Though the higher education system in India has seen significant expansion in the last two decades with an increased number of institutions and corresponding increases in enrollment, the All India Survey of Higher Education conducted by the Ministry of Education (MoE) indicates that the gross enrollment ratio remains low, at about 27%.1 The National Education Policy aims to systematically increase the enrollment to about 50%. A major bottleneck is the need to create additional physical infrastructure and train large numbers of teachers.
In addition there are systemic challenges related to higher education in India, including: low employability of graduates, especially for jobs aligned to information technology, and the quality of and access to both content and faculty at postgraduate levels.4
Online learning provides an effective approach to address these issues. We describe two key initiatives in this direction that have demonstrated positive results: the National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) and the B.S. program in Programming and Data Science (PDS), both offered by the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras.
Case 1. National Program on Technology-Enhanced Learning
The National Program of Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) is a multi-institution effort with IIT Madras as the main coordinator. The program began in 2003 as a repository to archive and distribute courses taught at the IITs and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). One shortcoming of this approach was that courses designed for students of IITs and IISc were not easy to follow for students at other institutions who did not have the same background and training.
In 2014, NPTEL was restructured to offer customized massive open online courses (MOOCs) with certification through proctored exams at designated centers throughout the country. From 2014 to 2021, NPTEL offered over 3,500 courses spanning various disciplines in science, technology, engineering, liberal arts, and management. Almost 16 million learners have enrolled in these courses, of whom about 900,000 have been certified.2
NPTEL provides free access to course material, with only a nominal charge for certification to cover the administrative cost of conducting exams. This allows NPTEL to scale up its efforts to address the challenge of providing access to quality education to students across India. This is in contrast to commercial MOOC platforms that have placed content behind paywalls and become service providers for master's degrees and professional education outsourced by major universities.5
Here are some of the key features that distinguish NPTEL from conventional MOOC platforms.
Credible assessment at lower cost. The high cost of MOOC certification is a deterrent for learners. Since NPTEL is funded by the MoE, it can afford to absorb the cost of creating and maintaining online content and pass on only the administrative cost of conducting in-person synchronous assessments at multiple exam centers across the country. This brings down the cost of each certification to INR 1,000 (approximately USD13). Proctored certification has also addressed the issue of credibility. NPTEL certification is widely accepted by academia and industry as a reliable indicator of how much a student has learned.
Domain certifications. The wide range of courses offered by NPTEL makes it possible to group together courses in a given area to provide an additional level of domain certification. For instance, the artificial intelligence (AI) domain has core and elective courses related to programming, AI, and machine learning. Domain certification provides an incentive for learners to take up more courses from the platform and also facilitates credit transfer. Academic institutions can formulate policies to permit credit transfer based on domain certifications to complement their students' regular campus learning. Some 27 universities have already adopted NPTEL courses for credit transfer.
Local chapters. Many students need support to engage with NPTEL courses because of a mismatch in their background and a lack of familiarity with different modes of teaching. Without such support, the dropout rate is very high. To address this, NPTEL has introduced the concept of local chapters, on campus, at educational institutions. Each local chapter has faculty mentors who act as local experts and support student learning through activities such as face-to-face sessions, monitoring assignment submissions, and creating learning communities within the institution. The NPTEL platform has features to support mentors and allow them to monitor the progress of their students. NPTEL also has a dedicated team to engage with local chapters. Currently NPTEL supports more than 4,100 local chapters across the country. More than 75% of NPTEL's course enrollments and exam registrations come through local chapters.
Translations of course lectures. India has 22 official languages. Though technical education is largely delivered in English, most of the country does not use English as a primary language for communication. While many students are able to cope with material written in English in textbooks, they struggle to follow spoken material in English. Hence, language diversity is a major challenge for online teaching. All NPTEL courses have written transcripts, validated by the instructors, that are provided as subtitles to support the video lectures. NPTEL has embarked on a project to translate these transcripts to eight widely spoken Indian languages. NPTEL's local chapters help identify subject matter experts familiar with different languages who can help in this effort, either as translators or reviewers.
Involving industry. The NPTEL Industry Associate program creates opportunities for collaboration to mutually benefit industry and NPTEL. These opportunities include co-offering courses, special lectures, recruitment opportunities from the NPTEL learner base, upskilling and cross-skilling opportunities of existing workforce through NPTEL courses, and various initiatives under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility mandated by the government. As of January 2022, NPTEL collaborated with 48 companies through this initiative. A side benefit of more industries taking up courses from NPTEL for upskilling is that NPTEL certification gains credibility among employers and directly addresses the current concern with Indian higher education, that graduates lack employable skills.
Career progression for college faculty. NPTEL has signed a memorandum of understanding with the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE), the main regulatory body for technical education in India, to permit certain NPTEL courses to be considered equivalent to faculty development programs. AICTE mandates regular access to such programs as a criteria for promotion of faculty. Through this arrangement, NPTEL courses now benefit faculty across the country.
With all its teaching online, the IIT Madras B.S. degree program in Programming and Data Science is designed to be flexible and interactive, accommodating the needs of a variety of learners.
