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Online learning can keep Indians afloat but can’t rescue India’s education system

University of Michigan students walk on campus in Ann Arbor
Reuters/Rebecca Cook
Mich-ing it up.
Ananya Bhattacharya
By Ananya Bhattacharya

Tech reporter

The University of Michigan began creating online learning content over a decade ago. Since then, over six million students have enrolled for these courses, a tenth from India.

Coursera, the US-based edtech platform that Michigan University partners with, has 4.8 million users in India. The university’s “Programming for everyone” is the most popular course in the country after Stanford’s Machine Learning module.

Hundreds of Michigan’s 3,000-plus professors have taught, or are teaching, online courses. “The top professors in this area have a million students that have taken their classes. They can reach out to more people in a single online course than in their 30-year career of teaching at a university,” said University of Michigan president Mark Schlissel.

Meanwhile, India’s colleges and universities are plagued by a plethora of problems: a lack of educators, teacher absenteeism, poor faculty-student ratio, and low-quality research. More and more people are, therefore, logging in online.

As internet penetration goes up, learning is bound to become more democratised, Schlissel believes. Below are the edited excerpts from a conversation with him about online education in India:

Why is online learning gaining traction?

Earlier, you’d judge a university by how many books it had in the library, but now you own a library with 10 million books, which you’re carrying around in your pocket. These devices give you access to information from all over the world. You just need to know how to find information online and how to judge the quality of information you’re receiving from peer-reviewed journal articles, blog posts, or tweets.

How did universities like Michigan get into e-learning?

MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) was very early to put the content of classes online but what they did was just lecture capture. We’ve (University of Michigan) gotten way better at turning content into engaging videos. We’ve invested in production studios and the technology to put together videos. We’ve created a new profession (at our university) called instructional designers. They work with professors to convert it (lectures) into 12-minute blocks with mixed media to keep people engaged.

“Since we’re producing content anyway, packing it up and giving it out for free does social good”

The online content that we generate has many purposes. One is to make courses better at Michigan. And since we’re producing content anyway, packing it up and giving it out for free does social good.

How have you allocated resources for online teaching? 

We’re investing about $50 million in this (online learning) over the next five years. We have to figure out how to teach in an age where information is no longer limited or proprietary. We’re trying to take into account new technologies that can enhance teaching. For example, we’re exploring how to use augmented and virtual reality. We’re considering the ease of real-time online communication to enrich learning.

How has the reception in India been? What are people studying?

The top things Indians are studying are computer programming languages, data science, and business science. Maybe because they can be taught through online modules without much in-person discussion.

The top things Indians are studying are computer programming languages, data science, and business science.

What we do a lot in India is executive education, where working people with degrees need to get their skills refreshed. Either a Michigan professor comes here or, more often, employees from big companies come to our campus in Ann Arbor and study for two weeks.

What we’re starting to do now is mixing in-person and online learning. It’s called blended learning. A lot of content can be learnt any time, any place, and then you get together for a week or two and do things you can do better in-person.

Ed-tech is still a nascent concept in India. How can people choose the right courses?

Initially, Coursera was highly selective about universities they would partner with. As they’ve become a company that’s trying to make money, they’ve become a little less selective. They want to put as much content out there as possible to monetise their investments.

I don’t have a sense of how a student in India, who may have never heard of these universities, can know if there is quality in the courses. There is so much information on the internet, without much editorialising of what’s most valuable and correct. That’s a problem we’re yet to confront.

How do you make sure learners are authentic and they aren’t cheating?

Most of the people taking online courses are taking it for fun and are not getting graded or assessed. Or if they are, it’s for their own use. When we give credit for a course that can lead to a certificate, or a degree, then we’ve started to take advantage of testing centres. Testers have to provide the same documents I have to provide, say, when I fly in an airplane, to make sure I am who I say I am. In the current era, if you want to cheat badly enough, you can find a way to do it but we try to make the integrity as high as we can.

Can online education replace physical institutions?

When online education started becoming popular, people said: “Aha! This is the disruptive technology that will put schools like Michigan out of business.” I don’t think it will, because there are aspects of education that can’t easily be replaced. The obvious one is sitting around a table with other smart people and having a conversation. The human interaction and the things we learn from each other in a classroom is difficult to replicate at scale, in the online space. There’s no way a professor can individually engage with 60,000 people. They have to use some mode of AI (artificial intelligence), or something, to answer questions online and then you lose the human engagement piece. If you’re studying literature and you’re trying to discuss a complex novel, trying to do it two sentences at a time in a chat is hard. In-person education has yet to be disrupted.

“A lot of the learning that happens is outside of the classroom”

The other reason is that many universities in the US, including Michigan, are residential. A lot of the learning that happens is outside of the classroom—students form organisations, get together to volunteer, go to special talks that are not part of the curriculum, listen to concerts, and see performances. Learning from people who are completely different from you helps you understand the world, and yourself, better.

Do you think online education can grow India’s small college-going population and introduce more skilled labour?

For a country this size, only to have a couple of million college students is way too small. The government officials I’ve met tell me they have a goal of getting up to 10 million people in school and even that in a country of 1.3 billion is small, but there’s a commitment. The strategic thinking of different categories of universities is good. Not every institute needs to be research-oriented. And they’re being spread geographically so more people can access education.

However, while I think online education can provide individual skills, there’s more to an education than a set of skills. The problem with skills in the modern era is they go stale quickly. Having a foundation of learning how to learn is the best prep a student can have for the future.

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