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Monday, July 30, 2012

MOOC: Massively Open Online Courses

Lately, a colleague of mine, Prof. T V Prabhakar, has been educating me about MOOCs. He has been forwarding various links on this, including the recent ACM article. Of course, I was aware of the AI course offered in the MOOC format by two Stanford faculty members, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig, in which more than a lakh students registered.

The ACM article is by a professor of University of Massachusetts (Fred Martin) who offered the AI course last fall, using the Stanford AI course as the lecture material. The experience of the course taught by Fred is very interesting, and points to the pedagogical changes that we may be seeing in future. The lecture material will be available on the net, and the class will be essentially a face-to-face discussion session and for any incremental learning. Of course MOOCs also have their own online forums, questions and answers, links to additional information, and so on.

What will be impact of MOOCs on education in India. Very difficult to guess. But let us make some guesses.

A course by an excellent professor in a good university in some part of the world even in an online mode is likely better than the corresponding course offered in an average engineering college in the country, even though latter is a face-to-face communication. Considering this, a college in India may just ask its students to register for the MOOC, and ask students only to give the exams of the university. However, this option does not appear feasible. The language of foreign professors may not be very easily understood by our students because of differences in the accent and pronunciation. A typical student may not have sufficient writing skills to ask questions on the online forums. But, most importantly, there will be differences in a course offered in another university and the syllabus of the local college. And considering that we mostly operate in the archaic affiliation model in India, allowing any variation in syllabus is simply out of question.  Because of this, MOOCs will be used just like the courses on NPTEL. Students will just watch lectures on specific topics from the archives, and institutions will not replace their courses with MOOCs.

Of course, an institution may take care of the exam part by suggesting to the students that parts which are not covered by the MOOC will be taught separately and only that part will be taught. But the language difficulties on one hand and strict university regulations on the other will ensure that this does not happen.

I believe that language difficulties will go away soon. Many courses do have subtitles. Once you have subtitles in a course, to allow a text-to-speech software with a different accent should not be a problem.

Can a MOOC be used in the same format as by Prof. Fred Martin in the ACM article. That is, asking students to go through the lectures, but having an interactive session with them, what is known as the "flipped classroom" model. This also looks unlikely because to conduct an interactive session based on lectures by someone else is not an easy task. It is not like conducting a tutorial where the instructor has provided detailed material to be specifically discussed in that tutorial session. This interactive session invites questions and discussions on almost anything discussed by the lectures on MOOC and beyond. Again, such expertise is not available amongst the faculty of majority of the engineering colleges of the country.

I foresee that in the next 4-5 years, MOOCs will be used primarily by people outside the strict curriculum boundaries. These may be working professionals or even students who are interested in a particular subject and just want to learn it without necessarily this counting towards any degree.

Within the educational institutions, there may be some (like IIIT Delhi has done), who may allow students to go through a MOOC, and have an internal mechanism to test whether the student has indeed learned the material and give him/her credit. This way, they can expand the range of electives that their students can take.
Of course, only universities which are nimble and can approve any new course quickly, can take advantage of MOOC in this way.

My guess is that the scenario will change as and when professors in Indian institutions start offering MOOCs.

Here are some websites for looking for these courses:

Another link from CACM: The Coming Tsunami in Educational Technology by John L Hennessy.


vishu said...

@Dheeraj, Interesting perspective on MOOCs! I can tell what some of us in our department (a biology department that uses significant amount of math and statistics for research work) are thinking. Note that many students who come to our department have stopped math after their 10th, and in some cases after 12th. We have two courses on quantitative methods, but we have to pretty much start from real basics which means we can't make much progress in our courses. On the other hand, we dont have the bandwidth to add one more course on basic math.

So we are thinking of suggesting students to take Intro to Stat by Sebastian Thrun on so that they are better prepared for our course next semester. Sebastian's course is highly interactive, and we can check how much they have actually gone through the course work. Accent could be a problem but I guess not as much. If this idea works and students actually benefit from such an online course, we can sort of make this level of math a prerequisite for taking our course. I am keen to see how this works!

Prashant said...

What will be impact of MOOCs on education in India. Very difficult to guess. But let us make some guesses.

I've completed around six of these MOOC Classes. A very large group of students from India - in the Math/CS courses - are current/recent IIT graduates who were interested in CS (but were probably stuck in college with some other branch which they didn't like).

The quality of assignments, server-graded programming tasks etc is top notch.

Prashant said...

Dear Prof. Sanghi,

I graduated from IITK (ME-dual) and am finishing my PhD now at the University of Glasgow. I must say I have gained huge benefits from courses of such type, both during IITK and during my PhD.
At IITK, I couldn't find enough electives to suit my taste, and at Glasgow, there are very few courses available for graduate students. I have been regularly doing some courses from NPTEL and MIT's OCW.
Perhaps, you might also look at these courses in the context of research students who want to strengthen basics in a different but related area. For eg., I studied Mechanical Engineering formally, and learned most of the Mathematics through these online courses.