Licence to learn, with online courses

Last Updated : 19 September 2018, 19:45 IST

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Massive open online courses (MOOC) is the new concept that is reverberating across many institutes around the world. A few years ago, The New York Times had named 2013 as the year of MOOC, while Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) said that MOOC is “the most important education technology” in 200 years.

So, what’s this new form of learning all about? In order to understand this, we need to go back to its beginnings. In the year 2001, MIT introduced OpenCourseWare(OCW), a platform that offered free online courses. Over time, the concept evolved to reach its current form as the MOOC. The OCWs do not provide certification and access to faculty. But, the syllabus, reading lists and classroom notes are made accessible to all, for free. The objective here is to provide learning material to students and anyone who is curious and is seeking knowledge. Therefore, open here refers to the licensing and availability of course material on the site.

Flexible methods

As Malcolm Knowles, the American adult educator, had pointed out motivation is key to adult learning or andragogy. In fact, the fundamental assumptions of andragogy form an important basis for MOOC.

In traditional schooling, most of the students have little or no freedom and flexibility to learn outside the curriculum prescribed by the respective boards. Although many parents insist that their wards learn more than what is taught in the classroom, it is not the norm. On the contrary, under MOOC settings, adults have the freedom to choose what they want to learn. In order to augment their skills, the learner can make judicious choices. In the traditional approach, the teacher demonstrates the concept while the students observe and learn. But, in MOOC, the students watch videos and attempt to replicate the exercises.

The learners using the MOOC format are more focused on what the outcome must be. So, they try and approach the problem from various angles and work towards finding a better solution. These learners are mostly looking at acquiring a new set of skills as opposed to making incremental improvements to the existing ones. That said, this method of learning also helps the students upskill and improve existing knowledge. Although prior experience helps in the advancement of knowledge, the same can hinder acquiring new skills aside from the existing abilities. For instance, those who have a rote learning experience will find it difficult to cope with conceptual learning.

We know that school children perform well in the controlled environments (disciplined learning). But, the MOOC learners do not need constant monitoring. They prefer freedom and informal settings.

In a traditional classroom, learning is an interactive process, where the students are able to discuss topics with the teacher. However, learning in a MOOC set up is entirely student-centric. Here the learner has access to material with the open source licencing, where there are pdf, videos, podcasts on various topics. That apart, peer discussion through social media adds value to the process.

The learners can choose their own pace and content. However, with the many distractions online and lack of a timetable, the time taken for learning here may be more than traditional classroom learning and may not be as effective too.

In India, the Human Resource Development (HRD) ministry is making sure that the advantages of MOOC can be enjoyed by everyone through the SWAYAM platform. This is unique in the sense that it can provide quality and relevant job training courses. They are also a viable channel to achieve greater equality for women in education and employment. They also facilitate lifelong learning for a large number of people and provide education at a lower cost.

Apart from this, the choice based credit system (CBCS), introduced by the University Grants Commission (UGC), encourages many colleges to offer MOOC programmes based on their regular courses.

There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding MOOC. Free online education does not necessarily mean poor quality education. For many people, MOOC is a synonym for virtual learning or distance learning. This is actually not true, just like the notion that a MOOC will ensure that you get a job easily. For, MOOC certainly improves your chances but it does not guarantee employment.

Downside of it all

It is a well-known fact that the dropout rate for MOOC courses is high. It is mainly because the students lack motivation. There may be various other reasons, like they may not be proficient in the topic that is being taught, or the course material may not be sufficient. Also, for some learners, the topics offered in these courses may appear to be difficult depending on their prior knowledge of the subject.

Besides, there are no incentives like a promotion or grades and this could be demotivating for many.

Due to the expansion of social networks and better internet facilities, the awareness of MOOC is gradually increasing. Thus, in order to make it a success, the focus of future MOOC should be on imparting and improving the logical, analytical and communication skills of its learners. We can certainly say that MOOCs are rejuvenating the quest to learn for many deserving learners by breaking the traditional barriers like financial, cultural and national boundaries.

MOOCs can truly transform the learning paradigm. Is it a tectonic shift or not? Only time will tell. There is also a strong criticism of the effectiveness of discussion forums in MOOCs. Since students do not have a direct face to face interaction with the instructor or teacher for clarification, not receiving a timely reply through the forum may affect the student’s learning process. Moreover, asking the right question in a particular language is also an important aspect. For a country like India where people speak many languages, many students are a little bit hesitant to ask questions in English.

When a right question is not asked, there is always an ambiguity in the responses they will receive. For example, instead of getting the correct reply that should be based on context (application), the student may receive a reply based on content (information). When a student does not have the basic knowledge of a particular topic, teaching the concepts at a higher level will certainly increase the anxiety of the students. There are other technical issues related to MOOCs, a good internet connection (with or without a smartphone) is a pre-requisite to register for online courses.

Apart from the minor issues, the aforementioned format of learning will surely help in upskilling.

(The author is an associate professor,
Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi)

Published 19 September 2018, 19:38 IST

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