As discussed, NPTEL has adopted multiple strategies to ensure greater adoption of MOOC-based certification within the Indian education system. Many outstanding issues have been addressed (see the accompanying figure). NPTEL can now focus on addressing the other open challenges, such as course completion rates and personalization of learning.
Case 2. IITM B.S. Program in Programming and Data Science
IIT degrees are the most sought after technical qualifications in India. Quoting Ørberg,3 "[IIT education] is seen as a proven and generously subsidized pathway for propelling students and their families into the upper middle class or even into the transnational and affluent skilled Indian diaspora." However, the number of undergraduate students admitted to IITs across the country each year is only 10,000, of whom about 1,100 join IIT Madras (IITM). Admission to the IITs is through a Joint Entrance Exam (JEE). More than a million students attempt the JEE each year, resulting in a minuscule selection ratio of 0.01%.
The IITM B.S. degree program in Programming and Data Science (PDS) was launched to make quality education at IITs accessible to students without going through the highly selective JEE. With all of its teaching online, the program is designed to be flexible and interactive, accommodating the needs of a variety of learners.
Flexibility: In India, students normally specialize in different streams such as science, commerce, and humanities when they are in high school. This results in very skewed backgrounds at the end of school. For example, students who are not in the science stream typically drop mathematics after grade 10 because the content is slanted toward science and engineering. On the other hand, data science is an interdisciplinary subject with diverse applications. The B.S. curriculum has been designed to accommodate students from all backgrounds by providing self-contained foundational courses in the first year. For instance, the basic courses in mathematics and statistics only assume familiarity with these subjects up to grade 10. The program is also designed with multiple entry and exit options to accommodate learners with diverse needs. The first year consists of foundational courses in mathematics, statistics, and programming. The second year introduces technical concepts from application development and data science. The third year allows students to pursue more advanced topics in greater depth. Students can leave after the second year with a diploma. Students can also join directly in the second year. These options are attractive, for instance, to industry professionals seeking up-skilling. The academic calendar has three terms a year, with short breaks in between. All courses are offered in all terms, so each student can choose a trajectory to navigate the program that suits their capacity to absorb the material.
Accessibility. As noted earlier, JEE is a hurdle inhibiting broad access to high-quality technical education in India. Instead of a selective entrance examination, the B.S. program allows all learners to enroll in the foundational courses offered in the first semester. Continuation in the program is based on a qualifying exam covering the material taught in the first four weeks. This provides a filter that is effective without being intimidating. The qualifiers are held three times a year, once in each term, so students can join the program at different times.
Interactivity. In addition to the core faculty who create the online lectures, each course has a support team made up of a number of "instructors," typically recent Ph.D.s or faculty who have taught in other colleges. These instructors supplement the course material with live online sessions to demonstrate problem solving and address student difficulties. There is also an active online forum for students to interact and have their questions answered. In addition, there are student bodies with representatives who can put forward common concerns and also plan activities to build a sense of community.
Assessment. Like many online programs, content is released weekly and there are periodic online quizzes and assignments. However, borrowing from the lessons learned from NPTEL, the formal assessment is done through in-person exams at designated centers. There are two proctored quizzes during the semester, followed by a final exam.
Although NPTEL has prepared the ground well for holding proctored exams at scale, there are challenges with other modes of assessment such as course projects. By reaching out to contacts in the industry, the B.S. program has assembled a large team of volunteers to conduct online vivas or exams. Though there are still issues to be overcome, such innovations have shown that it is possible to combine online learning with effective assessment that goes beyond objective auto-graded exams.
Numbers. The IITM B.S. program was officially launched in October 2020. By April 2022, approximately 62,500 learners had applied to the program, of whom about 15,890 had passed the qualifying process. About 12,035 of the 13,750 (that is, 87.5% retention) who started the program after qualifying are actively participating in the IITM B.S. program. To put this number in perspective, this is slightly higher than the number of students enrolled in all on-campus programs at IIT Madras.
The experience of NPTEL and PDS has taught a few important lessons regarding large-scale digital interventions.
First, such interventions should have a low entry barrier in terms of cost, content, and the background of the learner. NPTEL has implemented this through free enrollment. In PDS, the qualifier process and program design lower the entry barrier.
Secondly, there should be an ecosystem of support services for learners to constructively engage them in the teaching-learning process. NPTEL implements this through local chapters, industry associates, and translation. PDS has a dedicated course support team, industry interaction team, and student bodies to ensure this engagement.
Thirdly, the assessment process needs to be rigorous as well as transparent to provide value to the learning process.
Finally, there should be mechanisms for the society at large to contribute to such initiatives for greater inclusivity.
3. Ørberg, J.W. Uncomfortable encounters between elite and "shadow education" in India—Indian Institutes of Technology and the Joint Entrance Examination coaching industry. Higher Education 76, 1 (2018), 129–144.
4. Ravi, S., Gupta, N. and Nagaraj, P. Reviving Higher Education in India. Brookings India Research Paper No. 112019-01 (2019). Brookings India, New Delhi.
5. Reich, J., and Ruipérez-Valiente, J.A. The MOOC pivot. Science 363, 6423 (2019), 130–131.
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