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Archive for the ‘MOOC’ Category

Today’s news article on the SWAYAM MOOCs and open-ness by Anil Sasi of the Indian Express raises some very important questions about the future of MOOCs in this country.

The facts of the matter are as follows. A proprietary rather than open source approach has been adopted because open source seems not be open after all. Choosing EdX, for example, they believe compromises intellectual property and requires a big fee to be paid to MIT (even after EdX, at the behest of IIT Mumbai and MHRD gave over the full source code and support to India in 2013 and assured that all IP will remain with India). Secondly, it seems they believe that open source systems do not have the depth of being able to handle enterprise grade learning environments. Third, this is the conclusion of expert committees of the government after in-depth deliberations, I assume, with a wide range of industry, technical and MOOC experts. Fourthly, the RFP itself built by PwC and the government, the basis of the INR 38 cr project award to Microsoft, is in itself plagiarized and deficient.

This defies logic. A really large part of the world runs on open source. The open source movement has shown that enterprise grade, mission critical applications can be made to work with community support. Total cost of development ownership is lower with use of open source. And open source, by definition, fosters collaboration and innovation.

At the risk of repetition, instead of manufacturing large systems, the government should invest in building API and making integration possible between systems. They should fund edTech startups to build MOOC based learning environments. They should enable an open architecture, not just in technological terms, but also in terms of an open architecture of participation.

How would that work?

On the technology front, let us assume we are API focused. Then we must openly build the following API sets (and more):

  1. User API – API that allows users of different types and institutions to be managed, for different stakeholders and their roles
  2. Identity API – that allows users to be uniquely and securely identified through the course of their life, with probable integrations with other systems like Aadhar
  3. Curriculum API – API that enables metadata and classification systems for content and pedagogy, that brings Corporate, VET, School and Higher education taxonomies together
  4. Assessment API – API that enables taking online assessments of different types, enables proctoring controls, provides secure test-taking and great analytics
  5. Certifications/Badging API – that allows certification/degree providers to create online badges and certificates that can be awarded; secure lifelong eportfolios and linked certificate depositories
  6. Authoring API – that allows quick and easy authoring, review and collaboration
  7. Content Delivery API – API that allows video streaming (live and VOD), CDN-grade access, shared folders and cloud distribution
  8. Network API – that enables social discovery, network and group formations, sharing and amplification and social profile aggregation; building both social and learning graphs
  9. Services API – that enables tutors to connect to students, mentors and coaches to their mentees, institutions to parents and so on, and provide services such as fee payments, digital and offline educational content, tutoring, adaptivity, virtual classrooms and so on.
  10. Andragogy/Heutagogy/Pedagogy API – that enables different techniques to teaching-learning to be used as desired by teachers and students, e.g. blended models or SPOCs.
  11. Learning Analytics API – that provides new ways of deciphering engagement, learning and interaction.
  12. Language API – that enables multi-lingual content and internationalization

(Remember that technology and all this talk about API is merely the greasing in the wheel. The real work is in exploring new paradigms of teaching and learning, especially online and blended. And this does not mean building online courses and calling them MOOCs.)

These API sets (and others I may have missed) would need to be supported by a strong developer program, funds allocated for several incubation initiatives with participation from private funds, R&D labs, education programs to build engineers and architects of future learning environments and many more. important aspects known to us from the experimentation & learning of the open community in discovering what works at scale.

Now imagine a time when these API are available (in fact a large number already are available in the open domain, they just need to be contextualized in some cases) for use by indigenous developers. They are not starting from scratch. They are not restricted by a monolithic RFP or scope. They are not constrained to be this one very large proprietary solution (although some may want to build such systems on top of the open stack, which is just fine). If things go well, a number of people will focus on developing alternative solutions to pieces of the puzzle, while others will integrate them into solutions that can be used in different contexts. No one size fits all.

This will give a boost to indigenous development, which at the current time is laboriously trying to build each component. It will bring about that strategic 10x inflection in edTech in India enabling thousands of providers, who are operating mostly in isolation, to get a framework around their efforts and build for scale. Strategic funding for R&D will help us achieve breakthrough innovations in teaching and learning at all scales. Private sector funding of edTech will find a purpose.

