In the summer of 2012, Rohan Chawla (21) landed a job at a leading management consulting firm in New Delhi. But before he could begin work, he had to address what he believed was a critical educational limitation. “I did my bachelors [degree in commerce, finance and marketing] from Delhi University where the focus on principles and fundamentals was not very high,” he says. As is most often the case in India, the course was mostly centered on questions that would appear in the annual examinations. The position at the firm, meanwhile, required a strong grounding in finance.
Chawla began looking for solutions online, and came across a course by the University of Michigan on the online learning platform, Coursera. The now-ubiquitous venture was then little known among Chawla and his peers, but he decided to try it anyway. A couple of weeks later, having studied a few hours of classroom videos and slides, he took and failed the final test. But he got what he needed: An understanding of the basics of finance.
Chawla wasn’t alone. Neither was Coursera. By the end of 2012, it claimed to have reached nearly 2 million students globally. It was also around that time that edX, a non-profit start-up from Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), was set up. Almost immediately, it started rolling out massive open online courses (MOOCs) from some of the best universities in the US. Udacity, another online venture that was largely credited with kicking off the trend in 2011, was also on a roll, having raised $15 million in Series B funding in late 2012, led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz. A feature in The New York Times, following the flurry of activity in the space, declared 2012 ‘The Year of the MOOC’. Jeff Borden, chief innovation officer at Saint Leo University in Florida, says, “There were some who had been calling for radical transformation of education… they felt the stars were finally aligned for a great disruptor. E-learning has always showed so much promise regarding legitimate artificial intelligence, and many of the MOOC proponents saw this as the vehicle by which to make it happen.”
As with any new technology trend, speculation raged over its impact. Could MOOCs replace traditional classrooms? Would they revolutionise higher education? “It checked all of the revolution boxes theoretically—it was cheap, if not free; it was scalable; it was personalised,” says Borden. Did the higher education institutions need to worry? Not really, as it turned out.
Udacity is a good example of how MOOCs failed to live up to their lofty promises. The company, which was co-founded by Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun, worked on delivering the promise of MOOCs—low cost or free, accessible, quality education at scale. Its most publicised experiment to this end was a partnership with San Jose State University. The programme, launched in January 2013, was aimed at expanding the reach of the university, particularly to “at-risk populations” (the underprivileged), and ensuring better engagement. The pilot, however, failed. An analysis of the programme showed that online educational support did not always lead to positive outcomes. The pass rates were low and average performance of students was well below that of students in classrooms. By the end of 2013, not only was the programme discontinued, but Udacity itself moved away from its low-cost education roots to providing skill education by partnering with private corporations, who would design courses meant for people aspiring to be employed by the corporations. (In its new avatar, Udacity had 6 million enrollments in 2015, compared to about 750,000 in 2012.) Though the analysis admitted that the sector was still in its infancy, there was little doubt that the ‘revolution’ wasn’t exactly what it was made out to be. According to various other studies conducted on the sector, even liberal estimates suggest that the percentage of learners who actually completed the courses was below 10 percent.
With the constant and rapid churn within the digital world, it would have been easy to write off online education. Like every other digital phenomenon, this, too, could have been one that began as a trendsetter, only to be overtaken by something bigger and better. But it didn’t. In the four years after making headlines, online education has been making a quiet comeback. According to data compiled by MOOC aggregator Class Central, 35 million students enrolled for online courses in 2015, nearly twice as much as the previous year. The number of courses and universities offering them has also increased. In 2015, there were a total of 4,200 courses on offer from over 550 universities, up from 2,400 from 400 institutions the previous year. In 2013, numbers were lower still, with about 1,200 courses from about 200 universities.
So, what has changed? Tall claims, for one. This time, online courses aren’t promising an educational revolution, and are focussing instead on increasing student engagement by going beyond plain-vanilla web classrooms. Besides, online education is recalibrating its focus to target sectors that would benefit the most from it. One such sector in the Indian context is business education.
With most business schools in the country setting high standards for admission (IIM Ahmedabad, for instance, has an admission rate of around 0.3 percent) and equally steep fees, MOOCs related to business management education look to make it accessible to more aspirants. According to Class Central, the highest share of courses on offer in 2015 were about business and management (16.75 percent), ahead of science (11.34) and social sciences (10.77 percent). In 2014, business management courses formed 14 percent of the total number of courses, and was the third most popular segment.
“Given that we have severe scarcity of all academic resources, including faculty, leveraging the power of technology to increase access and effectiveness is the most plausible way for India to build its human capital,” says PD Jose, a professor at IIM Bangalore and chairperson of IIMBx (an online programme launched by the institute in 2014).
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MOOCs are not the only format in which online courses are available. Sujeeta Khemka, for instance, needed a course that’s more personalised. Khemka has a PhD in marketing, nearly two decades of work experience, and serves as a senior HR executive at one of India’s largest two-wheeler manufacturers. Of late, for a few days every week, she wakes up at 5 am to study. “I have to barter it with my morning walk,” she says, chuckling. Khemka is pursuing a general management course from Singapore-based Emeritus Institute of Management, which offers only online courses. She attends webinars nearly once every week, and needs to complete assignments almost on a daily basis to keep up with the workload.
