One hundred engineering colleges around India will rely heavily on virtual instruction under a new programme funded by India's Ministry of Human Resource Development (MHRD) that kicked off on January 2.
The Quality Enhancement in Engineering Education (QEEE) programme, as it is called, relies on the use of the online teaching model known as MOOC, or Massive Open Online Course. About half the students' courses are to be delivered over MOOCs.
While the MOOC model has had its successes, there also have been failures. If it is to succeed, the QEEE must be implemented in a way that leverages the advantages of the MOOC model to meet the needs of the broadest possible universe of students.
Under the QEEE programme, courses will be taught by a combination of senior Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) faculty and others. During regular class hours, the students will hear and see faculty deliver recorded lectures. Regular faculty will be present during class hours, in a supportive role. In the evening, e-tutorials will be held to enable live virtual discussions between students and tutors. Real time online experiments will be made available via e-labs.
According to a news report, as many as nine subjects will be delivered in MOOC format, including in the fields of mechanical engineering, civil engineering, computer engineering and mathematics. The courses will all be in advanced subjects such as wireless connections, linear algebra, and heat transfer for mechanical engineering.
The QEEE comes at a time when some are raising doubts about the educational value of MOOCs. Sebastian Thrun, a MOOC for higher education pioneer who founded the online MOOC company Udacity, is one of those voices. As the hype for MOOCs built up last year, Thrun said in an interview he “was realising, we don't educate people as others wished, or as I wished. We have a lousy product. It was a painful moment (when I realised this).”
Thrun's statement came in response to the weak performance of students who took MOOCs over the Udacity platform at San Jose State University in remedial mathematics, college algebra and elementary statistics. Only 25 per cent of the online students passed, less than half the pass rate for students who took the course face-to-face in real time. Thrun is so distressed with the performance of MOOCs that he is changing the focus of Udacity from academic education to corporate education.
Given the amount India is investing in the QEEE initiative, it is important for it to make the best possible use of the complex and evolving MOOC model.
Introduced in 2011, MOOCs originally consisted of syllabus-based recorded lectures and slides seen over YouTube. Each lecture was followed by homework with the use of moderated forums as the only option for students who failed to understand the recorded material or the assignments. The teaching faculty was not involved in grading assignments or providing live support to the students.
Evidence from the San Jose State University experience suggests that advanced students are far more likely than their more challenged peers to participate actively in discussion forums. This would suggest that MOOCs are best suited to advanced students and less suited to average students. But advanced students are more likely to be found at higher-ranked institutions where the best professors are available to teach face-to-face.
This contradiction led to the development of a second-phase MOOC (let's call it MOOC+), a variant of the so-called flipped classroom model in which recorded content is delivered in advance and lecture time is used to answer questions. Under this approach, which is the one being used in the QEEE programme, face-to-face faculty tutorials will support the recorded lectures.
This MOOC+ approach appears well suited to the needs of students taking basic level courses, but may not be suited to teaching advanced courses as envisioned under the QEEE programme. These courses often are better taught when students, especially the weaker ones, have access to personal attention from instructors during and after class hours. Sacrificing attention to a weak student's needs for a one-size-fits-all lecture by a senior IIT faculty risks exactly the kind of performance that was observed at San Jose State University. Perhaps a realigning of goals and resources is in order.
Under the QEEE as designed, IIT professors are being used to teach advanced courses to all levels of students through the MOOC+. This devotes some of India's top teaching resources to a programme that is not likely to succeed. A better use of the MOOC+ model would be to have senior professors from average institutions teach basic level courses to all students. Advanced courses would continue to be taught face-to-face at all levels. This would do little to improve the teaching of advanced courses to average students, but it would be a useful and more cost effective use of online education.
Rafiq Dossani is a senior economist at the non-profit, non-partisan RAND Corporation and co-author of Higher Education: Triumph of the BRICs? (Stanford University Press, 2013).
This commentary appeared on Business Standard on January 7, 2014