This is what the government should do. And only a government can achieve this at strategic scale, tying up all the piece of the supply and demand chains, particularly in a system so dominated by public education.

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It seems the SWAYAM RFP dated 21st November, 2015 is actually inspired from previous RFPs made for other contexts. You have to only compare the SWAYAM RFP with two earlier RFPs:

  1. National Career Services Portal RFP dated  13th August 2014
  2. A JNU RFP on eLearning Development dated 5th February 2015

 

To give a sense of the malaise, here are indicative architecture diagrams from the NCSP and SWAYAM RFPs. Try and spot the differences.

ncsp_architecture swayam_architecture

sllcs

sllcs-swayam

You don’t have to be an expert to recognize copy/paste. A simple Google search is enough to lay bare the blatant plagiarism. The consultants for this RFP in turn may have been inspired by others across ministries and their appointed consultants.

But there are deeper issues here.

Firstly, the very respected Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC) has been hired as the consultant to draft the RFP, select the vendor and monitor the implementation. It is possible they acted in similar capacities for one or more RFP consultations. To find PwC indulging in cheap copy and paste goes against the very reason they were selected.

Second. PWC is not doing this free of cost. The entire exercise is expected to cost MHRD about 30 lakhs with NICSI also getting a slice. With the efficiency that comes from copy and paste, one would think the effort would be far below proposed.

pab

Third. It may also be okay, to copy and paste certain generic specifications. But would you propose the same technical architecture for two very different contexts? Worse, would you ignore the advances in technology over the past two (or more) years and be content with copying older ideas?

Fourth. Even while doing a copy and paste job, would you at least take care not to repeat earlier mistakes made by the earlier authors. The mere act of a copy and paste indicates an intellectual vacuum. When done improperly, it indicates the complete absence of intellect and intention. Take for example the following diagram (look at the circled phrase). Laughably, see how Sentiment Analytics, the subject of much excitement in the recent past has now become Sentimental Analytics!

sentimental

Fifth. It is not very clear if PWC was the perpetrator of the earlier RFP or other similar ones in the past. And whether they were paid similar astronomical sums for their obvious consulting expertise to copy and paste.

Sixth. While the government can take a hands off position and blame PWC for these acts of omission, there is no way be not held accountable for their choice of consultant, for their inadequate review process and for other errors of their act of commission. The MHRD must explain how this travesty has occurred with full internal and vendor accountability. It is scary that we are going to invest so much public money and effort in an initiative which seems so flawed from the word go.

Seventh. I have not yet even talked about the actual content of the RFP itself. It is so obviously incompetent that I can only sigh with frustration at this phenomenal display of MOOC and technology expertise. And I am not talking about the Microservices vs. SoA kind of higher level technological debates either – just very simple things that I daresay most MOOC technology people would be happy to point out are missing, erroneous or irrelevant. It would be superb to place the panel of experts who edited or wrote the original version of the RFPs in a public debate, asking them to substantiate their proposals.

More galling than any other thing is the obviously brazen attitude that anything they do will pass public scrutiny. There is perhaps a babu-consultant-OEM racket in here which I hope someone takes the pain to uncover. Perhaps they genuinely believe we are idiots who will not really care.

I sure hope we are not.

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This past year has been very eventful. Here are some of my impressions of 2015.

xMOOCs have strengthened this year. The major players have received lots of new funding, added 1800 new courses, 100 new credentials, doubled enrollments to 35 mn students and co-opted many new partners from academia (over 550 universities in all) and industry.  Class-Central’s report talks about 5 emerging trends.

  • Rise of self-paced courses (20% of the course listings on Class-central are self-paced)
  • Death of the free certificate (average per course costs are USD 50+ for providers such as Coursera and edX)
  • MOOCs for High schoolers (to bridge the college readiness gap)
  • Sharper business model (with paid credentials) – also aligning to the for-credit model, which has the required scale if endorsed by university partners, althoughJust one specialization from Coursera makes 10x the revenue, in ten months, that the entire university of Harvard makes with 60+ courses. The numbers tell a clear story: students don’t care if the certificate is id-verified or not.“. There is also a revenue model in tying financial aid/loans for these courses.
  • Huge funding (nearly USD 200 mn between just Coursera, Udacity and FutureLearn)

All in all, xMOOCs have started looking rather like Lynda (which LinkedIn, very sensibly, acquired) and so many other online course providers who have established business models in traditional online learning. What is different is scale and hype, but the rest remains essentially the same. In fact, it is a well rehearsed strategy to grow the numbers using a free approach and segue into a paid marketplace, the runway being the patience and appetites of investors.

