The True Promise of Technology In (Indian) Higher Education [We Need To Think Beyond MOOC]

Indians are the second largest users of MOOCs after the US, but like students everywhere else, we are not completing the courses for which we sign up by the million.

MOOC Statistics

India's Education System : Where Are We?
India’s Education System : Where Are We?

Unless you have been living on a Himalayan mountain top you must have heard of this new phenomenon called the MOOC. MOOCs are massive open online courses offered by the world’s best universities and supported by the world’s best companies. Ever since Sebastian Thrun (then at Stanford and Google and now at Udacity) and Peter Norvig (then, as now, at Google) decided to put their Stanford AI class online and found themselves teaching 160,000 students instead of the usual 160, there’s been this intense frenzy over online higher education.

Thrun and Norvig were soon joined by two of their Stanford colleagues, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, who started Coursera. Their East Coast colleagues, or should I say, competitors, at MIT were not far behind; EdX opened it’s online doors soon after Coursera and Udacity. For a while, everyone thought that massive online courses would be the savior of the unwashed.

Here’s a quote from Daphne Koller:

“High-quality education provided by MOOCs can be a significant factor in opening doors to opportunity—even among the college-educated.”

Here’s another from her East Coast competitor, Anant Agarwal:

“So we are applying these blended learning pilots in a number of universities and high schools around the world, from Tsinghua in China to the National University of Mongolia in Mongolia to Berkeley in California — all over the world. And these kinds of technologies really help, the blended model can really help revolutionize education.”

That was the promise. Now we know better.

Students who do well in MOOCs are richer, better educated and more likely to be men than students as a whole. In other words, a technology that was supposed to help the poor and the oppressed is a great boon for the exact opposite. There’s nothing wrong with technology that brings benefits to the Indian middle class; it’s great if smart people everywhere have access to high quality knowledge. However, we should be careful about creating new inequalities in the name of reducing inequality. In education as in everything else, information economies are of the winner-take-all kind. Where there were hundreds or thousands of providers, we might be left with one or two or ten. A diverse online education ecosystem is better for all of us.

Beyond the MOOC

An Indian geek like myself is left between two hard choices:

1. A future that’s much like the past, with a few good colleges floating in a sea of mediocrity or

2. A future controlled by a few global higher-ed providers catering to the relatively well off.

The first is choice is intolerable. India is a young country and it’s youth deserves good education. The second will lead a tri-level hierarchy, where the certifiably smart or rich get to an IIT or an MIT, the next level has access to blended learning platforms run by the Coursera’s in partnership with Indian colleges and then you are left with people who don’t have access to any kind of quality. Surely there’s an alternative.

India poses a major challenge and a major opportunity for innovation in higher education. Indians are the second largest users of MOOCs after the US, but like students everywhere else, we are not completing the courses for which we sign up by the million. We need to think beyond the MOOC. Technology mediated learning can go a long way in meeting the gap between supply and demand in higher education. I can think of two models that could work in India.

Two Alternatives

The first is the Wipro-Infosys model. I once had lunch with a founder of one of those companies – I am not going to tell you which one – and he said that the goal of his company was competence, not excellence. In other words, he hired and trained people to do a good job at a competitive price. Don’t knock that model! Infy and Wipro know how to acquire and train people at industrial scale. Their relative competence is much better than the abysmal quality we see in most Indian colleges.

Someone needs to figure out a similar scalable higher-ed model in India. I don’t mean NIIT; that’s skills training. I am thinking of real higher-education that translates into livelihood and dignity. Here, scale has clear advantages. Centralized content creation and all-India distribution could lead to a good compromise between quality and personalization. Such experiments are being tried in Latin America, where courses are taught from a central campus but the teachers travel routinely to campuses elsewhere.

The central campus is attractive to high quality faculty who can combine teaching with research. The peripheral campuses are much more attractive to students who come from smaller towns and cities. This is a capital intensive model and can only be achieved with deep pockets.

The second is a more jugaad model, combining aggregation and localization. I am thinking of an online-cum-physical platform which combines courses from different MOOC providers, provides hands on assistance via local teaching assistants and also combines skills and subjects that are India specific.
For example, a machine learning course from Coursera combined with India specific data sets that leads to business analytics in the Indian context. I think such a platform could be created in Bengaluru and replicated in Delhi, Chennai, Mumbai, Pune and a few other cities. By it’s very nature it will be decentralized and may have problems achieving scale, but it will create really strong centres of learning where it takes root.

If one of these two is made to work, we can hope for a third, more ambitious system: one which combines research and training in a distributed network and that can solve Indian problems at a scale no one had seen before. We are still a ways from there, but the demographic time bomb is ticking and we can’t afford to sit still.

The Ethics of Higher Education

Let me end this piece with a reminder about the ethics of higher education. All of us know that higher-ed in India is full of third-rate colleges started by fly by the night operators, people with political connections and local goons. Since demand for good education far outstrips supply, education is a thriving business. A low trust business at that. The cynicism about education bothers me more than anything else.

Schools and colleges are the places that form us; if they fulfill our needs, we enter the world with a readiness to contribute our share. If they are exploitative, we enter society with an ingrained belief that institutions aren’t worthy of trust. That lack of trust permeates our interactions with other citizens throughout adulthood. I hope a new generation of entrepreneurs can solve the problem of providing solid, trustworthy and creative education at scale. It’s a monumental task, but I believe we are up for the challenge.


[About the author: Rajesh Kasturirangan is an Associate Professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore and the Anchor of theCognition Programme there. While his research work focuses on problems in the mind sciences, he is interested in applying the principles of cognition to larger questions of society in general and to understanding education in particular. He is also interested in understanding whether technology can revolutionise education in India and what role entrepreneurship can play in making that happen.]

Image credit : shutterstock

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