To Fix Its Education System, India Should Look to MOOCs

The following is a guest post by William H. Avery, author of China’s Nightmare, America’s Dream: India as the Next Global Power. The blog post is adapted from a commentary published in the Economic Times of India and continues themes raised in a recent Chronicle article on the challenges American colleges face in India.

High-school students taking final exams in Jaura, India.

In the 20th century, the United States built a higher-education system that no nation could match in scale and quality. This system helped the country become the dominant economic power of the post-World War II era.

But that is last century’s news. Today India and China are racing to expand and enhance their own higher-education systems, with the aim of becoming economic powerhouses of the 21st century. It is a race that India has been losing, with potentially disastrous consequences for its future economic growth prospects. India needs a game-changer quickly, if it is to close the growing gap with China in higher education today and avoid an even larger gap in economic growth tomorrow.

Enter massive open online courses, or MOOCs. There has been much debate about how MOOCs might change higher education in the United States. But whatever impact MOOCs ultimately have on education in the United States may be small compared with the impact they can have in India, the 21st century’s largest English-language higher-education market. MOOCs are certainly India’s best chance, and perhaps its only hope, of catching up to China in higher education.

Since the turn of the millennium, China has doubled the number of higher-education institutions and increased enrollment fivefold. It has been the greatest expansion in university education in the history of mankind. As a result, almost 26 percent of China’s university-age population is enrolled in an institution of higher education, versus about 18 percent in India.

It was not always so. In 1990 and 2000, India bested China in university enrollment rates. Then China decided to make higher education a policy priority, and leapfrogged India in the space of a single decade.

Do not let India’s outliers—the prestigious Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs)—fool you. The key battlefield in Asia is higher education for the masses. And on this China wins hands down, on both quality and quantity. Sure, India’s IITs and IIMs offer top-notch education. But they reach a scandalously small proportion of Indian students. The annual intake of the IITs amounts to a tiny fraction of India’s 120-million-strong university-age population.

So what is India doing to catch up? Not much. The University Grants Commission’s 12th Five-Year Plan (covering 2012-17) is short on ambition and long on vague laments (“considerable challenges remain,” it says). While China has ambitious plans that it executes, India has unambitious plans that it fails to execute. The contrast could not be greater, nor could the cost of that contrast to India’s growth prospects.

In 1995 the Indian government introduced to Parliament a bill to allow foreign universities to operate in the country. The Foreign Education Providers Bill, a successor to the 1995 bill, is still languishing in Parliament nearly two decades later.

With India incapable of rapidly building higher-education infrastructure, and stubbornly refusing to let foreign universities in to help, the situation would be hopeless but for the advent of MOOCs.

The implications of free online content for Indian higher education—and for India’s future economic growth—cannot be overstated. Any Indian with access to a computer and an Internet connection (whether in his home or in the next village) can take a class taught by an esteemed scholar in Cambridge, Mass. Or Princeton, N.J. Or Berkeley, Calif. This revolution knocks down in a single blow the historical barriers to Indian higher education: uneven quality, overall lack of supply, and the high cost of sending a child overseas for study. With MOOCs the inaction of the Indian government can no longer stand in the way of its citizens gaining the knowledge and skills they need.

The availability of free online content could well lead to an entirely new model for higher education in India. Forget the sprawling university campus with faculty members developing their own course content. While that model is in theory still laudable, India’s government has shown it cannot deliver such universities on a scale and at a quality level its citizens deserve. Now is the time for India to invest in a new higher-education model built around MOOCs from top American institutions.

Precisely what this new model will look like remains to be seen. But it is certain to have lower costs (in infrastructure and faculty) than the old model and can be grown to a large scale.

No one can pretend that free online content is a panacea for India’s education woes. There are countless other shortcomings in the Indian system, including insufficient preparation for university studies beginning at primary school and through to secondary. Vocational training for those better suited to learning a trade than attending university is another huge gap. And outside of the urban elites, English-language skills among university-age Indians are limited, as is access to the Internet.

And of course there are the open questions about what credentials, if any, an Indian student would receive from completing a MOOC and how the online courses can prevent cheating.

Despite these complex challenges, for India the new reality of the MOOC revolution is simple. The demand is there. So is the brainpower. And the content is now available for free. The only thing required is a system to connect the content with Indian students. Can real-time translation technologies be used to convert Harvard’s classes into India’s many local languages? Will the new model be solely distance learning, or will students come together to discuss the material? Where? Can existing village school facilities be leveraged after school hours to provide spaces for MOOC learning?

India’s entrepreneurs, both business leaders and social entrepreneurs at nongovernmental organizations, can find the answers to these questions and others. As the revolution in free online content takes hold, Indians should ask only one thing of their government: to stay out of the way. The government had its chance with 12 five-year plans spanning 60 years. It did not deliver. Now MOOCs are calling NGOs and the private sector to do what the government could not: offer high-quality higher education to the masses.

Ultimately there is a role for the Indian government in setting standards for this new type of education, and for certifying institutions. But that is all for later. The need of the hour is to get new university students in India learning in MOOCs by the millions.

China’s recent investments in higher education, while impressively executed, may have been poorly timed. For China invested in an old and costly model of higher education. There is a new model out there, one uniquely well suited to India. By investing in this model, India could yet catch China in the race for higher education today, and for economic growth tomorrow.

[Wikimedia graphic of Indian students by Yann published under the GNU Free Documentation License; Creative Commons Wikimedia graphic of India and China by Bazonka]

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