India, too, has joined the bandwagon. With early experiments by the IITs and other institutions, now the focus is on converting existing content into ‘MOOC-compliant’ (whatever that means) offerings from existing content and the building of an indigenous platform called SWAYAM. SWAYAM is supposed to be a “Single Window, centralized, integrated, multi-lingual, user-friendly platform enabling module based efficient learning” and will integrate central and state universities, training providers, educators, students, examination partners, internal platforms etc. and will feature Enterprise CMS, CRM, Analytics and eCommerce and other supporting modules; available in offline modes and on any device (Volume 2).

Meanwhile, policy changes are towards more open-ness in sharing resources and textbooks for free/paid online access. There are several new initiatives like ePathshala and eBasta (which I never really could get my arms around; in any case it has no more that about 6,500 downloads in the past 6 months) that aim to bring free and paid digital versions of textbooks and learning materials to the mobile devices in online and offline modes. Government continues to exercise muscle power in online learning, being the main funder and the largest scale provider, probably to the angst of private players. A realization also seems to be seeping in that offline versions are key (look at what Khan Academy Lite is trying to do) and so is multi-lingual content (Khan Academy Hindi). Be that as it may, these are moves that utilize technology for some kind of dissemination, hardly moves that are going to improve education. Elsewhere, government is also waking up to the fact that it needs to put information systems online, such as Saransh.

The unregulated Indian PreK12 market seems to be consolidating. Zee Learn and Treehouse have merged to create the largest player with over 2000 pre-schools, with Eurokids (884 centres) and Shemrock (425 centres) following behind.

EdTech funding this year has touched a new high. Over USD 3bn was invested worldwide with nearly half that in education finance companies Social Finance and Earnest.The rest mainly in online edTech providers, xMOOCs and tutoring. In India, edSurge reports, there were 27 deals valued at about USD 60 mn. Audrey Watters is doing a great job at putting some of this information together.Top areas of investor happiness? Test prep. Tutoring. Private student loans. Learning management systems. Online “skills training.”

More detailed figures on Indian edTech reveal a total investment of USD 66 mn in India. This is compared to USD 60 mn in just one of many edTech investment in China. Indian investment looks to follow a similar pattern – Test Prep. Online skills/training/curriculum. Tutoring. And this is less than 1% of total private investment deals in India in 2015.

I can’t recall, sadly, innovative ed-tech in 2015, perhaps apart from some work in adaptive learning by companies such as Knewton. Perhaps it is just that I have not kept up, but nothing stood out really.

Atleast I had fun being part of Dave Cormier’s Rhizo15. The great part of a cMOOC is that you get to meet some incredible people who expose you to some really mind-blowing thinking around learning and education. You learn to renew yourself through the experience of being connected with others and discussing new ideas. I hope that good sense will prevail in India and we will start experimenting with some of these models instead of aping the xMOOCs and building learning management systems.

And I cannot but mention the most impressive post of 2015 for me. Audrey Watters wrote The Invented History of ‘The Factory Model of Education’ and questioned popular rhetoric. Not merely is the analogy anachronistic, but it is also not very relevant. However, the big revelation to me this year, is that there is an organized system out there whose outcomes are not very educational after all! More on that later.

Inexorably though, in 2016, the online courses and tutoring juggernaut will keep progressing and the space is going to be of the more of the same variety. Hopefully India will see increased traction – it is just a matter of time.

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The Open Text-based Assessment or OTBA was also notified on May 31, 2013 by the Central Board of Secondary Education. Applicable to select subjects in Class IX and XI, this was made a mandatory component of the Summative exams at the end of the year. Experts hired by CBSE have now made essays/case studies etc. based around the key concepts covered through the second term in that subject and told teachers to hold group discussions, facilitate exploration and to engage students in “discussion, analysis, self-reflection and critical thinking”. They want to discourage “mugging” and encourage active learning. As the circular states:

The main objective of introducing this element is to provide opportunities to students to apply theoretical concepts to a real life scenario by encouraging active and group learning in the Class.

