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BW Businessworld

Now In Session: The Digital Classroom

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In the US — the Mecca of business education — student applications to B-schools have been dropping steadily. On investigation, it was found that students are increasingly opting for MOOCs or massive open online courses. MOOCs have, in fact, caused great disruption in higher education since 2012. This has led some to predict that half the B-schools in the US will shut shop in the next few years.

The Online Assault
One would assume that since most management institutes in the country are still in their infancy, they are less susceptible to an online invasion. But, according to data from three of the biggest MOOCs aggregators — edX, Coursera and Udacity, India is currently the second largest market for online courses after the US. While edX has 26,000 students from India, Coursera has 6,18,654 Indians enrolled. A recent Technopak report on higher education says the enrolment from India in Coursera and edX is 10 per cent and 13 per cent, respectively, of their totals.

The figures suggest that B-schools in India clearly need their own MOOCs to stay in the game. As Jagdish Sheth, the Charles H. Kellstadt Chair of marketing at the Goizueta Business School, Emory University, Atlanta, says, “MOOCs were initially laughed at by top American universities. Now, they all offer these courses.”

A similar trend is seen in India. After the pioneering efforts in offering online programmes by the Indian Institutes of Technology (IIT), B-schools have begun to enter the digital education space. For instance, the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore, has joined the MOOCs bandwagon and will soon start operations.

Lately, B-school deans have been discussing the advantages of adopting digital learning techniques. Says H. Chaturvedi, director, Birla Institute of Management Technology (BIMTECH), Greater Noida, “B-schools in India have faced a serious shortage of good faculty for the past two decades. MOOCs can be the panacea to this challenge. Leading Indian B-schools can pool their faculty and other resources to produce high quality MOOCs.”

‘With increasing specificity around job requirements, we will see more consumption of free or affordable skills training’ Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX
Sheth says MOOCs are now an imperative and not an option for B-schools. “After all, you can expand your reach from 30 students to 10,000 in no time.” They are also a revenue stream for B-schools as they can earn more with less faculty.

Employers Wary
In terms of acceptability, MOOCs still have some way to go as recruiters in India are not yet ready to embrace them. “MOOCs have to first establish benchmarks that can earn people jobs,” says Himanshu Saxena, head, Strategy Alignment, Balanced Scorecard and Executive Coaching, Tata Consultancy Services.

The credibility of the courses is a concern. Nearly all the courses provide a virtual mode of delivery, with little academic supervision. This concept of certification without attending classes is not acceptable to most employers in India. Therefore, a student pursuing a degree from a tier-II or -III college is preferred over one with a digital degree from a top global university.

Says Aquil Busrai, CEO, Aquil Busrai Consulting, who was previously the executive director of human resources at IBM Corporation, “Certification without attending classes is a dilution of education that has happened through distance learning programmes.”

But this mindset could change with blended MOOCs — a refinement of the original model — where there is some face-to-face time added to virtual learning.

Blended MOOCs
The IITs are introducing blended MOOCs, in association with Infosys, TCS, Cognizant, Google and Nasscom, to provide open learning courses on skill development. The courses will have a higher degree of supervision by professors — who besides delivering lectures, will engage students in discussions and problem-solving.

Students will be certified by their respective universities, along with the institute offering the course. A certificate from IIT, Bombay, with the attending professor’s stamp will be awarded to students on completion of the programme. The respective universities can add the credits to students’ final marks.

At present, IIT, Bombay, is offering two courses — one on Thermodynamics, with 18,000 students, and the other on Introduction to Computer Programming, with 58,000 participants globally — through edX.  “We took the open edX platform to offer blended MOOCs, an idea aimed at helping regular students get access to quality lectures,” says Deepak Phatak, professor, Department of Computer Science and Engineering, IIT, Bombay.

In the current model, IIT, Bombay, hosts the main server, while the participating colleges have a local version of the same software running on their server.

The idea behind the blended MOOCs model is that the grades a student obtains are accepted by his/ her respective university. “IIT, Bombay, is willing to accept such grades. From January 2015 onwards, we will tie up with other universities,” says Phatak.