Emeritus’s courses are referred to as SPOCs (small, private, open course) in the acronym-friendly world of online education. They’re smaller, and more focussed on blended learning, which combines physical classrooms and online education (there are three week-long visits to a classroom in Singapore over one year), and use interactive tools and live lectures to ensure student engagement. It’s a step up from MOOCs, but for a price. The one-year general management course, for instance, costs $12,500 (about Rs 8.3 lakh).
“Emeritus evolved from the thinking of how we can provide a credible, alternative credential to a two-year MBA degree that has value to the learner,” says Ashwin Damera, member of the academic and examination board at Emeritus. Like other online courses, the institute, says Damera, looks to add value through three aspects: Intellectual capital, brand capital, and social capital. In terms of intellectual capital, he says it’s increasingly possible to have most, if not all, of the content online.
Emeritus derives its brand capital from the fact that the year-old institute’s three founding schools are all prestigious brands in their own right: MIT Sloan School of Management, Columbia Business School, and Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. But it is the social capital that’s the hardest to come by for any online course.
“What was the beauty of my Harvard MBA?” says Damera, who graduated from Harvard Business School in 2005. “There were 80 people from about 35 countries with crazy backgrounds. There was a guy who had started and sold his company to eBay for $75 million.” Learning is as much about students as it is about the faculty and course content. This is an aspect that online learning is struggling to replace. Though with peer-to-peer interaction abilities, Emeritus hopes to enable some amount of social contact.
This focussed approach isn’t just being adopted by newer players like Emeritus. Even Coursera, one of the earliest entrants, is moving in that direction. “We are trying to understand the state of every learner on our platform, and curate a learning pathway for that individual based on what they actually know,” says Nikhil Sinha, chief business officer, Coursera. The company claims to have 21 million ‘learners’ (users who register for courses), the second largest chunk (1.7 million) of which comes from India.
Although it began as a provider of free MOOCs, Coursera has taken steps towards paid courses. “That evolution of Coursera and other MOOC providers has been phenomenal in the past few years,” says Sinha. “We began as open enrollment courses that we have now added specialisation to.” The fundamental shift has been from a camera-in-a-classroom approach to looking at providing better learning outcomes. This occurs through group interactions, ‘learning-support specialists’ who monitor how learners engage with the course, and continuous assessments. And Coursera, says Sinha, wants to go even further. With big data and artificial intelligence, the creation of specially designed programmes for individuals may soon be possible, he says.
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When MOOCs first gained popularity, one of the critical questions they raised was whether they could disrupt higher education. Now that online education is back in a new avatar, the words of Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, gain significance. Welch, who now runs an online MBA programme through his Jack Welch Management Institute, made the case for change in the education sector while recently speaking to Forbes India. “One of the industries that haven’t changed at all is education,” he said. “More overheads, fewer faculty, more support staff, more costs; that’s not a solution where everybody gets a chance. Education is absolutely the ripest thing for disruption.”
But it’s going to be some time before the traditional system is upended. As of now, barring some premier courses, online education is set to play a supplementary role to mainstream courses. “It won’t change in a hurry,” says Maheshwer Peri, chairman of online education hub Careers360. This is particularly so in the case of management education, he adds. “Business schools are adding some curriculum to the online format, [but that] doesn’t take away from the fact that most of the learning still takes place in the classrooms.”
The online platforms are also dabbling in several peripheral subjects to stay relevant. Chawla, who experimented with Coursera early on, recalls a course on gamification in which the professor would try to gamify the course itself. “[While teaching] he would change the order of things behind his cupboard. He would then ask us to guess what was happening and what had changed.” Chawla was amused by the way in which the professor tried to retain people’s interest. “It didn’t manage to keep mine, but I’m sure it worked with someone else,” he laughs.
Will online courses bestow the same level of employability that their offline counterparts do? Neeti Sharma, senior vice president at TeamLease Services, a Bengaluru-based staffing company, isn’t so sure. “A full-time management degree continuous to take precedence over any other form of education. Hybrid course programmes [or blended learning] are taking precedence over just online courses,” says Sharma.
However, e-learning also signifies an employee’s commitment to self-learning, discipline and the ability to upgrade their skill set. And online platforms seek to cash in on such intent, with executive education playing a leading role. “Online management courses are an ideal option for most professionals looking for a career boost. Given the large lag between industry and academia, colleges are unable to deliver industry-relevant skills,” says Krishna Kumar, founder-CEO, Simplilearn, a Bengaluru-based education-tech company that provides online training and professional certification courses.
Aditya Malik, MD and CEO of Talentedge, an innovative education solutions company, credits online learning with building a broader acceptance of web learning in the mainstream. “What employers are realising is that if a person has taken a machine learning course online, it means he’s actually acquired a skill. The negative perception of online learning has gone down,” he says.
Online courses may not have changed the world, but they clearly have had an impact. And that’s a start.
(Additional inputs by Debojyoti Ghosh and Shruti Venkatesh)
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(This story appears in the 28 October, 2016 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)