In a later circular, it is reiterated that:

the main objective of introducing OTBA is to relieve the students from the burden of mugging up of content and provide opportunities in effective use of memory and acquiring skills of information processing.

And the board has actually supplied the content for the OTBA complete with sample questions and assessment “rubrics” (which are nothing but itemized phrases or key points, that if they appear in the answer to the question, may be considered worthy of being awarded the right score). The teacher is expected then to create questions based on a revised Bloom’s taxonomy, assign a marking scheme and keep an “open mind” setting aside own biases while grading an answer.

While the concept is laudable – in fact, this is greatly desirable as a technique – the implementation is and will continue to be a great challenge. It assumes and implies several things.

It assumes that teachers will be able to execute if oriented and trained. While this is a good “upward” aspiration, it is unlikely to be true on a significant scale as pointed out by the NCFTE 2009 report itself. The report bemoans that:

Teacher education programmes provide little scope for student teachers to reflect on their experiences…There is no opportunity for teachers to examine their own biases and beliefs and reflect on their own experiences as part of classroom discourse and enquiry.

Teachers who have not experienced or practiced lateral and critical thinking themselves are not going to be able to do so basis an orientation program or workshop conducted by the CBSE per se. For them to be able to do this, they will need extensive on-going coaching and mentoring.

The other thing is the format itself. The beauty of an open assessment like this is that it needs time in the classroom and beyond it to appreciate the text and its interdisciplinary nature. But if the text itself becomes a chapter-like construct, because the same text that is given in advance becomes the one upon which assessment is conducted, it has already negated the technique. In the end, publishers are incentivized to come up with yet another textbook around the passages and the child ends up resorting to cramming it, defeating the very purpose of the assessment.

Not just that, there is no evidence gathering mechanism to demonstrate what the in-class and beyond-class exploration and thinking around the text has really resulted in. This means that teachers have no compulsion to treat this as any different from what they normally do. Even if they  were able and willing, they have little prior experience in negotiating loosely structured learning processes.

Then again, the beauty of any such technique lies in the open interpretation of the text in the context of all the learning that the child goes through. However text based assessments are divided subject wise, automatically constraining the extent of interpretation and analysis to the chapter of the subject being taught. So it is not even a true case based approach. If it were, it would place even a greater load on teachers who would be expected to have that holistic approach and knowledge.

The other important thing is the naming of the assessment itself. The use of “open” as a qualifier to “text based” is contradictory in terms because it restricts the learning context to the text itself (and some supplied references, many of which are dead-ends for discovery and exploration of the theme). The text could be one starting point, but not the only one. And it must be clear of political overtones (like the preoccupation with the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan).

In fact, if it was called open learning assessment, it would be much more appropriate. For these type of assessments, we cannot apply the same context as that for closed learning assessments. The concept is not new and even a cursory examination of the research on the web reveals practices, techniques and critical opinions (see also Can students also learn…) about open “authentic” assessments vs. traditional closed assessments. Of course, one cannot ignore other “get-around-it” methods such as plagiarization and cheating, which must be combated in these kind of assessments if they are truly open, but there are methods to handle these anomalies as well.

The question is how deeply are we thinking about these assessments and learning processes? Are we playing lip service or do we really think this can be a silver bullet? We need to think deeply about the ecosystem we want to foster for deep authentic learning – are our designs going to further learning or are they going to serve entrenched interests?

If we do really intend OTBA type assessments to result in something significant for our students and teachers, we need to address some deeper issues.

  1. How can we first engage our teachers (and teacher educators) in ways through which they truly begin to understand and appreciate “open-ness”? How do they start practicing open-ness? What practices and tools are they most comfortable with? How do we ensure that they are given a conducive environment to fill their own learning gaps?
  2. How can we start encouraging our students to learn new practices, especially the social and digital ones, to aid authentic learning?
  3. How can we plan this in a way that we have the ecosystem in place before we scale it to students and their parents? It is tiring to see students being guinea pigs of every new brainwave.
  4. What should the ecosystem contain? This should involve skills development in various areas (student, teacher, parent, school administration), community development for learning and practice, social online literacies, tools and platforms, audit and measurement leading to analytics and actionable insights, and other elements such as linkages with real-life scenarios, experts and data.
  5. Perhaps the greatest contribution in these can be made through cMOOCs, because they are truly fit for authentic learning. If platforms such as SWAYAM could be adapted to become the cornerstone of this approach, especially for technology enabled communities, this could really be the platform that would make this kind of learning and assessment possible. Why can’t every OTBA be a MOOC? For those who do not have access to technology or the Internet in a reliable fashion, what are the other ways of dissemination and collaboration (inter/intra-school debates, mock discussions, paper-writing and many other activities could be conducted)?