Currently, a draft proposal suggesting that up to 15 per cent of credits of a particular degree, be it BA, BSc or BCom, be obtained from MOOCs, is awaiting UGC approval. Once approved, IIT, Bombay, will open the application process for other universities to join it in offering MOOCs.
 
 
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Other engineering colleges too are experimenting with the concept. Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS), Pilani, has tied up with edX. It is planning to run two MOOCs courses as part of its ‘flip the classroom’ concept.  “We chose edX as it provides a bigger platform compared to online videos,” says Shan Balasubramaniam, dean, Academic Resource Planning , BITS, Pilani.

Stamp Of Approval
Even before MOOCs became popular, the IITs were offering open learning courses through the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a joint initiative of the seven IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Roorkee), Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and IT majors such as TCS and Cognizant, apart from Google and Nasscom. According to Rajan Anandan, managing director and vice-president, Google India, the number of views on NPTEL channels beat popular Bollywood channels on YouTube. “The only way to scale up education in India is to leverage technology,” he says. NPTEL, however, did not grant certifications, but that has changed now.

The objective for most students who register for any degree or certification course is to improve their prospects of landing a job. Every year, several organisations put out data on the number of unemployable graduates. Despite that, almost no effort has been made by industry and academia on establishing a mutually beneficial model.

 “There are skill gaps between what the institutions provide and what employers seek. MOOCs being an outcome of open source innovations can effectively bridge that gap. What they currently lack is branding and a robust governance mechanism,” says Saxena of TCS.

To overcome this hurdle, Chaturvedi of BIMTECH urges the Ministry of Human Resources Development (MHRD) to step in. “Let us not replicate the mistakes of IGNOU and NPTEL that led to production of monotonous video lectures. Production of MOOCs with high quality will require huge resources. And unless MHRD supports leading B-schools, India will not be able to match the level of MOOCs offered by Ivy League B-schools in North America,” he says.

Nasscom has taken a step in this direction by joining hands with the IITs to provide MOOCs. On a trial basis, they restructured all engineering programmes in three domain areas — programming, data structures and algorithms. The Google platform and Course Builder were made available for the design and delivery of the courses. Every weekend, professors and industry representatives were available for chats and discussions.

Another benefit of these courses is that students can appear for an assessment at the end of the programme. Once certified, the information is made available to Nasscom member companies. “It is an easy scenario where they (the companies) can pick up job-ready students,” says Sandhya Chintala, executive director, Sector Skills Council, Nasscom.

 To further help students find the right job, edX and Coursera have tied up with Aspiring Minds, an employability evaluation and certification company, to evaluate MOOCs students. On completion of a MOOC, interested candidates can sit for the AMCAT (a test designed by Aspiring Minds), which evaluates candidates not only on generic employability but specific skills too. Applicants also get a detailed feedback report and a certificate on the kind of jobs he can do. “Our job is to evaluate candidates and give them credentials for employment. We work with close to 800 employers who look for people with our certificates to hire,” says Himanshu Aggarwal, co-founder and CEO, Aspiring Minds.

Changing Perception
A tie-up between MOOCs providers and industry can help develop a dynamic curriculum, better pedagogy, improved project and assignment design (for application of learning). This could change the way the HR fraternity looks at MOOCs. “The HR fraternity needs to play a vital role in facilitating close industry- academia collaboration to offer industry and business-focused MOOCs to create a much larger job-ready pool of talent,” says Shyam Viswanathan, independent consultant, Education and Leadership Development.

Anant Agarwal, CEO, edX, says MOOCs are reshaping how employers evaluate candidates and how people prepare for employment. “With increasing specificity around job requirements, we will see more consumption of free or affordable skills training as people opt for unbundled educational credentials,” he adds.

All this has served to change the opinion of some sections of the HR community about candidates pursuing MOOCs. Divakar Kaza, president, Human Resources, Lupin Pharma, for instance, prefers such candidates. “I view candidates who are pursuing MOOCS in positive terms. The sheer fact that somebody is doing an online course reflects a motivation to learn.”

In sum, MOOCs certification seem to be good for working professionals and mid- to senior-level executives, but they are still few and far between; nowhere close to replacing brick-and-mortar institutions.  That said, MOOCs have the potential to change the game — not just for students, but for B-schools too.

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 01-12-2014)