‘The greatest challenge for online education in India is poor internet connectivity in rural areas’

The Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Economics and Director of the Project on US-China Relations at Yale University, Richard C Levin is more popular…

The Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Economics and Director of the Project on US-China Relations at Yale University, Richard C Levin is more popular among the student fraternity as the chief executive officer of Coursera. Levin was in India recently to announce Coursera’s partnership with the Indian School of Business (ISB). This being Coursera’s first partnership in India and 115th globally. In an email interaction with Vikram Chaudhary of The Financial Express, Levin talks about Coursera’s India plans, the value of the “verified certificate”, the Digital India initiative, the big challenges Coursera can face in India, and how online education has the potential to enhance on-campus learning.


How does Coursera make money?

Coursera provides universal access to the world’s best education by partnering with top universities and organisations to offer courses for anyone to take, for free. In less than three years, Coursera has reached 10.5 million unique learners globally.

While all of our courses are completely free, we make money by offering verified certificates for single courses as well for specialisations, series of courses that teach specific skills in depth. A verified certificate is a way of certifying that a learner has satisfactorily completed all of the assignments and the examinations of a course though verifying a learner’s identity with facial recognition and keystroke analysis. Those who receive a verified certificate are able to upload it to their LinkedIn profile to display for employers and recruiters who increasingly recognise the value of these online learning certificates issued by prestigious universities.

What percentage of Coursera users are from India and what kind of courses do the majority opt for?

India is Coursera’s second-largest market outside the US, after China, with almost 800,000 registered learners. We have seen a strong appetite among Indian learners for technology and computer science courses—more than in any other country—and in business management as well. Karnataka has the largest number of Courserians, while Maharashtra and Delhi take the second and third positions, respectively. We have seen that the IT surge in India has fuelled a particularly strong demand for online courses among the country’s knowledge-seeking population. Coursera offers courses that teach skills for the most in-demand jobs in the IT industry in India: software engineers, application programmers, database administrators, graphic designers/animators/web designers and project leaders/project managers.

The two top performing courses in India cover the topics of machine learning and algorithms.

Why did it take Coursera two years to enter India?

As I said, India has been one of our largest markets. In November, we signed a partnership with the Indian School of Business—our first university partner in India—to develop courses for Coursera’s learners worldwide. We hope to expand to a handful of select partners in India to provide learners globally with greater access to courses from India’s most respected institutes.

What kind of association do you have with the ISB?

“A Life of Happiness and Fulfilment” will be designed by ISB professor Raj Raghunathan, a field in which the ISB has tremendous expertise—the first of a series of courses to be offered by the business school via Coursera.

Do you have a formal arrangement with the Indian government?

I met a number of distinguished government representatives during my India visit, including the Secretary of Higher Education from the HRD ministry. We are looking forward to finding ways to collaborate more closely with the Indian government on solutions to bridge the gap between higher education and the skills Indians need to succeed in today’s job market.

What role can Coursera play in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Digital India campaign?

India’s internet usage has grown dramatically; today it is the world’s third-largest internet population after China and the US. But connectivity remains a major barrier in many parts of the country. As connectivity improves, driven by Modi’s vision of a Digital India, we believe the number of learners benefiting from online education will increase rapidly, include via mobile.

The government also plans to launch new MOOCs in collaboration with various universities and institutions where free courses will be made available to the citizens…

We see a shortage of skilled labour in the market—according to some researchers, only 3 million of the 12.8 million entrants into the labour force can be trained each year. On top of that, India’s workforce will be 700-million strong by 2020. Today, a majority of employers are concerned about the growing skills gap in the market; they have open positions for which they cannot find qualified candidates. The Indian government is taking a bold but necessary step by prioritising skill building and employability among its people. Modi has outlined the training of young people for work as one of the government’s four priorities alongside expanding internet broadband access across the country.

Education minister Smriti Irani has conveyed the government’s interest to use online education to reach out to a larger number of learners in the country. We are glad to be part of the solution by bringing millions of Indians the high quality education they deserve.

It is often argued that MOOCs simply deliver information over the internet, and transmitting facts is not education…

Coursera courses are not merely videotaped lectures. We combine mastery-based learning principles with video lectures, interactive content, discussion forums and a global community of peers, offering students a unique online learning experience. Video lectures are broken up into 5 to 15 minute segments, interspersed with exams and peer-graded assignments. Extensive forums allow learners and the instructor to engage in conversations on the topics of the course. Many courses require a final real-world project created in collaboration with well-known companies interested in hiring people with skills from those courses. For example, the Mobile Cloud Computing Specialisation taught by the University of Maryland and Vanderbilt offers a final project developed by Google.

Can MOOCs be taken as a substitute for university education?

We do not expect to be able to replicate the university experience, nor is that our goal. Online education provides opportunities to people who may not otherwise have the time for or access to a high quality education to enhance their skills and learn from some of the best instructors in the world. In many cases, an education on Coursera is not replacing a university education, but rather providing an alternative to no higher education or a supplement to higher education to better prepare for college or for a job, by gaining skills required by employers.

We believe online education has the potential to greatly enhance on-campus learning, complement traditional classroom formats, and grant instructors more flexibility in their teaching methods. We built Coursera’s platform to support a “blended learning” approach to education, wherein students view lectures online prior to coming to class, and then use classroom time to pursue more interactive learning exercises and in-depth group discussions.

So, what all needs to be kept in mind while designing a course model for MOOCs?

We provide our partners with best practices for how to design their courses. For example, shorter videos and courses tend to be better suited to learners who are taking courses online in addition to a full-time career. We also encourage our partners to create final projects that help tie the learnings from the course to real-world problems. As for the content and teachings, we leave that in the able hands of our partner universities as they are the subject matter experts.

What is the greatest challenge you think Coursera will face in India?

The greatest challenge for online education in India is internet connectivity in rural areas. As infrastructure increases, so will the popularity of online education as a means of gaining new skills. Payment is another issue. While most Indian learners come to our site to take courses for free, many who would like to pay to earn a verified certificate are unable to do so. To alleviate that problem, we have started to introduce more accessible prices for our learners in India.

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First published on: 05-01-2015 at 00:09 IST