Is this plain lip service to open-ness and authentic learning? Or is it being thought of as this incredible silver bullet that at some point will transform Indian education. Either way, we need to think deeper urgently.

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Whither Indian MOOCs?

Today, India is at an important crossroad when it comes to MOOCs. Much has been written and spoken about the potential of MOOCs in this country. Unfortunately, most of the conversation has been around platforms. It has also centered around xMOOCs or XBTs as I term them, ignoring the rather rich discourse around the cMOOCs. And it has centered around who gets to own them (from a public resource perspective). This confusion has led to inevitable delays in the launch of a mainstream MOOCs implementation and accompanying policy. Is there a way out for us?

I think there probably is a way out. But first our educators and policy makers must fully understand core aspects of this revolutionary development in online learning and decide their strategy for the future.

The very first thing to note is that MOOCs are not (or should not be seen as) traditional eLearning. Online courses do not equate with MOOCs. The point of confusion is that bit about “online” and “courses” that confuses many people and leads them to conflate the two things. The distinction between what is meant by online and courses in MOOCs is really important to establish.

In MOOCs, “online” does not only just imply accessibility to digital resources using the technology behind the Internet and multimedia. Online implies the social, the neutral, the connected and the collaborative online practice of learning. Rather than focusing on the message, the focus is squarely on the medium. More than the content, the focus is on the connection and the “dance of conversation”.

Traditional eLearning was constructed within an older paradigm of the Internet that has completely revolutionized in the past few years. In that paradigm, putting WBTs (or web based training) on the web and then monitoring activity and scores with the occasional discussion forum, is the norm. Being predominantly an expedient, factory approach, we had to worry about packaging (SCORM/AICC), interoperability (LMS, Common Cartridge) and rich media (usually Flash/Flex) for interaction. Content factories had sprung up in countries like India to service the huge demand to create vanilla WBTs. These WBTs stereotyped learners, had self-contained learning (I don’t want to use the vitiated term “self-paced”) and were produced in low cost locations for budgetary reasons (cost cutting on face to face training and offshoring advantages). Content development is expensive and most organizations created page turners at scale. Few organizations spent large amounts on advanced eLearning development, such as for serious games and rich interactive WBTs. Return on investment in terms of learning was difficult to demonstrate, but the return on investment in terms of being able to “train” much larger populations at a fraction of the cost was demonstrable.

But the Internet changed. It became writable, connected, social, open and interoperable. However eLearning remained woefully the same, rooted in the old Internet. And when cMOOCs came along, powered by the new Internet, eLearning folks had no tools in their armory to adapt to them. So they ended up interpreting MOOCs as just very large eLearning courses. In fact, if you were to compare a xMOOC to an eLearning course, many people would not be able to tell the significant difference in approach.

With cMOOCs, however, George Siemens (who brought in the theory of Connectivism) had quickly realized that the Internet had changed, and eLearning needed a new approach (often called eLearning 2.0) in the face of supra-abundant information and connectedness. With Connectivism, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is really a network (Stephen Downes). This meant that the role of the teacher (or instructional designer) had to change to someone who could “model and demonstrate” paths to learning and the role of the student had to be to “practice and reflect” through a greater connectedness. In that sense, learners had to become more heutagogical in nature with a deeper sense of and skill for learning.

The second difference is in the term “course”. The “course” in cMOOCs was a journey of way-finding and sense-making, with minimal facilitation. It is a bit of a stretch to use normal definitions of what a course is, in the cMOOC context. To take an extreme viewpoint, cMOOCs are a bit like learning on the tap, like learning to be, episodes in a continuous stream of learning that you can access by connecting to others. In cMOOCs, both structure and content are loosely defined, with the community determining the nature and the contours of learning (community as curriculum). This “un-course” definition flys in the face of standard understanding of the term “course” which has rigid membership, duration, curriculum and outcomes.

