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Business News/ News / Business Of Life/  Hooked to learning on the Net


The average time a Mumbaikar spends commuting is estimated at about 50 minutes; time generally spent on a quick nap or reading newspapers. Rashmi Jain, 34, uses that time to study.

Every day, en route to work, she is hooked to her cellphone, watching Internet video lectures on game theory, marketing and consumer psychology by faculty from Duke University and Michigan State University, US. “I was looking to acquire new skills", says Jain, who works at Reliance Communications. Three months ago she signed up for a Massive Open Online Course (Mooc), a college class based on lecture videos delivered via the Internet. It is “massive" because thousands of students can enrol for a course at a time; “open" because all one needs is an Internet connection; “online" because that is the manner of delivery; and “course", because like any regular college programme, there is homework and tests. At the end of the course, usually ranging from three weeks to 18 weeks, students get to know whether they have passed or failed. A large number simply stop showing up.

Be it engineering, humanities or math, many top-notch universities around the globe offer a range of programmes, free of cost, via Moocs. In the last few years, elite, top universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), University of California, Berkeley, and Caltech, and Ivy League schools like Princeton and Harvard, have pledged millions of dollars to Mooc development.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay (IIT-B), recently tied up with EdX, a non-profit consortium founded by Harvard and MIT, making some of its regular courses available online for free. Those that will be offered initially are the online engineering courses which have been available since 2006 under the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). “We have a huge repository of lecture materials," says Devang Khakhar, director, IIT-B. “In addition, there could be other elements like discussions, quizzes, tests, etc."

These may not yet be translating into career advancement for students but the prospect of a foreign education is one that is attracting Indians by the thousands; not surprising given how stringent the admissions criteria—and how exorbitant the college fees—for some of these universities can be. “Our students in India represent the largest percentage of Coursera students outside of the US, roughly 10%," says Andrew Ng, co-founder, Coursera . The company did not give a detailed breakup of the numbers.

Coursera is among the leading education start-ups that act as go betweens, packaging courses and designing online interactions between students and schools. One has to simply sign up for them. “In the past six months, we have seen a 139% increase in India student enrolment," adds California-based Ng on email. Coursera currently offers programmes from 65 universities. For a fee ($30-100, or around 1,770-5,890), it also gives students a certificate when you finish the course to share on their résumés.

Another start-up, Udacity, born out of a Stanford University experiment, also has a significant Indian presence. “We have students from over 190 countries enrolled with us," says San Francisco-based Clarissa Shen, vice-president, strategic business and marketing, Udacity. “After the US, India is our second biggest country in traffic," she adds. She did not give a detailed breakup of the numbers.

These courses are open to all. There is no selection criteria for students but advanced courses in computer science or engineering would require a basic degree.

A large category of Indians enrolled in Moocs are those looking to enhance their careers, says Ng. Like Mumbai-based Nitin Jain, who works with the National Stock Exchange’s IT division, and is taking finance and software interface courses with the University of California, Berkeley, and University of Michigan. “I work on software development and the course gives me a basic understanding of how software works on the ground. I do believe it gives you an edge in the industry," says Jain.

The providers of online education do not claim that the experience matches on-campus learning. But they make the point that Moocs brings it a little closer to those who don’t have the access.

“We built Coursera to encourage learning without limits, in the face of rising university costs and lack of accessibility to quality education. By offering courses from top universities, we can grant students more opportunities to continue their educational pursuits," says Ng.

“The student community has proven to be an important aspect of the learning environment," says Shen. “We have what we call ‘super user’ students who are very active, organizing jump-offs to platforms like Facebook, Google+ and Skype, and organizing local Meetups with other Udacians."

Kolkata-based Abhinav Biswas, who is enrolled in a Mooc in start-up engineering from Stanford University, finds these forums useful. “You don’t feel the absence of a teacher because there are so many peers across the globe to help you," says Biswas, 23. “If I post a query, I get a response within a couple of hours."

Mumbai-based Vikram S., who has been through both the online and on-campus experience at the University of California, Los Angeles, agrees. A banking professional, he has completed courses in macro-economics and principles of economics for scientists from Caltech, University of Melbourne and Columbia University. “You have to be self-motivated. You can watch lectures early in the morning or late evening. If you miss deadlines, you are penalized. There is no bias as there is reasonable anonymity. I do miss certain aspects of teamwork, but communication is easy."

But do online courses actually help in career advancement, given the largely conservative mindset at the Indian workplace? “Unfortunately not," believes K. Sudarshan, managing partner at executive search firm EMA Partners International. “We always measure the difficulty of getting into a programme. Even within the IIMs (Indian Institutes of Management), there is a ranking in terms of how tough it is to gain admission. Something that comes by easily is not seen as such a big deal."

Nita Joshi, executive director, K&J Search Consultants Pvt. Ltd, agrees. “Let’s face it, in India anything that is free is not really valued. These courses may be great from the individual’s perspective but will not do much to strengthen their work profile."

That will change, believes Vikram S. “I took the courses with a perspective that if I don’t get to apply what I learn at work, I can apply it elsewhere. What matters is what all you carry at the back of your head ."

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Updated: 28 Jul 2013, 06:41 PM IST
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