Home > Coursera, Education > Swimming in a tsunami.. and loving it!

Swimming in a tsunami.. and loving it!

This week, after 17 years, I went back to college. Well, almost. My teacher – Princeton University professor Jeremy Adelman – is delivering his lectures sitting over 8000 miles away from where I sit for my class, in front of my PC. My 70,000+ classmates are spread across Beijing to Baltimore, and include an 80 year old grandmother.  We’re all attending the course ‘A History of the World since 1300’ which began last week, at Coursera.  Over the next 12 weeks, we will attend 24 lectures, learn, discuss, debate and test ourselves on the forces and movements which influenced world history over the last 700 years.

Coursera is not a household name yet, but it’s the torchbearer of a stunning transformation that’s taking place in the higher education landscape. You may have probably heard of Salman Khan  – not the one with a penchant for taking his shirt off – but his namesake who graduated from Harvard, chucked an investment banking job and started khanacademy.org, the website which offers 8-12 minute learning videos that teach school kids everything from basic math to cryptography.  Khan Academy  is being adopted as a mainstream teaching mechanism in some schools in the US (I know of a couple of schools in Bangalore too, that have started using his videos in classrooms).

While Khan Academy is driving innovation in K-12 teaching, Coursera, along with other players (Udacity, edX) are ushering nothing short of a revolution in the university landscape . Each of these ventures have been founded by academicians from Ivy league institutions. edX is a MIT-Harvard venture, Udacity has Sebastian Thurn of Stanford, Coursera too was started by Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng – both Stanford faculty who were on a sabbatical and started this venture. With their mission as the democratization of education access, what’s on offer from each of these players is breathtakingly compelling – world-class university courses from the best teachers in the world – for FREE.  In an article in May, The New York Times aptly described this phenomenon as The Campus Tsunami.

VC interest in these companies has been very high.  Coursera, which has been the fastest off the blocks, has the legendary John Doerr of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers invested in the venture. Since launch earlier this year, Coursera has quickly announced tie-ups with over 20 leading universities across the world (which is how I am doing the course offered by Princeton). And they recently announced their 1 millionth student sign up a few weeks ago, within 6 months of their launch. Coursera offers a much broader area of course offerings – almost 200 courses across diverse areas like Computer Science, Economics, Humanities, Finance, and many others – compared to the other players who have been focusing mainly on Computer Science/technical areas.

All of this has the potential to completely disrupt university education as we know it now. Imagine this scenario 2-3 years from today – say you are a recruiter from an Infosys/TCS/ Cognizant who wants to hire good computer programming talent from colleges. Here are 2 choices in front of you:

Choice 1:  Graduates from Tier 2 /Tier 3 engineering colleges in India. Places which have many known issues – lack of  infrastructure, low quality of faculty, dubious examination systems, etc.

Choice 2: Students graduating with computer science/other relevant courses from say, Coursera where you know that the quality of education delivery is world class, adapted to industry asks, and as a result, has the potential to significantly reduce the huge training investment that you incur currently on re-training fresh college talent from scratch.

Which one would you be inclined to pick?

Currently, the likes of Coursera do not offer certification, but it is only a matter of when, and not if, before the model evolves to address these gaps. There are areas like plagiarism, mass-scale grading, etc. which are being looked at as research problems as we speak, and solutions will be found.  I am quite sure that in very soon in the future, we will have a parallel university system which will be better than most of our conventional institutions.

And when the employers start thinking that way, what are students going to do? What if Coursera starts offering a Comp Sc Engineering degree to undergrad students for say, $200 a year (INR 10,000) ? With millions of students and an online delivery model, that’s very much a realistic scenario. Will Indian students still pay lakhs of rupees for a degree that’s not worth the paper it’s printed on?

Lots of interesting possibilities ahead.

People like me of course, fall under the ‘adult learner’ category, which also forms a sizeable proportion of the audience which is signing up for these online courses today. As a 15 year old who managed decent grades in std X, I simply followed the time honoured tam-brahm herd mentality of going for Science and then engineering. In my ideal world though, history and literature is what I would have liked to study. Two and half decades later, courtesy Coursera, that dream has come true.

A1/A2 have been curiously watching me this week take copious notes on topics like the Mongol plunder, Ottoman Empire, Black Death… doing quizzes, participating in forums, preparing to submit assignments –  they think I have well and truly lost it –  you have actually voluntarily chosen to go back to college to study again, they ask, and roll their eyes.

But man, am I looking forward to this journey… Loving it!

Categories: Coursera, Education
  1. Banno
    September 24, 2012 at 1:32 pm

    This sounds awesome! Here, the word seems totally appropriate, though I always hesitate to use it. There’s nothing as much fun as ‘adult learning’. Here’s to your journey. 🙂

    • September 24, 2012 at 6:58 pm

      Thanks, Banno. Yes, am sure its going to be lots of fun. Btw, there are also a couple of courses on Films, though they may be targetted more at rank beginners rather than for professionals. you may want to check it out.. https://www.coursera.org/category/music

      • Banno
        September 25, 2012 at 7:12 pm

        Thanks, Satish, I’m definitely going to check out the courses available. Though not film, perhaps. 🙂

  2. September 24, 2012 at 3:57 pm

    This is surely interesting. Since this falls bang inbetween formal education and just reading up on our own and watching live lectures where we need additional inputs, it would be really interesting if you sent live despatches from every class… Almost like your journey through alternate education… Would give us fence sitters a more real feel of what happens and how

    • September 24, 2012 at 6:59 pm

      Wow, live updates from my classes.. don’t think I’m up to it.. but will certainly fill you in with details when we meet up.

  3. Gopal
    September 26, 2012 at 3:06 pm

    Every once in a while, comes a technology that promiises to revolutionize education and take it to the “do not haves” – but there is always a lot more to be done. It was said the same for TV, for VCR, for the CD ROM Drive, for broadband per se, about digital lirbraries, VSATs and now about course era and the likes. Course era will have a large impact, but by no means fill in even a single digit percentage of the gaps is what I feel. It is for the inspired self learner – students are not in that league. I guess it will boil down to University accreditation, certification, local job opportunities, local coordination, syllabus mapping, offline interactions etc. and very high levels of broadband penetration. Moreover, it will require a whole “power restructuring” in the education eco-system, which might not happen in a short notice. It will change the “continuing education” world, but I feel might not impact the basic education.

    • September 27, 2012 at 4:16 pm

      Gopal, I agree that there will be no change overnight but if you take a 3+ year perspective, then it starts to get interesting. Coursera is just an example.. there will be a few like them. I know of Indian start-ups who are actively looking at the same space. It takes one inflection point to make an impact. And I feel that when the employers start looking at this seriously, things will change fast. Lets see how it plays out.

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