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Free online courses: What's the catch?

July 30, 2014 13:10 IST

Free online courses: What's the catch?

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Ajit Balakrishnan

What is so enticing about these free online courses that is urging millions of students from across the world to sign up for it? And just how is the revolution affecting the education sector? Read on!

There is an air of excitement around today, as there was in 1995.

At that time it was the appearance of the first web browser and what it portended for the media industries that caused the excitement.

Some of us in the media industries could suddenly see the possibilities ahead: websites that would replace paper-based newspapers, magazines and, in the time to come, even movie theatres.

This time around, the excitement is around the educational industry, and the trigger for the excitement is the MOOC: an acronym for Massively Open Online Course.

Just as the web browser, from Netscape, came out of Silicon Valley, that hotbed of innovation fuelled by entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and academics in universities, so also has the first large-scale MOOC.

It is the handiwork of two Stanford University professors -- 37-year-old Andrew Ng and 45-year-old Daphne Koller.

Called Coursera, it started out in 2012, and now has courses in subjects including medicine, biology, the social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and the humanities.

It claims an enrolment of four million. Like a classic internet start-up, it offers its courses free, with a token payment if the students wish to have a certificate of completion.

Students can skip ahead if they feel the course is going too slow, or replay a video lecture if they want to dig deeper.

Hard on Coursera's heels is edX, a MOOC that is a joint venture between Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

It also boasts a wide array of courses and an enrolment of 2.5 million students.

Both Coursera and edX, in true internet start-up fashion, are in a land-grab phase now -- signing up famous universities throughout the world to join their respective platforms.

As of now, Coursera boasts of Princeton and the University of Michigan, among others, as partners; edX has Columbia and Cornell from the United States, Tsinghua University from China, and the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT)-Bombay, among others.

Partner institutions have to pay a one-time fee to join and hand over a share of revenue, as and when that happens.

Academics, even those from the United States, where they usually confidently embrace new technological ideas, are, at this moment, divided in their views about where the MOOCs will lead.

Some yawn and say they have seen such hysteria about using technology in education before and which in time has shown up to be just that, hysteria.

Others, feel a chill down their spine -- will the MOOCs and its free model wean away students who currently pay steep fees for a college education?

Will they destroy, or at least put price pressure on, their current business model?

The sceptics have a point.

After all, every media innovation in the past has been hailed as a source of a revolution in education.

As far back as the 19th century, with the advent of the postal system, entrepreneurs offered courses for shorthand and typewriting, two lucrative professions of that time, by post.

When radio appeared in the 1920s many universities in India and abroad enlisted it for education.

New York University went so far as investing in their own radio station.

When TV came on the scene, it, too, was enlisted in the education cause -- initially in the form of closed circuit TV, later as satellite broadcast.

India went so far as to launch a satellite and use it for the Satellite Instructional Television Experiment or SITE programme in the 1970s to spread good health and farm practices in rural India -- and also the EDUSAT in the 2000s.

Even as we speak, VSAT technology is being used by IIT-Bombay and Indian Institute of Management (IIM)-Calcutta, among others, to teach courses at long distance.

All these efforts have made useful contributions to the educational cause, but have not been the "revolution" that its proponents proclaimed. The age-old university system with its classroom lectures continue without missing their stride.

Why then are the MOOCs creating anxiety today?

"Free online courses might set a threshold price of 'zero' for college education and seriously undermine the economic models of private colleges and universities that rely on tuition," says Michael Cusumano of MIT, an expert on the information technology industries.

He fears that "what happened to other industries affected by platform dynamics and the Internet, such as newspapers, magazines, books, music, video, and software products" could happen to education as well.

What professor Cusumano is referring to here is the almost complete destruction of newspapers, magazines, printed books, and the music and video industries in countries where the internet has penetrated more than 25 per cent of the population.

With the advent of the MOOCs, could such a fate await proud Ivy League colleges in America and the great European universities?

With India's internet penetration at a mere 11 per cent of the population, it would appear that we have many years to go before these perturbations threaten our IIMs and IITs.

Except for one thing: internet-based industries tend to be winner-take-all.

If one organisation takes an early lead it tends to overwhelmingly attract users and revenues; later entrants have little chance of overtaking it.

As it stands, Coursera and edX, if left unchallenged for another year or two, would overwhelmingly dominate higher education worldwide, at least in the English-speaking countries.

Ajit Balakrishnan, the founder and CEO of Rediff.com, is the author of The Wave Rider: A Chronicle of the Information Age. He can be reached at ajitb@rediffmail.com.


Image: Is the online education revolution posing a threat to the conventional mode of teaching?
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

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