After Substandard Classes In College, I Stumbled Upon A New Way Of Learning

Posted by Vivek Ranjan in Education, Sci-Tech
July 6, 2018

“Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today.” —Malcom X.

Over the years there have been various changes in the way people learn, and that means the education system has also been changing. In our country particularly, trying to make education reach every nook and corner has been the aim of the government (supposedly) for many years and even more so now. But, learning and education have to be distinguished from each other. This is even more important when various reports claim that many students of Class V can’t do some simple arithmetic calculations.

This holds true for people at all levels of education. So many students who graduate from our colleges are not aware of what they have learnt in the three to four (or even more) years of higher education. This can be attributed to various reasons, but primarily the most important reason (which I’ve seen in more than five schools that I transferred, as well as college) is the substandard quality of teachers in most of the institutions from primary schools up to post-graduation. In colleges which are not so heavily-funded, we have many limitations with regards to facilities and resources for learning. Many times, classes are not engaging or not able to develop a student’ skills and knowledge. This leads to a dampening of the enthusiasm of the students, and after losing interest, they may change their field to one where opportunities and the likelihood of getting a job is easier.

Few students survive due to their personal perseverance and high levels of motivation, often based on their personality and behavioural tendencies, rather than talent or intelligence. But whatever reasons we might like to attribute, the fact remains that some bright minds are lost to some other fields which otherwise those students would have not chosen if they were given better resources. This is not always a bad sign but definitely, it creates an imbalance where more job-oriented courses become crowded. It affects any state or country because competitive advantage of skills is ignored in this rush.

So, what should be the promise for the next generation’ education? Who will be the stakeholders? What would be the mechanism? No single system or mechanism is going to solve everything. There have to be many interdependent elements aiding each other which would create a robust education ecosystem. But one element which can improve the quality of education is more encouragement to MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. These are courses delivered online with some set mechanisms like deadlines for taking assignments and quizzes.

A Coursera instructor at work. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

As someone who has studied on many MOOC platforms, I can safely say that whatever knowledge, skills and interdisciplinary ideas I possess today can be attributed at least by 50-60% to MOOCs. I find them to be a very powerful medium, from secondary school to a professional level, or for anyone who believes in life-long learning, for that matter. First, anyone can learn without any compulsions. Second, people can study at their own pace, which itself is a great idea for someone who is a working professional and can’t study formally for any new skill or knowledge development in any field. This point is also valid for students who want to study something other than the stream that they pursuing. Third, the courses available in the MOOCs are developed by some of the best instructors, professors, and experts in that field, from some of the best institutions and universities across the world. Fourth, the most important reason is that learning there is affordable. While many courses are free, there are some charges for getting certified, but also options of waiver and/or financial aid.

MOOCs offer courses ranging from Science and Technology and Business Management to Religion, Culture, Society and Literature. It offers what we would not have even heard of. I took the courses as diverse as Quantum Computing and Behavioural Economics (which I wasn’t even aware of before). This was during my second year of my undergraduate course, and it gave me the opportunity to learn brand new things. Many of us have only recently heard about Blockchain Technology (which in simple terms is an advanced form of records and data keeping with sophisticated cryptography) and perhaps know something about it, but many courses are coming up focused on Blockchain Technology in 2018. These are offered by professors of some of the top most engineering schools, people who are experts and leading the development of this technology. Earlier it would have taken few years to disseminate the knowledge in a systematic and structured way. But now it is not so. That’s the power of MOOC.

Now let’s talk about the platforms of these MOOCs. Most famous of these platforms are edX and Coursera. edX was founded jointly by MIT and Harvard to provide quality education to people across the world who are not able to attend the top universities. The first CEO of edX was Professor Anant Agarwal, who teaches Computer Science and Electrical Engineering at MIT, and graduated from IIT Madras and Stanford University. He taught the first course on edX—“Circuits & Electronics”. In a matter of few years many of the world’s leading institutions like UC Berkeley, Caltech, University of Chicago, Kyoto University, and many others joined the platform.

From India too, IIT Bombay took the lead and joined the edX platform very shortly after its inception. It was followed by IIM Bangalore and BITS Pilani. Although BITS Pilani is yet to offer any course, IIM Bangalore and IIT Bombay have offered a number of interesting and skill-building courses.

Apart from the academic institutions many professional bodies and organizations have also joined edX. This includes Microsoft, Amnesty International, Amazon Web Services, International Monetary Fund (IMF), New York Institute of Finance, and more. It is worth mentioning that Microsoft has offered so many courses that can be of immense help to people who want to make their career in the field of IT.

edX presentation by Anant Agarwal. Source: edX Social Media/Flickr.

