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MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) are available to anyone with a mobile phone or computer and Internet connection. They offer a way to learn in a virtual classroom, with loosely structured courses, mostly free of charge and without the rigidity of a normal academic program. MOOCs are perfect for those who want to learn for fun or showcase some certificates at a small fee. In a recent movie, the protagonist was shown displaying certificates on a wide variety of courses ranging from AI and data science to yoga and palm reading!
Only about two percent of the millions who enroll in a MOOC complete a course. India is no better. SWAYAM, launched with fanfare, has impressive numbers but the completion issue and impact thereof are debatable. So is it worth spending taxpayer money on building MOOCs in the same form?
As of early 2021, there are about 4.7 billion Internet users globally (surprisingly not grown much from 2019 despite the pandemic), of which only 690 million are Indians. On a population coverage ratio, India is way below the global coverage with a ranking below 120. Even in the developed nations, the digital divide is stark, and there is a wider divide in India despite claims of mobile proliferation. Compound that with our other drawbacks such as bureaucratic regulations, corruption, network quality, tech infrastructure, and affordability, to see a bigger problem.
The digital divide in education has three different dimensions. The first dimension, the Accessibility Divide, is the gap between those who have access to hardware, network, software, authentic information, etc, and those who don’t. This is not necessarily a rich/poor divide. Students in remote rural areas and urban peripheries where connectivity is either too slow or intermittent are not necessarily poor. There may not be enough expertise in getting the right sources too.
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The second dimension, the Generational Divide, is the gap between generations – teachers and parents vs. students. Parents are wary of giving devices to kids because of misuse and don’t know how-to guide in effective use of digital media. Teachers are hesitant to change the pedagogy for fear of losing relevance and control. Even if they desire to become a coach in shaping the young minds, it is not easy with pressures on syllabus requirements, the obsession with marks, and other commitments.
The third dimension, the Behavioural Divide, is the gap between those who can learn on their own vs. those who can’t. Many women, girls, minorities, and migrants shun digital access for learning because they are unable to learn alone without others. Academic aspirations and self-directed learning need handholding. This is akin to the Techno-Readiness segmentation that points to no correlation between education, income, or social status to technology adaption. The Indian government could have used this model for the efficient rollout of the digital drive.
MOOCs had caused quite the stir when first launched. Supporters like Thomas Friedman proclaimed that they would usher in an era of unprecedented opportunity for those currently locked out of existing educational options, thus democratizing knowledge. MOOCs, according to others, could end the universities’ monopoly on knowledge dissemination, forever changing the nature of brick and mortar institutions. Still others claimed that MOOC-like courses would favor a few well-known educators and lock others out of the system entirely. None of these views seemed to reflect what was actually going on with MOOCs as they were rolled out. Enrollments and completion levels have not met expectations and even courses rolled out with enormous fanfare, such as the partnership between San Jose State and Udacity have been declared to be failures relative to their expectations. In India, expectations are never captured at launch so failures never happen.
None of this should come as much of a surprise to those of us working in the arenas of entrepreneurship and innovation. Brand-new categories are launched with many untested assumptions and it is only through the painful process of experimentation and learning that these assumptions get converted into knowledge. Indeed, successful entrepreneurs, such as Steve Blank, the father of the “lean” startup movement, are huge advocates of keeping investment contained, moving forward with a minimum viable product, and using prototypes to get insights. Unfortunately, most new categories are accompanied by incredible hype; leading investors to sink tonnes of resources into more ventures than will succeed in the hope of becoming Unicorns.
Research in new market entry by entrepreneurs often finds a common pattern to what is playing out in the world of online education – massive amounts of new entry by firms seeking to establish the first toehold in the market. Count the number of new ventures in India induced by the pandemic – UpGrad, Byjus, and the like. Capital Market Myopia? Indeed, it’s an individuals’ inability to judge the collective consequences of individual decisions, in this case, massive investment in new categories. If many more firms enter the same arena with business plans to capture at least 5% share, it is not going to end well.
So what are we to make of MOOCs? Firstly, they suffer from a problem that many cool technologies face when they are first introduced – the lack of a complete business model, coupled with major assumptions about demand. No one, even those who founded the major MOOCs, quite knows yet how they are going to make money. Giving away your core product and hoping to make up the difference using other revenue streams is rather risky – just ask the newspaper business. Further, the exact problem that MOOCs are designed to address is also unclear. They are a bit like the early days of the movies. Back in those days, nobody knew what movies could become, so what did they do? They filmed theatrical productions! Only once experience was gained with what ‘moving pictures’ could do that could never be matched by a stage production did the medium come into its own. MOOCs are the same – filming a professor talking in a classroom using a teaching technology that stems back to the age of Socrates!
So it’s interesting to see how some entrepreneurs are using online and digital media to take advantage of what they can do differently than might take place in a conventional classroom. Salman Khan’s Khan Academy is one bright light – short illustrated lectures that in some cases result in ‘flipped’ classrooms where the students learn the content on their own and teachers help in the application. The Khan Academy, however, is a not-for-profit, supported by (among others) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Will MOOCs evolve into something like Netflix in terms of proliferation? With new technologies meeting the experiential learning of those disadvantaged by the digital divide, infra push, cheaper data, wider community access, and major innovations, MOOCs could still take off.