Comments on MOOCs

Last month, Swaha Sahoo, a journalist based in London wrote to me asking for my opinion on MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). She had gotten to know that in CES, we had informally recommended students to take some online courses on Stats and Math to complement their coursework that we offer.

Here is the article titled “Students flock to MOOCs to complement their studies”. It quotes a number of people from India on the value of MOOCs. I think she has used my comments aptly in the article, and I really enjoyed reading it.

Here is the full text of what she asked and what I wrote (warning, its very long!):

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Swaha: I read in one of the blogs that the Department of Ecological Sciences at IISc was thinking of recommending certain MOOC to students. I was wondering if this has been taken forward.

My response: I was the one in my department (Centre for Ecological Sciences) who suggested that we could recommend certain MOOC to students. But let us understand the context. We get students with very good biology/ecology background, and are highly passionate about research in ecology. However, like any other biology student in India, they probably stopped taking any math courses since their high school. But quantitative skills like basic statistics, math and programming is now almost surely needed for any ecology researcher. Although we do teach quantitative skills in our department, I believe quality of the class and learning can go up substantially if students can revise their basic math skills and perhaps add a bit more to it.

For this, we do not have the bandwidth needed to offer more courses. So we plan to recommend students to take certain MOOCs. To make learning more effective, and to ensure students don’t drop the MOOC (note that MOOCs have high attrition rates), we are thinking is to have local mentors/TAs who can clarify questions of students. So interactions are essential while MOOC provide basic materials to get things going. We may try this approach in the coming year in our department.

Swaha: Secondly, it would be great to get your perspectives on the potential for MOOC in India. Some of the areas I want to discuss are1. What is the potential for MOOC in India and can we leverage this to the benefit of thousands of Indian students?

My response: I have absolutely no doubt that there is a massive potential for MOOC in India and it can benefit of millions of Indian students. But, there is a big IF; this potential can be realized ONLY IF we do it the right way.

Let me first remark about the potential for MOOCs in India. As is well known, the state of higher education in India, except for a few colleges, is abysmal. Indian students deserve higher quality education but that requires good, motivating and inspiring teachers. We can not manufacture teachers overnight, but what we can potentially do is to bring a few great teachers, which I am sure we do have, to students through MOOCs.

Of course, that is easier said than done. Lets recall that NPTEL, an Indian MOOC where courses are taught by excellent professors from IITs and IISc, was conceived and started several years before the now famous UDACITY or Coursera came into picture. How many students take courses offerred through NPTEL? How successful have they been in achieving their goals? I do not have data on these aspects but what I do know is that just recording videos and putting them online will hardly work. In particular, I do not think just recording courses the way it is taught in IITs or IISc will work, because students who really need online education come from very different backgrounds and preparations.

This is not meant to be a review of NPTEL, but we need to understand what to students really want. Apart from understanding students’ needs, videos need to be lot more interactive, and engaging.The main point I want to convey is yes, there is potential for MOOC but only if it is done in the right way. I do not know what exactly is that!  But we need to keep trying various methods, understand the audience, improve teaching methods, make it as interactive as possible within the limitations of MOOCs, and of course evolve the MOOC based on the feedback.

Swaha: 2. Will MOOC replace physical, face-to-face interaction or complement it? Do you see a scenario where MOOC is taken seriously by universities and students successfully completing courses are given credits?

My response: MOOC can never replace physical face-to-face teaching and interactions. If teaching were all about delivering a set of instructions, or providing a recipe, then yes, MOOCs can rule. But teaching is less about transferring information or providing instructions, but more about learning. There is more evidence from research than ever that a typical lecture delivering style of classroom, even with a teacher, is hardly an effective way of learning. What we need are interactive classrooms, where students discuss new concepts among both themselves and with the teacher and this can provide an atmosphere of discovery and learning. I dont see how MOOC can provide such an environment. Of course, I have not even started on courses needing experimental work – where MOOC have no place at all.

There are some areas where MOOCs can, in a limited way, reduce need for direct teaching. Some examples that come to my mind are if a working professional wants to learn elementary computer programming but has no time to attend a full time class.    As a scientist, if I want to basic introduction to a subject I am not familiar with – I would look for a good MOOC. As a student attending a university with not the best education or teacher, one may look for a MOOC to complement his/her course work.

Swaha: 3. What does it mean for a teacher?

My response: As explained in my previous answer, MOOC can never take away need for a teacher. Perhaps, if there are really high quality MOOCs on a subject that a teacher teaching, that teacher may need to put better effort to provide a good quality classroom environment ensure students come to the class! But my view is that even an average classroom face-to-face teaching can be better than high quality MOOC. Of course, in an Indian context, even an average teaching quality is absent in most colleges and Universities.

Swaha: 4. Will it democratise higher education in the country and be accepted by students as a valuable addition if not alternative to a formal degree?  

My response: I very much hope it will! Let me close by saying that we should try MOOC in India, in as many different ways as possible and by understanding needs of students. We need to continuously evaluate the success and the failure, and adapt accordingly.

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