Jan-Mar 2015

Democratising Education: Realising the Potential of E-learning

With its extensive reach and impact, Massive Open Online Course (MOOCs) have revolutionised educational instruction, enabling students to learn at their own pace from the comfort of their homes. Raj Raghunathan, Full Professor of Marketing, McCombs School of Business, Austin, University of Texas, Visitng Scholar at the ISB, in conversation with Dr Vivek Goel, former Provost of the University of Toronto and Chief Academic Strategist, Coursera. ISB and Coursera have tied up to launch courses in India. A course on “A Life of Happiness and Fulfilment,” designed by Raj Raghunathan, will be the first to be offered in the series. 

Raj Raghunathan: What are MOOCs and how is Coursera involved in it? 

Vivek Goel: MOOCs are Massive Open Online Courses and the real innovation is in the first two words; massive scale and open, meaning that anyone can take them any time for a cost. We have had online courses for many years but MOOCs really changed our thinking from being accessible only to people who have signed up, paid the fee or registered with a program. The real change is in online courses being made available globally to large numbers of people at very low or almost at no cost from the very best universities in the world. And so they have sort of opened the door to content that was previously accessible only to a few thousand students a year.

Can this be regarded as is democratisation, of education? How did this idea come about? 

In terms of the evolution of MOOCs, it was a kind of a journey over the last 20 years. So people have had this vision of opening up access to education in a variety of ways. First, we thought we would do it with radio and then television and as the internet came about, people tried to post videos of lectures. None of those things ever worked because they could not engage the learners/students, it was always one way. And even in the early days of internet, slow bandwidth made it hard to really create communities. The first course that was referred to as a MOOC was actually in Canada by George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University and Steven of the National Research Council. And they offered it at the University of Manitoba as a course in education. They were running a course on campus but they opened it up to anyone in the world to enroll. It is now referred to as a connector with MOOC as students were actually teaching each other as much as learning from the professor. The professors were more of a facilitator/coach who would put forward readings or an idea and the students would have discussions about that. They did that experiment and then people kind of forgot about it. There were about 5000 people who took that course. In 2010/2011 some professors at Stanford started thinking how they could make their courses more accessible to the world. Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng co-founded Coursera. Andrew’s Machine Learning course had a quarter of a million people without any real advertising or marketing. It demonstrated the thirst for knowledge that existed in the world. People wanted to see inside these courses from a university like Stanford. Second, they had to build up essentially the platform structure to enable that kind of learning. And it is really what started this current wave of excitement, which caused people to coin the term MOOC taking inspiration from massive open online gaming or MOOG.


Raj Raghunathan in conversation with Vivek Goel

So for a typical course what are the enrollment and the completion rates?

Typical courses run with about 25,000 to 50,000 people enrolling. Completion rates are low at less than five percent. But we have to think very carefully about what that number really means because there is no cost in enrolling; there is no admission to enroll. You just log in to the website, you put in your email address, you register, and you can sign up for any course. And so to think that the people who just clicked are the baseline for the completion of the course I don’t think is correct. Many people are there to explore just a little bit more about the course and then they decide if it is right for them or not. Second, many people are just there because they want to learn a specific component of the course or they just want to watch the videos. They don’t want to do the assignments. They don’t feel the need to earn the degree or whatever. So when we actually drill it into our statistics and we look at people who at the start of the course say they had an intent to complete the course we get a much higher completion rate. And if we look at people who really commit to the course by paying for the verified credential and have an intention to complete we have a completion rate of 80 to 90 percent which is actually on the lines of a regular university course.

The real change is in online courses being made available globally to large number of people at very low or no cost from the very best universities in the world. And so they have sort of opened the door to content that was previously accessible to only a few thousand students a year.

Could you tell us a little bit about what some of the learnings that the traditional system of education may have gathered from MOOCs and why is it that MOOCs can never get to replace the universities? 

I think MOOCs, like with any other methodology or any learning technology is something that gets added to the range of tools that institutions and professors have. And so that is where I would think that it was flawed to think that MOOCs is going to be the replacement. MOOCs let you extend the reach of your teaching at a global level to people around the world. And you can use that to bring those learnings back into your own classroom. Not just MOOCs but online technologies generally also give professors the ability to move the delivery of content out of the classroom. We have taught in the same way for well over a thousand years. Someone stands up and lectures and ‘lecture’ actually is to read in Latin which is when there is only one copy of the book transcribed by the MOOCs and the students could not have a copy. So the professor read it to them. And we have continued to teach in the same way even though that material, the printing press, the television, we have the internet, but we still largely teach in that same way. With online technologies we can very creatively move the delivery of content out of the classroom.

Does it take away the need for the classroom? No because in the classroom now the professors need to think about what you do to engage your students with the materials and with the kinds of higher order skills that they need for today’s global requirement-critical thinking, reasoning, collaborative work, writing, communication skills and how to problem-solve and most typically how to continue to learn. The content is always going to be available to you. How do you decide what is good content and what is bad content? And so the professor’s role will evolve and has been evolving in many disciplines. The demand for education is huge and I think the first statistic in India is that you have 20 million people with post-secondary education and that in no time should be 40 million. How do you grow that kind of capacity to match the demand? You need to use technology and you need to make sure that you deliver the right form of education to the right types of people. Can we use technology to better prepare people so that when they arrive on campus they can be more successful. Can we use technology to get our reach of education out to people who would never make it to university or college. And Coursera is now available on mobile phones, on tablets, people can access it over cellular signal. So they don’t need the kind of connectivity that was traditionally required. And it is only going to continue to improve over time. So think of how people who might never have had any access can get basic access to education. And we can also use that to identify the people who are doing those courses to offer them opportunities to come to university, thus democratise the access at all levels of education.

