores of rupees in setting up labs and investing in expensive software.

If concerns regarding MOOCs are addressed and programmes are effectively implemented, we could probably do away with the new IITs and IIMs. Just use technology!


Online education is like an 800 pound gorilla that is walking into our lives. Student and learner behavior is changing in subtle ways. 10% of people who take MOOC complete them successfully, the other 90% do not complete the course. However, what most people miss is that 10% of 4.4 million is still 440,000 people who are receiving high quality education from Coursera and other providers. And these numbers are growing by the day.

EdX – a combination of Harvard and MIT, two of America’s most elite institutions are now offering all of their courses online for free. This allows them to access a global marketplace and community of students, and essentially learn each time a student interacts with their platform – enabling them to make the material and student experiences better – essentially reaching a point where they can figure out how different people learn, and then tailor courses for them – achieving personalised learning!

Oculus VR–a promising virtual reality technology company–literally went from an idea to a $2 billion company in less than 20 months. Imagine putting on a pair of virtual goggles in your house and being able to study in a classroom of students and teachers – anywhere in the world! The company was taken over by Facebook earlier this year.

MOOC today is analogous to a printing press of yesteryear – a device that essentially took existing technologies and put them together to form something revolutionary. (It took paper, ink, movable type and a wine press converged in a new way to make a printing press.) Similarly with mobile technology, high speed internet, big data and learning algorithms applied to create a MOOC, the next revolution in Higher Education is upon us.

However, just as it took a human operator as well as authors to make the printing press effective, similarly MOOC is a contemporary tool available to current day educators that need faculty who have embraced the technology to succeed. And MOOC will enable greater demand for faculty. Imagine a scenario where all 7 billion people on the planet can be students – and not just for two, three or four years, but for lifelong learning!

bottom of page