The MOOC phenomenon

In today`s digital age more and more students are opting for online courses to enhance their knowledge. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee reports.

Updated: Jun 24, 2014, 14:06 PM IST

In today`s digital age more and more students are opting for online courses to enhance their knowledge. Sanchayan Bhattacharjee reports.

Raunak Manjani, a computer science engineering student at Manipal Institute of Technology does not like paying attention to classroom lectures at 8 am every day. To compensate for the loss, he regular visits ‘’ to ensure that his coding knowledge is up to the mark. “A number of our instructors are from universities like Stanford and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I get a chance to experience their way of teaching,” says Manjani who is currently pursuing an online course on machine learning.

Coursera is just one of the many platforms offering Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) to students across the world. MOOCs offer courses on diverse subjects like cosmology, anthropology, biology, law and engineering among others. They teach concepts of different subjects with video lectures, interactive content and a global network of peers and supplement it with a forum to clear doubts.

The goal of these courses is to democratise quality education which is often limited by geographical or demographical boundaries. As Rachel Lapal, communications manager, Edx, another platform offering online courses says, “MOOC learners come from diverse cultures, ages and backgrounds. We have learners from the age of eight to 95, residing in different parts of the world and having varying levels of education.”

So how does a student make time for these courses while pursuing a career or a conventional academic degree? “The time required for each course is differs. If the aim is to refresh or add to the knowledge of a known subject then 4-5 hours of study in a week is enough. If it is completely a new course then 8-10 hours per week is required,” says Manan Vyas, another engineering student who has already completed a couple of courses from Edx and Coursera.

The increasing popularity of these courses notwithstanding, there are certain challenges to overcome as well. Primary among them is the low completion rate among learners since their expectations from the courses differ. “Some opt for a course to purely understand the subject matter for lifelong learning while others take it up to learn from the best professors in the world. However only a few learners take up these courses to add to their professional credentials,” explains Lapel. Thus most students do not give as much importance to earning a certificate as to gaining knowledge from an inaccessible community. Other challenges include creating enough high quality courses for the increasing demand and improve distribution systems online, especially for areas with poor internet bandwidth.

With the increase in internet penetration in India, the number of students opting for MOOCs is increasing too. As Lapal points out that nearly 260,000 Indians are already active learners at Edx. The most popular courses that Indians opt for include, computer science and science and cooking’ from Harvard and the electronics course from MIT.

Khan Academy is yet another international learning portal that provides students with an opportunity to learn courses in different subjects for free, especially mathematics. “In the past 12 months, we`ve had 2.6 million learners from India which is approximately 3 per cent of our total traffic,” says Jessica Yuen head, International Strategy and Programs, Khan Academy.

The Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Mumbai has also launched three MOOCs on the Edx platform and has been receiving a good response. However a simple MOOCs model may not work in India. “Human interaction is extremely integral to education in this country. Thus these courses cannot be a direct substitute to classroom teaching,” says Deepak Phatak, professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT-Bombay. He suggests a ‘blended MOOCs’ model where classroom teachers work in tandem with the online courses in order to provide the best possible education to students. “Most of the teachers we have spoken to as part of a survey are receptive to this idea albeit with proper training.
This method has been experimented with in the IIT and the learning level of students has improved considerably,” says Phatak.
As the MOOCs model of education seeks to alter the ‘one size fits all’ concept of imparting education, it must also be wary of the same pitfall. It must keep evolving as per the needs of learners in order to realise its huge potential as an educator.