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This article is from the In-Depth Report Learning in the Digital Age
See Inside Scientific American Volume 309, Issue 2

How MOOCs Can Help India

Online courses may help alleviate faculty shortages and improve education



DAVID DESPAU

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Digital technologies have the potential to dramatically transform Indian higher education. A new model built around massive open online courses (MOOCs) that are developed locally and combined with those provided by top universities abroad could deliver higher education on a scale and at a quality not possible before.

University enrollment in India is huge and growing. It surpassed the U.S.'s enrollment in 2010 and became second only to China that year. Every day in India 5,000 students enroll at a university and 10 new institutions open their doors.

At more than 3 percent of the country's GDP, India's spending on higher education is one of the highest in the world. Yet per-student spending is among the lowest. While recent expansion has widened access to universities, it has further reduced per-student spending and aggravated already acute faculty shortages. As a result, quality has declined.

India must continue to expand access to higher education while preserving quality and reducing costs. This situation is not unique to India, but given its enormous size and unique position, India's challenges are formidable. Digital technologies, particularly the extensive use of MOOCs, could help.

India has experimented with online classes before, but their impact has been marginal. A decade ago the country began using the Internet to distribute video and Web-based courses under a government-funded program, the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning. Developers created more than 900 courses, focused mainly on science and engineering, with about 40 hours of instruction each. With limited interactivity and uneven quality, these courses failed to attract a large body of students.

MOOCs have given Indian academics a better sense of how a lecture could be restructured into short, self-contained segments with high interactivity to engage students more effectively. Plans are afoot for the Indian Institutes of Technology, widely considered to be among the world's top engineering schools, to offer three basic IT courses in data structure, programming and algorithms to hundreds of thousands of undergraduates through MOOCs. These courses would award credits and count toward degrees.

It helps that India is full of young people who possess a high comfort level with technology. Indians are among the most aggressive users of MOOCs. Of the 2.9 million registered users of Coursera in March, more than 250,000 were from India, second only to those from the U.S.

Yet we still need to find the right model to use MOOCs in an Indian context. With a decade of experience in this space and a vibrant technology ecosystem, India will most likely find its way soon.

This article was originally published with the title "An Opportunity for India."

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