Austin Thomas, Executive Vice President, Wadhwani Foundation authors article titled,’Skilling India at scale, with MOOCs’, in Financial Express

By October 5, 2015 No Comments

Of late, there has been much excitement about leveraging India’s demographic dividend to become the workshop of the world, powered by its young population. This was evident at the Skill India mission launch in July. On the other hand, our industry has been wailing about the lack of job-ready candidates for years. How do we resolve this dichotomy? How do we bridge this skills gap? We need to find answers quickly.

Why skilling India is so difficult?
The challenges in skilling India are manifold. Our education system still remains a legacy from the British era; its focus on rote academics overshadows the need to prepare students for jobs. Even vocational institutes such as ITIs teach outdated material that business has long bypassed. The main reason for this is the long-standing academia-industry disconnect.

Socio-economic factors throw in another challenge. Vocational training has always been the option of last resort. Training providers such as NIIT have managed to create aspirational courses using state-of-the-art classroom education with good placements, but high cost puts them out of reach for most entry-level job-seekers.
Furthermore, scaling up to national level has many roadblocks. How do we provide the required access to skills to the youth in remote or backward areas? How can we ensure excellence when qualified trainers are scarce across institutes and geographies? How can we be flexible in delivering the courses anytime, anywhere, to anyone, but with strong control and monitoring? Is it possible to overcome the shortage of equipment and infrastructure with better visual cues and practice?


The answer lies in technology-led education. In fact, I am convinced that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), a global phenomena and gaining popularity in emerging economies such as India and China, are the most feasible solution.

Policy, enabled by technology
Today, the Indian education system is beginning to correctly recognise the need to mainstream vocational training. Policy initiatives such as the National Skills Qualification Framework (NSQF) are providing equivalence of skill training with general education levels and mapping them to industry-driven job standards. Promoting MOOCs, at this juncture, to address serious challenges of providing qualified teachers and infrastructure can be the much-needed catalyst to achieve depth and reach of vocational education with uniform quality standards.

MOOCs can also leverage Digital India’s promise of providing mass connectivity and computing. Portals such as Coursera, edX and Udacity host courses offered by the world’s premier universities such as Stanford, MIT and Harvard for free, to a global audience to take at their own pace. These chair-less classes break all limits of enrolment (there have been up to 3 lakh students in an online cohort), allowing unprecedented scale. With about a million registered users in India for Coursera alone, savants here are embracing this phenomenon.

The question is: How do we adapt these academic online offerings to typically hands-on job training? Catering to mostly non-academic vocational students who are not self-starters, whose progress needs to be guided?

Adapting MOOCs for skills in India
In a recent NYT article, Sebastian Thrun, the founder and CEO of Udacity, said they are reinventing their offerings and model by switching to short, focused, industry-driven courses with active instructor guidance and interaction. We can take a page from this to create a workable model in India.

Five changes to make MOOCs work for skilling

Unlike the large one-to-many monolithic classrooms run at a given schedule, we can have many smaller classrooms (about 20-30 students per class) running multiple times but using the same content. This enables hands-on facilitated practice essential to building competence.

Instead of superstar teachers/universities that author courses, we can use industry leaders along with Industry Sector Skill Councils to co-develop the courses, keeping practical job functions as focus. These courses offered on the cloud can be leveraged by lakhs of students.

Instead of a pure online model, we need a blended model where the teacher becomes more of a facilitator/coach and is present to ensure attendance and attentiveness while guiding activities and assessments. A popular model is “flipped classroom”, which includes pre-class (students study the content); in-class (group practice and discussions happen in drastically reduced time); and post-class (self-revision and assessment is done). This ensures student discipline in completing self-study or group study while learner-centric/peer-learning pedagogy makes it less dependent on teachers.

The nature of content migrates from a “talking head” (teacher—however eminent—delivering video lectures) to highly interactive, engaging material such as how-to videos, simulations, games, activities and digital assessments combined with practical hands-on group activities.

A hierarchical learning management system can help govern delivery and enable proper tracking and analysis at scale for authorities to monitor and manage roll-outs effectively at district, state and national level.

Pedagogically, MOOCs are designed to be extremely interactive and they offer the learning community equal rights to education. Scaling MOOCs (mostly restricted to higher education right now) to the vocational realm can revolutionise the delivery of skills in India by enabling decentralisation, disintermediation and democratisation.

However, a word of caution here: Leveraging MOOCs will require a lot of perseverance and self-discipline, an effective mindset change in the delivery of education in India.

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