When I took a course for the first time on edX, I was just amazed by the amount of efforts the course-creators had made and that too to offer the course free of cost. edX has come out with various ways of providing certifications as well. Apart from offering individual courses, it has X-Series and Micro-Masters which are a series of courses in a particular domain or intend to develop skill sets in a particular area. Micro-Masters Courses give some college credits as well which would reduce the time if anyone wants to pursue that course physically in that university offering that Micro-Masters. Isn’t that exciting? Very soon it is coming out with full-phase Master’s degree courses, for which admission would follow similar procedure as it is when one applies to physically attend universities. Just the medium will be online.

Talking about Coursera, it was founded by Professors of Stanford University namely, Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller. After founding it officially, they left Stanford. The university lost two great professors but the whole world gained a company and platform which changed the way people learn and develop themselves. Princeton, Stanford, University of Michigan and University of Pennsylvania were the first to offer courses in these platforms (the present count is 2700 courses with 33 million learners). Now it has more than 150 partner universities across the world including Indian School of Business, Hyderabad. Coursera offers full masters degrees as well like Master of Computer Science (offered by Arizona State University), Global Master of Public Health (offered by Imperial College London), Master of Applied Data Science (offered by University of Michigan), and more.

Now, some people might think that many courses are subjective and perspective-oriented, that they require a lot of discussion among the learners to get the most out of the course. The good news is that both these platforms have a very robust discussion forum where learners can interact with people from across the world. Good MOOCs are not those where there are just lengthy lecture videos but rather a mix of videos, reading, assignments, quizzes, discussion forums, and links to additional learning. These give you different perspectives and ideas which ultimately translates into learning.

Daphne Koller, co-founder of Coursera.

We have our own Indian MOOC platforms as well. The most famous among them is National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) started by seven older IITs, and IISc Bangalore. NPTEL evolved over the years from offering only engineering course to offering management and humanities courses presently (a total of 1,000) to cater to a wider range of audience and make itself better in the process. Currently, it offers certification on many courses both in spring and fall for a nominal fee.Lessons for certification can be taken from anywhere but final examination has to be taken in a centre pre-decided by NPTEL on a fixed date which is notified at the start of the course. According to their web page, they have received 292+ million views with internet traffic not only from India but also from Germany, UK, USA, Canada, Philippines, Pakistan and many other countries.

Other MOOC platforms spearheaded by Govt of India are SWYAAM and Virtual Labs. Although there are some others as well but they are not working as efficiently as they were conceptualised, because of poor use of technology and lack of constant monitoring and innovation. There are also platforms like Future Learn, Udemy, Udacity, and NovoEd.

As I started this article with reference to the underwhelming education system in our country, we must ask what India can do in this regard. As our country has the largest number of young people, and with the market disruption by JIO in the last couple of years, and simultaneous initiative of Digital India Mission, this opportunity is perfectly ripe for both public and private sector investment. As, the number of mobile subscribers and data usage have both sharply gone up, it shows that a large number of youth have access to high speed data.

 

NEW DELHI, INDIA JULY 22: Principal and Professor Dr.O P Sharma explaining a free video lecture of IIT professor under the NPTEL scheme at G B Pant Engineering college in New Delhi. (Photo by Pradeep Gaur/Mint via Getty Images).

Private sectors can invest directly on their L&D (learning and development) for their internal employees’ growth, or they can use their Corporate Social Responsibility fund to develop some of these courses for the average Indian student, through an ‘Open 2 Learn’ kind of website. It would even be more effective if they form small consortia to do so as well. But, there will be many areas of education where private companies may not be that much interested to invest. In those domains the government has to take the lead. The mission here should be to develop the repository of online courses which would impart quality education to anyone anywhere in the world, through an internet-enabled cell phone, computer or tablet.

One point which can significantly contribute to imparting quality education is providing all these courses in Indian languages. This is one of the unique problems we face in imparting education. This can be overcome by developing and translating all the courses in all the subjects into major Indian languages. All these activities will generate a lot of jobs as well. If undertaken, this project will be one of the biggest and most ambitious educational projects in the world . But all the above is easier said than done. The government needs to put in a lot of efforts to make this happen, because it is after all their responsibility to prepare the country and its population for taking a leap into every field to compete with rest of the world

“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world” —Nelson Mandela.