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Education beyond brick and mortar

Education beyond brick and mortar
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First Published: Mon, Feb 28 2011. 01 11 AM IST
Updated: Mon, Mar 14 2011. 11 42 AM IST
Over the past decade, an international trend towards expanding access to educational materials has steadily gained momentum. Originating in 2001 with the launch of the landmark OpenCourseWare project by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), open courseware has become a full-fledged movement. Hundreds of universities now share online versions of their course materials with the public, “unlocking their gates” to the world.
While MIT’s may be the most prominent effort to make online course materials freely available to a mass audience, an impressive initiative from India’s flagship universities is perhaps beginning to rival it. The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) has given away thousands of hours of free audio and video lectures since 2003. Formulated jointly by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs), the programme offers a unique and compelling example to the rest of the open courseware movement, and has much to teach its peers around the world.
The power of open courseware lies in its ability to expose the intellectual products of some of the world’s best universities, once reserved exclusively for their selective cohorts of enrolled students, to anyone with an Internet connection. In the Indian context, such a development could be nothing short of transformative.
Indeed, one of NPTEL’s great strengths is its unique sensitivity to national needs. Launched with funding from the Indian government, NPTEL was created to respond to a specific problem in Indian higher education: the widening gap in quality and resources between the prestigious IITs and many of the country’s other engineering colleges. The recent proliferation of the latter has far outstripped the number of available PhDs needed to staff them with qualified faculty, a problem that the NPTEL team hopes to ease.
The IITs’ notoriously difficult admissions process—with acceptance rates historically hovering around 2%—has meant that vast numbers of students must be turned away. But by harnessing the power of technology, the NPTEL team has enabled the IITs’ talented faculty to extend its reach to all of India’s engineering students as well as their teachers. The project’s ultimate goal is to raise the overall level of student preparation—and thereby improve the competitiveness of India’s workforce—by providing widespread access to the best engineering educational materials the country has to offer.
While other prominent open courseware projects have often been explicitly global in their ambitions, showcasing their parent universities’ teaching in an effort to improve their international standing, NPTEL’s focus has been much closer to home. As the initiative’s Web coordinator Mangala Sunder Krishnan has said, “If people use NPTEL content outside of India, that’s a by-product. That’s not our motive. Our motive is to solve a local problem.” In determining the disciplines to feature in the project’s first phase, NPTEL consulted the government-led All India Council on Technical Education to determine which subjects were in greatest demand at engineering colleges nationwide. Serving the needs of this clearly defined target audience is, therefore, built into the very design of the initiative’s content offerings.
Beyond this concentrated attention to India’s educational priorities, NPTEL’s consortial structure is perhaps its most striking feature. As a successful collaboration between seven IITs and the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore—universities with shared missions but otherwise independent governance, which have historically vied for top faculty and students—NPTEL has successfully turned former competitors into collaborators.
This kind of joint effort, rare in the open courseware space, represents an admirable feat of coordination. NPTEL already incorporates the work of over 350 faculty members from the eight participating institutions. In the programme’s second phase (which is currently under way), the team plans to further diversify the sources of its content, soliciting high-quality courses from faculty outside of the IITs to host on its platform. Allowing other professors to create NPTEL courses would spread the burden of content creation beyond the IITs, with positive implications for the initiative’s sustainability. Expanding the programme to include a wider range of faculty contributions from across Indian higher education may also reinforce its national character. “We want other people to feel like they are a part of it,” NPTEL national video coordinator Kushal Sen has said. “No egos. Our aim is to make everyone rise.”
Though undoubtedly impressive in scope and scale, NPTEL’s current model of broadcasting courses does not yet fully satisfy the ambitions of its founders. Dating back to the initiative’s original planning discussions in 1999, the ultimate vision for this digital course material has been to support an entirely online university—the first “virtual IIT”, which would offer course credit and even degrees to a larger group of qualified students than the brick-and-mortar IITs can sustain. In this sense, the IITs have taken a bolder and potentially more transformative approach to courseware than many of their international peers: Should the IITs’ virtual campus come to fruition, these universities would be the world’s first premiere institutions to offer a credit-bearing, fully online version of their core undergraduate programmes. If such a virtual university could equal the IIT benchmark of quality, it would set a new standard for online education, solidifying India’s position in this field.
Taylor Walsh writes on behalf of Ithaka S+R, the strategic consulting and research service of the New York-based not-for-profit organization ITHAKA. She is the author of Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Up Access to Their Courses.
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First Published: Mon, Feb 28 2011. 01 11 AM IST