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New Delhi: MOOCs, or massive open online courses, became a buzzword in 2012. Platforms such as Coursera, edX and Udacity tied up with top universities, including the Ivy League, to offer courses on every possible subject to anyone with access to Internet across the world.

Professors from top universities such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia and Princeton became available for students in places like Burkina Faso, a small landlocked country in West Africa.

Around the same time, August 2012 to be precise, another MOOC platform was launched, albeit with a difference. Ragib Hasan, assistant professor and computer scientist at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, launched a Bengali-language MOOC platform called Shikkhok.com.

“The key innovation is the crowdsourcing of MOOCs. So far, big MOOCs like Coursera or edX have all been created through partnership with established universities. In Shikkhok, I took a different approach by crowdsourcing the development of the educational materials, and looking at innovative localized context when creating courses," said Hasan. To be sure, there are some platforms that simply translate content of English MOOCs into Bengali.

Hasan believes that lectures that are developed for a student in, say, the US, are not suitable for a student in a village in Bangladesh. “The examples and cultural contexts simply don’t match. If you illustrate a physics problem by using a rocket as the example, then a village student will not understand anything at all as he probably has never seen a rocket. Rather, we need to make local examples that are known to the student," he said.

At Shikkhok, which means teacher in Bengali, a localized approach was adopted to create content for website and a mobile app, which the students have appreciated. At present, the platform has about 700,000 student users and about 55 teachers with 40,000-60,000 visitors per day.

In the past three years, Shikkhok has delivered 9.5 million video lectures. Of the total visitors, about 10-15% are from West Bengal, while expatriate Bengalis living in Europe and the US visit the site as well.

“Overall, we got visitors from at least 73 countries. I hope that Shikkhok will get more coverage and students from West Bengal," said Hasan. There are 800-plus lessons from at least 75 courses; the platform offers free courses from Class V to PhD level.

To get content, Hasan went to social media and asked for volunteers. “I just told them that I am starting this educational site in Bengali for rural students. Can you just use your webcam or phone to create a few short videos based on your knowledge and subject areas?" said Hasan.

The response was phenomenal. Within a few hours of posting the message on Facebook and Twitter, Hasan was flooded with messages from interested people. A chemical engineer started sending videos, a professional chef gave lessons on French cooking and an information technology executive started creating math lectures for Classes V and VI. “Within a few days, I had dozens of courses running on Shikkhok.com," said Hasan.

In addition to the online delivery method, Shikkhok aims to reach rural and underprivileged students in Bangladesh and India who do not have Internet access. The platform brings together educators and researchers from all over the world to create free-of-cost content on both basic and advanced topics. The videos are uploaded to YouTube and courses are posted on the Wordpress-hosted website. “We use all the free tools that we can get. Students can get the videos through the site, or through the village mobile shops," said Hasan.

Bharat Gulia, CEO of Metis Learnings, an education solutions provider, said: “The concept seems very good and if executed properly, it will help those students who need these kind of resources the most". He added that Bengali being one the most widely spoken languages, such content will be of immense advantage as connectivity moves down the socio-economic strata.

The idea came to Hasan when he got a letter from a school principal in the remote Sundarban area near the India-Bangladesh border. “He wrote to me that students in his school are dirt-poor, and his school does not have any teachers to teach science, math or English. Note that he didn’t complain about the lack of good teachers. His school was so distant and rural and his students were so poor that he had no teachers to cover these subjects," he said.

As a result, his students failed the exams and ended up as poor and uneducated as their parents. The main factor was the huge cost of training and paying for good teachers and the government simply could not afford to spend so much on education, the principal wrote.

“As a scientist, I knew that we could easily create reusable content, come up with innovative distribution channels using mobile phone technology, and thus reach even the students at the farthest corners of Bangladesh and India. Thus, Shikkhok project was started," Hasan said.

The entire project was launched for $15—the cost of three hamburgers in the US. “My cost per student is $0.0000214285714," he said.

Shikkhok is now partnering with cable operators in Bangladesh to give them the educational content for free so that they can create a TV channel with it, benefiting those students who don’t have computers.

Hasan says that he expects to get more teachers from India, especially West Bengal, to create courses. “So far, we got one course from a teacher in West Bengal. My door is always open to anyone proposing a course, on any topic," he added.

Mint has a strategic partnership with Digital Empowerment Foundation, which hosts the mB-illionth and Manthan awards.

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