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This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age
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Free Online Courses Bring "Magic" to Rwanda

An inside look at a daring global experiment: using freely available online courses to bring top-tier instruction to the neediest parts of the planet

This is true not just in a tiny country like Rwanda but also in a giant, emerging power like India. The very best Indian universities produce excellent graduates, but the quality drops off precipitously from there. Much has been made, for instance, of the huge number of engineering graduates India produces. But of the 600,000 to 800,000 engineers who graduate in any given year, only “about 10 percent are getting a quality education,” says Ashok Jhunjhunwala, a professor of electrical engineering who is regarded as one of the country's high-level academics.

Testing has helped reveal specific shortcomings. “Only about 7 percent of computer-engineering graduates meet the industry standard for basic coding,” says Varun Aggarwal, co-founder and chief operating officer of Aspiring Minds, a company that conducts independent assessments of graduates on behalf of industries. A standardized “employability test” of 55,000 Indian engineering graduates in 2011 found that an alarming 42 percent could not multiply and divide numbers with decimals. More than a quarter did not have enough English to understand an engineering school curriculum. “It's a bit sad, but that's how it is,” Aggarwal says. “We're graduating a huge quantity, but the quality doesn't meet the mark.”

Part of the problem is poor instructors. “They are not well paid, and it's not seen as a very fashionable career to be in,” Aggarwal says. “Engineers who cannot get a job in industry go on to become teachers.” Another issue is the preparation of the students before they begin their higher education: many do not have proper English skills when they enter college or university, where English is the language of instruction.

If nothing changes, the situation is likely to worsen. As it is, India has one of the largest higher-education systems on the planet, with more than 600 universities and more than 33,000 colleges providing instruction to more than 20 million students. Yet the percentage of college-age Indians who pursue studies after secondary school is low compared with that of other countries. India's gross enrollment ratio is 17.9 percent, in contrast to China's 26.8 percent and the U.S.'s 94.8 percent. “To meet 50 percent gross enrollment, more than 30 million or 40 million new students will have to come into the higher-education system,” says Anand Sudarshan, former CEO of Manipal Global Education, which runs six universities and more than 40 other educational institutions. “That's not going to happen the way things are now. Technology-driven education is absolutely the only way India can hope to responsibly catch up, both in quality and in quantity.”

A Godsend

So are MOOCs the answer, in India and elsewhere?

For a small minority of exceptional students, MOOCs are a godsend. “We have a lot of people taking our courses as individual learners, and we get a lot of e-mails and other communications saying that the experience is changing their lives,” says Coursera's Koller. “There are many people in the developing world who would not otherwise have access to a top education. That can't be dismissed.”

Consider the case of Amol Bhave, a 17-year-old from Jabalpur, India, who was only 16 when he took a MOOC from M.I.T. called Circuits and Electronics. Bhave had been nosing around his father's engineering books since he was a child and taught himself BASIC. He got a Microsoft Certification in programming when he was still in secondary school. As a hobby, he also enjoyed electronics. He successfully completed Circuits and Electronics as a high school senior, and when edX failed to offer the follow-up course, Signals and Systems, Bhave was crestfallen. So he teamed up with two other students he met in online forums to create his own MOOC version of the course—based on M.I.T.'s videotaped lectures and online quizzes, along with other interactive elements created by Bhave. “It was my own code and everything from scratch,” Bhave says. Roughly 1,100 students took part in the course. Bhave cited this effort when he applied to M.I.T. as a full-time student this year. “On March 14 the admissions decisions were out. And guess what? I got in!” Bhave says. “My family and I were so excited. This was the first time anyone from my city was going to M.I.T. for undergraduate studies.”

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