Learning to experiment

Virtual lectures by IIT faculty are a welcome initiative in a higher education system that lacks innovation.

From January, 100 engineering colleges around the country will be able to deliver a better educational experience to their students — as many as nine subjects, from mechanical engineering to mathematics, will be taught by IIT professors. In a variation of the much-discussed massive open online courses (MOOCs) made popular by the likes of Coursera and edX, lectures by senior IIT faculty will be combined with inputs from regular college staff to improve educational outcomes. E-tutorials and e-labs are also part of this first phase in the so-called Quality Enhancement in Engineering Education programme shepherded by the ministry of human resource development. The ministry reportedly hopes to extend this experiment to other disciplines, a recognition of the opportunity MOOCs offer to reconcile Indian education's most intractable paradox — the problem of simultaneously expanding access while ensuring high levels of quality, operating within the constraints of limited resources.

The Indian university system, with its hub and spoke model, is well suited to innovative approaches such as this one. MOOCs have the advantage of reaching a large number of students at low cost, and given that there is relatively little investment in course design in India, the structure of an online course can be adopted and adjusted to reflect local needs. Situating the MOOCs in a classroom environment can address some of the criticisms directed against it: that MOOCs cannot recreate the quality of face to face teaching and that the campus experience is integral to higher education. Indeed, research conducted by the US department of education shows that blending online courses with face to face contact is superior to either method on its own.

While India has previously experimented with online classes, their impact has been marginal, in part due to their lack of interactivity. More recently, some universities have embraced MOOCs as part of their strategy to improve learning outcomes, but this has been done on an ad hoc basis. MOOCs may not be a magic solution to all that ails Indian higher education. But when the teacher-student ratio in most classrooms is 1:40, there is a documented dearth of properly trained faculty, per-student spending is low, and higher education reform remains a non-starter in legislative terms, the availability of online content can, and should, usher in experimentation in the higher education model.

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