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A new initiative by IITs and IT organisations promises to widen the scope of India's knowledge economy

Seven IITs are joining hands with IT industry leaders and Nasscom to offer free courses online, in a move that promises to revolutionise access to technical education. This would widen the pool of talent from which the IT industry can draw, and provide an alternative to privately run courses that sometimes fall short of industry requirements. The principal beneficiaries would include working professionals who feel that they have unused capacities and want to branch out or switch careers, and people who have been unable to access formal education for reasons that have nothing to do with their intellectual ability. Many potential workers find themselves excluded by geography and conflicting responsibilities. Others are unable to access continuing education while they work, for purely logistical reasons. This move should unshackle those who have an interest in IT and produce a bigger, better-trained work force.

The initiative is clearly inspired by the massive open online courses (MOOCs) promoted by Western campuses. Perhaps the biggest was launched at Stanford University and spun off as Udacity.com. Other platforms backed by leading universities have developed since. This is the future of distance learning and it is wonderful that Indian stakeholders in IT education have chosen to be quick off the block. The New York Times had named 2012 the 'Year of the MOOC' and Time magazine welcomed services that are genuinely free and openly licensed as the `Ivy League of the masses'.

The weakness of Indian students for Western courses is legendary, and the idea of distance is meaningless on the internet. So, while it is nice to have an Indian flavour of online education on tap, the promoters will have to bear in mind that for the first time, they will be going head to head with top US campuses. Since cost of travel, the discomfort of relocation or cultural and communication barriers will no longer remain factors for prospective students, perhaps Indian courses will have to remain half a step ahead of overseas campuses to remain competitive. The initiative by the IITs and IT organisations is an important first step, and the free availability of expert teaching across disciplines will widen the scope of India's knowledge economy.

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