To take an example, in a “course” , the teacher would draft a course outline, supply readings and references, provide a tightly designed progression for learners (read this first, take a test, move to the next topic) and so on. Students are particularly dependent upon the teacher and work in a closed group. In a cMOOC, people form a loose network (open, no membership bar) based on interest, the community members decide to engage on a theme/topic, they supply (as it goes along) the resources that interest them and those they think will interest others, engage freely on certain ideas, contribute to and document/reflect upon their learning and use a plethora of tools they are comfortable with.

The cMOOC platform enables the conversation by aggregating the member contributions, making them accessible, remixing and repurposing them in forms that are useful to search/consume and feeding them forward to members and into newer directions not anticipated when the cMOOC was conceptualized. In this sense, learning becomes an emergent phenomenon with ever changing contours. And learners learn to adapt to these chaotic conditions and to self-organize in ways that are meaningful to them. This is what happens in real life as we learn and evolve. As Stephen Downes remarks:

“What happens,” I asked,”when online learning ceases to be like a medium, and becomes more like a platform? What happens when online learning software ceases to be a type of content-consumption tool, where learning is “delivered,” and becomes more like a content-authoring tool, where learning is created?”

Most people would say that the “course” has value in its traditional format. I do not dispute that. Instead what I am saying is that cMOOCs provide a real alternative to learning in that manner and so instead of ignoring that value, we should embrace this plurality.

The other part of the term talks about another two misrepresented terms – “massive” and “open”.

In popular terms, xMOOCs are known to be massive in terms of the number of students attending one course. However, this is only a conventionally acceptable meaning of massive. What massive also really means in the cMOOC context is to do with how connected the members of the network are (density), how quickly messages reach the members (speed), what is the consumption (flow) of messages in the network and how easily are connections formed and abandoned (plasticity).

To take an example, whenever new information or opinion reaches a node in that network (a member), if that node is disconnected or loosely connected to the rest of the network, the speed of the new information in reaching other nodes will be low, and the information may die before it reaches the rest of the network. In a world where our skill is dependent upon gaining  knowledge of things as they happen, this could be disastrous. Being disconnected or loosely connected with networks that bring us new learning and knowledge will only impair our education.

This is a sharp deviation from traditional eLearning, where these questions are not asked, because the network is the new Internet and eLearning still is stuck in the old Internet age. This implies that we will see the long tail in xMOOCs (where a large number of learners stay disengaged or minimally engaged with their learning, while a few exhibit intense activity) just as we did in traditional eLearning. And this is being evidenced by its high dropout rates.

The last term is “open”. Open-ness is interpreted in different ways in cMOOCs – free or fee, groups vs. networks (closed vs. open), no restrictions on membership, copyleft, diversity, unrestricted sharing, degree of engagement (yes, legitimate peripheral participation is also in evidence), risking public performance of learning (however incomplete), altruism, capacity to change, and ability to take criticism (or barriers to public display of learning). However, the major discourse around xMOOCs has been limited to just one or two of the dimensions listed above.

Hopefully, this understanding of the MOOC phenomenon is the first step that we in India can take while building a long term strategy. It’s important for us to appreciate the differences between traditional eLearning/xMOOCs/XBTs and step away to carve our own interpretations for our needs. If we are able to negotiate the transition successfully, an entire generation of learners will benefit. India has scale and that affords great opportunities for architecting powerful learning systems and for engendering better learners. Let us hope that this happens, rather than us aping the xMOOCs.

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First published in The Souvenir, FICCI Higher Education Summit 2014

Viplav Baxi makes the case that MOOCs have arrived in India. Now is the time to reflect on what pitfalls we should avoid and how we can fully leverage them in the Indian context.

The past few years have seen the rapid growth of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). This emergence has been particularly interesting to follow in India, where we seem to have discovered online learning on a massive scale. Indians account for about 10% of the registrations in MOOCs from the top MOOC providers.

MOOCs actually originated out of a new theory of learning called Connectivism proposed by George Siemens in 2005. The first MOOC (the term itself was coined by Dave Cormier) was organized in 2008 by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Hailed as a disruptive model of education, the earliest MOOCs (also called cMOOCs or Connectivist MOOCs) offered a whole new way of teaching and learning.

