Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Can we Leverage MOOCs to transform Indian Higher Education?

In my column in Edu Tech magazine in December 2011, I argued that India’s most important challenge in higher education is using technology to bridge the trade-off between quality and scale. Developments in the last six months suggest that the technology to make this happen is now available, but India doesn’t seem to be a part of this movement. I am referring to the emergence of “Massively Open Online Courses” or MOOCs that make the best professors accessible to learners all over the world. Top schools including Stanford and MIT have been quick to jump on the MOOC bandwagon, and alliances are being rapidly created. To start with, most of these efforts are separate and distinct from formal enrolment at the university, but this promises to change fast as universities contemplate blended models of online and classroom instruction.

Will MOOCs be a disruptive innovation?

In his classic The Innovators’ Dilemma, Clayton Christensen conceptualized the difference between disruptive and sustaining technologies/innovations. Disruptive innovation often starts off as far inferior to the current offerings and is not of interest to the current users of a technology. Existing suppliers of the product or technology often don’t embrace such disruptions because they are not of interest to their current customers. But, the innovation may address an altogether new set of users.

Such disruptive technologies often become better at a rapid pace. In the process, they often reach a point where they overtake the existing or sustaining technologies.

MOOCs seem to have all the characteristics of a disruptive innovation. They don’t meet the needs of the current customers of higher education (university students), but as they improve and the problems (revenue model, evaluation, feedback, certification) associated with them are resolved, they could become a significant mode of providing university education as well.

Several universities have embraced MOOCs by following Christensen’s prescription of creating separate organizational units that pioneer this kind of learning. The challenge will be to integrate them effectively with conventional learning models. This could involve wrenching change processes in academe. At least in the past, academia has not been the most conducive place for such changes!

Relevance of MOOCs to India

MOOCs are tremendously relevant to India where we have faculty and infrastructure shortages, and are desperately trying to transform our large reservoir of young people into a well-trained, productive resource. I only fear that the inadequacy of high quality, low-cost, broadband internet access will come in the way of our leveraging MOOCs. I am not totally clear as to the compatibility of MOOCs with mobile handsets and networks, but since MOOCs depend heavily on video, it is clear that it will be accessible on the mobile handset only on high speed 3G and 4G networks, and on higher priced handsets. The low cost tablets on sale could come in handy, but again they will need high speed internet access if they are to provide a good user experience.

Existing MOOC models seem to be driven exclusively from the US, and are based on English language content. We should embrace this technology quickly, and move to leverage it rapidly in our higher education system. Let’s hope that technology visionaries like Mr Pitroda and Mr Nilekani, and our IT entrepreneurs can take the lead on this.


  1. System of education needs overhaul.Same holds true for higher education in India.Since India, I personally feel the year 1991 unfolded a new way & pattern of professional courses in India.Be it computer courses, vocational courses in India,undergraduate courses in India or any other course for that matter.Aspirations of great careers in India have dwelled upon the new hopes which gave India the champion identity it has now.

  2. Rishi, this is one subject that has been occupying my mind for a while. So, apart from innovation, would love to chat with you on this. Well, I guess MOOCs are an innovation. MOOCs don't *require* video -- although the Udacity and Coursera models have been using it. The idea of MOOCs predates the availability and use of video, so while broadband would be great to have, its use is not integral to the definition of MOOCs.