Head In The Cloud: how MOOCs and ed-tech are changing India’s education landscape in the pandemic.
Due to the pandemic, the unemployment rate in India reached 27.1% in May. 122 million Indians lost their jobs in March and April alone. 37.5 million students have been out of campus . The Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy reported that the urban unemployment rate reached 37% in July. People feel the need to keep themselves occupied, and upskilled, now that the job market seems so fragile. Enter the Massive Open Online Course, otherwise called the MOOC, which has now seen a strong resurgence in the otherwise depressing economy.
The MOOC was developed as a complement for college education. You could sit at home and watch the acclaimed CS50 lectures curated by Harvard professor David Malan. Or, you could learn Mandarin in a few weeks from edX. The New York Times called 2012 “the year of the MOOC”. What followed was bad completion rates in courses that didn't justify the hype of the concept. That seems to be changing now when people have more time and need work.
Udemy, one of the most popular MOOC platforms in the world, saw a 400% spike in course enrolment between February and March this year . There was a 55% increase in content creation. Business fundamentals and communication skills were the most popular offerings on the platform for Indians. Udemy enjoyed a well-timed investment of $50 million from Benesse Holdings . Coursera, founded by Stanford professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, received $130 million in funding at a $2.5 billion valuation in July itself , and added 10+ million users between March and May. The pandemic has been bad business for everyone but MOOC platforms.
The ed-tech industry in India also recorded exponential growth in the last 4 months. Unacademy grew their revenue thrice over in the lockdown . BYJU’s raised an unknown amount from the VC firm BOND, valuing the company at $10.5 billion . A report from RedSeer and Omidyar Network charted a 2x growth in the user-base, and at least a 50% increase in the time spent at these platforms.
This trend is reflective of the time people have at hand. More importantly, it may be indicative of a shift in upskilling and job prospects. The pandemic has shown that certain industries are more vulnerable than others, and certain work can be done remotely, as opposed to onsite. Technology and services have shown a fair bit of resilience in that regard. In India, arguably the most popular MOOC offerings are usually from AI or data science. It is now easier for non-technical students and professionals to learn data science without the need for formal classroom teaching. Coursera released data showing Stanford University’s Machine Learning as the most popular course in India in 2019 . Seeing as how data science plays a crucial role in industries like consulting, it is bound to have experienced a huge upshot this year as well. Undergraduates who may have lost their job offers may be compelled to add to their skills by switching to a more stable career prospect. It will become increasingly difficult for people to follow their passion instead of a guaranteed money-minter. This could lead to the short-term fear that it is better for someone to choose a course with more job opportunities.
Are MOOCs expected to be the bridge that lessens the gap between the haves and the have-nots? Many of these courses are available at the touch of a button on your phone. But, for the more technical courses, one needs a laptop. The most famous public university of India, the University of Delhi, is currently at a crossroads where the administration has failed to conduct even mock open book tests successfully. Naturally, the worst-affected stakeholders here are the students, who are under undue levels of stress. This has also halted online classes for people not in their final year. One may assume that they could use this time to lap up important skills; at least one college in DU has collaborated with Coursera to provide students with free access. However, that also, unfortunately, assumes that everyone has equal access to high-speed internet.
An important idea that needs addressing is the value of these courses once too many people take them up. These courses are not the end-all of the specialization one intends to have. But there is the obvious fear of the competition that this trend will propagate, creating an unhealthy race to be productive. “The world is a village” feels a statement more real than trite now, seeing as everyone is online and is competing with everyone else. LinkedIn has no shortage of students and professionals reporting the completion of MOOCs they’ve undertaken, just for the small chance of some established connection looking at their profile and gauging their competency. People usually correlate the number of certifications to more lucrative job opportunities, forgetting that the value of the certification holds more importance than the number. Unfortunately, it will be the underprivileged section of our society who will miss out on the chance to sidestep formal education and use MOOCs to increase their value in the job market, simply because of internet inaccessibility.
Could the MOOC be a replacement for an Indian undergraduate degree? It is well-known that MOOCs provide credentials for skills not usually taught in Indian universities. A 2016 paper from Imperial College London states examples of companies like EY and Google diminishing the weightage of the degree in favour of other portfolios . But, while top courses may have their content for free, the certification, which has its own inherent value as evidence of having a skill, has a separate cost. Someone who can’t afford it will be at an obvious disadvantage. For India, the answer to this conundrum could be SWAYAM - the national MOOC platform. The initiative promises a nationwide system of transferring college credits and technical certifications at comparatively lower costs. However, there are reports of considerable dissatisfaction among both teachers and students as to course quality .
Thankfully, the scenario for school students is more positive when it comes to bridging the gap. The rise of the ed-tech industry in India does not seem to be limited to only consumers living in metropolitan cities. Ed-tech startups in tiers II and III cities, like EduBrisk, ConceptOwl and Entri are seeing healthy growth rates among kids in the K-12 and the post-K-12 categories of students. They have been raising adequate seed funding during the quarantine, and their focus entirely belongs to consumers in those cities. Ahmedabad-based startup Pedagogy raised $400,000 from Inflection Point Ventures . The industry aims to convince the average, middle-class child-bearing Indian family as to the effectiveness of online modes, as compared to the offline classroom. The ed-tech industry is one of the few segments in India going through a boom period, and entrepreneurs are doing all they can to meet consumer demand.
Entrance tests are being kept on hold, and coaching classes have moved online. However, existing proprietors of coaching related to JEE or NEET have not reduced their fees significantly; most are still charging the full amount. This may provide ed-tech entrants to make use of their online infrastructure to provide similar education at competitive rates. BYJU’s, Vedantu and the like have reported jumps in their registrations because of the slump in the offline industry. The fact that ed-tech startups do not generally have as many expenses like rent on buildings, as opposed to existing players in coaching may prove advantageous for them. Admissions into coaching programs have fallen by nearly half . Reputed players like Resonance and FIITJEE have announced salary cuts, and the state government of Rajasthan is prioritizing reviving Kota .
The pandemic is in the process of uprooting the way India educates itself. Families have no choice but to equip their children better, and students are beginning to find alternate ways to supplant the absence of formal classes. If our institutions want to stay relevant in the corporate or the research world, they will have to play catch-up with the new kids on the education block. The industry’s responsibility extends to providing undiluted, quality, accessible education.
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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The author is currently pursuing a Bachelor's in Economics from Hansraj College, University of Delhi.