Much later, in 2011-12, top universities in the USA jumped on to the MOOC bandwagon, lending it worldwide credibility and fame. The reasons behind the quick adoption of these MOOCs was the fact that anyone could learn (or get certified), for free or a small fee, from some of the top universities and top professors in the world. Large investments by private capital and university foundations shaped popular perception about the revolutionary potential of these MOOCs. Also universities viewed them as extending the reach and brand of the University. Open Courseware had existed for a very long time, but the shape and form of these MOOCs was far more accessible and exciting.

MOOCs have now progressed from being higher education-only to school, teacher and vocational education. The top 3 MOOC providers now service about 20 million students worldwide, about 5 times the open and distance learning enrolments in India. MOOCs have also taken over imagination at policy levels, with the Indian Government proposing SWAYAM as the open MOOC platform for India.

However, there remain significant challenges with the MOOC model.

Firstly, the pedagogy behind these MOOCs needs a rethink. The type of MOOCs that have gained worldwide popularity since 2011, adopted the title “MOOC” but ignored the rich underlying Connectivist origins. They merely extended traditional online, instructivist Web Based Training (WBT) and Instructor Led Training (ILT) methods to a massive audience, earning them the term xMOOCs, the “x” standing for “eXtension”.

WBTs and ILTs were designed as eLearning equivalents to reduce training delivery costs and standardize instruction for large scale corporate training. But nearly everyone realizes that this type of eLearning is not scalable because it is designed for learner stereotypes, does not account for real world diversity and in general, predates and ignores the entire social learning revolution.

Both for WBTs/ILTs and xMOOCs, the model is largely teacher (and/or instructional designer) led and content-driven. It not based upon socially negotiated & distributed learning, the hallmark of the Connectivist MOOCs. This is why it is perhaps more appropriate to call them XBTs (or “massive” extensions of WBTs and ILTs) rather than think of them as a variant of the original MOOC approach.

The XBTs augment the traditional systems, giving importance to institutional pedigree, clearly defined institutional structures & processes (such as courses, terms and exams) and certification mechanisms.

The Connectivist MOOCs are very open, emphasize sense-making, operate in a distributed fashion, legitimize learners at the periphery (legitimate peripheral participation or “lurking”) and do not impose the strict conformance to traditional notions of course, exam and certification. For them, learning is the process of making connections and knowledge is the network, which means that the competency and capability to learn critically determines the learning itself. This is the central theme behind heutagogy – the study of self-determined learning – that, unlike pedagogy and andragogy, marks a significant move away from traditional teacher-centred learning.

It will be critical for MOOC providers to evaluate the Connectivist approach as we move ahead, if we are to build meaningful massive open online learning courses and platforms.

Secondly, engagement and retention are key aspects of the learning experience that the MOOCs, in general, have not been able to address effectively. The long tail of learning, which is that a really large number of learners end up not completing the MOOC or remain at low levels of engagement, is nothing new. It is just that the massive nature of MOOCs amplifies some of these known issues.

It is here that the MOOC providers need to spend a lot of time experimenting with techniques such as gamification, badges, adaptive learning and learning analytics. The Connectivist model relies on learners to build capability for their own learning, something that is the desired endgame for any educational system. By increasing learner capability to learn in the digital medium, cMOOCs can potentially flatten the long tail. The traditional XBT model can only reinforce and amplify it.

The third challenge is in establishing sustenance & growth models, whether MOOC providers are for-profit or not for-profit. So far, providers have looked at monetization/cost recovery through various methods such as charging institutions or teachers for MOOC development; charging potential employers; platform provision; training & support; charging students for blended (online plus offline) learning, mentoring/coaching, special finishing school programs and certification.

For example, Coursera now has about 10 mn students and is supposedly making USD 1 mn a month from its verified certificate courses that cost between USD 30 and USD 100. However, even though these models do not appear to have garnered explosive acceptance from a retail student perspective since they are not really integrated into formally recognized certifications, the hope seems to be to acquire large enough numbers to translate into sustainable and/or profitable ventures.

An interesting comparison for XBT providers are the formal open and distance learning systems, where regulated degrees & certificate programs drive enrolments and fees & endowments drive the income. The UK Open University in 2012-13, earned more than GBP 200 mn as fee income (about 60% of which were supported by student tuition loans) from over 200,000 students. The Indira Gandhi National Open University in India, has an annual enrolment of about 500,000 students (in 2012 annual enrolment was 465,000 students), but the fee per course would be a fraction of the fee charged by the UKOU. Of course, the XBT providers are looking at multiples of these figures as they go about targeting a global audience.

The fourth challenge lies with a weak private/non-profit investment climate for MOOCs in India. Significant public effort and money has and is being spent across various pioneering Government initiatives to build open education resources (OERs), MOOCs and MOOC platforms. These can be leveraged by anyone under a very permissive OER policy, which even allows commercial use. However, barely any private investment is flowing into leveraging these resources.

Innovations and investments are required in multiple areas such as awareness generation, access to technology and communications, capability development, content development (including multilingual), pedagogy, development/enhancement of MOOC platforms, collecting and managing learner progress and performance data to improve the learning experience, as well as areas like gamification, Virtual LABs and other forms of technology augmented learning. These innovations and investments should directly impact our education system in terms of improved access, improved learning outcomes and higher employability.

To summarize, MOOCs have arrived, but if we do not deal with these core challenges of MOOCs, we will end up having a dysfunctional system. To avoid later disappointment, stakeholders must reorganize and focus on how to avoid the pitfalls of the current wave of MOOCs.

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I think we are at an inflection point in online education in India the way Andy Grove from Intel had nicely framed in his book, Only the Paranoid Survive.

Andrew writes of how a 10X change in any one force, namely:

  • Power, vigor and competence of existing competitors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing complementors
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing customers
  • Power, vigor and competence of existing suppliers
  • Power, vigor and competence of potential competitors
  • Possibility that what your business is doing can be done in a different way

can result in profound changes to our business.

Why do I say this? In the past 2-3 years, there have been several interesting things that have emerged.

MOOCs have arrived on the Indian education scene in an informal way gathering unprecedented response from our students. We have the second largest country presence in MOOCs globally with over 2+ mn registrations. This is important to note in the context of total enrolment in open and distance learning in the country which stands at around 4.5 mn. Although the two are different models solving different needs (at this point), it is a far cry from year 2002 when at egurucool.com we were happy having 20,000 subscribers to our online K12 products. This amazing student response to MOOCs has been fueled by social media and networks. Although we have yet to see business models emerge, but they will. And surely this marks a 10X change in the power, vigor and competence of existing customers.

The Government has invested (and is investing) heavily in the creation of open education resources, software and technologies for eLearning for a while now under the NMEICT. For many streams of education such as Engineering (NPTEL) and humanities, arts and social sciences (CEC), a large corpus of open resources have already become available at the under-graduate level (post graduate level work has also been initiated). The NPTEL Youtube channel has now accumulated over a 100 mn hits and over 290,000 subscriptions. Similar efforts by the NROER team are going to make huge amounts of content available for school educators. High quality content becoming available for adaptation and delivery (under the CC-by-SA license), open software for live classrooms and learning management, research in haptics and many other such developments are definitely set to increase the power, vigor and competence of existing suppliers and potential competitors. Early movers such as MyOpenCourses & ClassLE and many traditional players (such as the publishers) are now starting to leverage these resources. The Government too is investing in building up new platforms and content for MOOCs.

In parallel, complementing technologies such as those for gamification, big data analytics, mobile apps, 3D printing and others are finding their way into the Indian expertise lexicon. We can already witness, for example, the power of data analytics used by school performance evaluation tools.

In what may constitute a tipping point, among other possibilities, if the government legitimizes MOOCs by offer credit transfer, recognition and other measures reserved for the traditional degree and diploma courses (and for vocational education), or if the body corporate or professional associations decide to put their stamp on nanodegree like non-formal learning and employment pathways or if universities (including distance education) adopt MOOCs as part of their curriculum, it will catalyze and harmonize these 10X changes. Business models will emerge, quality and scale challenges will be mitigated, and problems of faculty skill & shortage will be ameliorated.

I believe the inflection point, if we are not there already, will be reached fairly soon, catalyzed by some of these possibilities. What do you think?

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