MOOCs are now accessible on cellular signals too, thus doing away with the connectivity that was traditionally needed. In the process we can identify people who are doing these courses and offer them opportunities to come to the university, and thus democratise access at all levels of education.

If Coursera were to start all over again, is there something different that you would have done?

I think probably we may have tried to avoid the word MOOC because I think it becomes very confusing for people to focus on that. I think in the early days much of what happened was because nobody had the experience so I don’t know if we would have done it differently. The courses tend to be long courses, 12 to 13 weeks like a university course. And they had readings and assignments as well as the lectures. And they were quite overwhelming for people that who were working and had families. And given that there was no admission requirement sometimes, the level of content made it very challenging for people. So we certainly have some good experience about what makes for an effective course at scale for a global audience, keeping the courses shorter, very focused clear running of chapters, making sure that the materials that are presented and are required are absolutely necessary for the course and are related to the learnings in the course. And it is unfortunate but I have to say that quite often in our traditional university courses we don’t do that as professors. Usually we give a list of readings, we give them to our students and we don’t really think about why we are doing it. I think in MOOCs when you do that and you have this global audience of thousands of people responding negatively you tend to realise  that sometimes students in classrooms too don’t care to read all that has been recommended in the list.

They vote with clicks.


From the students’ perspective on how to improve the level of engagement? But first I wanted to tell you about an experience that I had on my trip Ghana last year. I went to a company, an organisation called (told under the promise of anonymity) and they are using MOOCs particularly Coursera and EdX. Basically they were pulling in a bunch of people with a particular set of interests, such as organic farming or entrepreneurship but small scale entrepreneurship like selling onions on the streets. They would pick and choose the courses and videos of the courses that they thought were relevant to solving their particular problems. And so they were acting as curators and they were charging them a very minimal sum for 50 CDs per course for three months. What are these people to you – are they collaborators or partners? 

 It is a very interesting question. The content is available for free but there are terms of service that people usually don’t read. I am not familiar exactly but there are some limitations from a licensing perspective. The intellectual property actually rests with the institution that created it, it is not with Coursera. If someone is reusing it for another purpose, for an academic purpose, they need to get it from the institution. If they want to use the Coursera platform they need to be working with us. We welcome this type of experimentation and I think most of our partners are very supportive because they want to learn more on the ways in which this can be used. So what we would like to look for are potential partners. And what you are describing there is something we have done in collaboration for example with some foundations, with the national government in Trinidad. 

The demand for education is huge and I think the first statistic in India is that you have 20 million people post-secondary education and that in no time should be 40 million.

Can you tell us something about what are the characteristics of the course that increased the completion rate? You have already talked about one – that it needs to be relatively short and that it needs to be to the point and learning objectives need to be clear. But does it vary by topic, does it vary by professor, does it vary by the prestige of the school?

That is the kind of analysis that we are starting to work on with our data. The engagement of the professor and the materials are very significant factors. Usually if there are courses that people really see as related to skills that they need to advance in the workplace or which may help them to get a job – these courses tend to have higher completion rates. So if I have a need to learn how to program in Python and I start to take a course in Python and I might decide half way that it is not what I am really interested in. So topic certainly does come into it. The engagement in the videos and the difficulty in the quizzes is half an impact. Obviously, a course with a lot more difficult quizzes early on leads to lower completion rates. So this is something that again we are just starting to work on. We have to tag our courses with these different kinds of characteristics and we are going to do that.  One of the powers of having such a large platform is that we can actually do these kinds of learning analytics and also then split it by different demographics. Maybe younger students are more likely to take and succeed in these types of courses than older students. So this is a good question, we don’t have all of the answers yet because we are just starting to build up the data sets to analyse this.

Are you open to innovative ideas? For instance, if you want people to complete the courses you may ask them to  pay upfront US$20 and then return the US$20 to them along with a certificate at the completion. That way they would feel like they have invested some money, wich they will get it back along with an added certificate. Are you open to these kinds of ideas?

We are open to all sorts of ideas and I think there was someone else who was actually offering something like this but with a slightly different twist. It was based on learner making a small investment initiatlly with a better return at the end of the course. This was based on the idea that people who did not complete it, would not get their money back. Return of money along with a certificate can be an incentive.

Do you have any tips for students who may actually be motivated to complete a course, even the one on ancient history for example, that at some level they understand that having completed the course would have given them a greater sense of satisfaction. So are there any tips for students who are actually motivated but because of practical constraints or whatever end up not completing it.

 I think the first thing is to actually be clear on what your intention is for the course. So if your intention is just to learn a little bit more about ancient history, watch the videos. Then set that as your goal and aim to complete that and don’t consider it as a failure, your intention is to complete the entire course. Once you know what your intention is, if it is to finish all the course materials, assignments and earn the certification for the course then you need to make a true commitment. You have to first of all be sure that you are ready for the course. We recommend that the instructors give a very clear description of what you need to know in advance to be able to be successful in this course so that people are not signing up for it without being ready for it and if there are things that they can use to fill in the gaps directing them to that in advance.

The kinds of students that are likely to penetrate the course are people for whom a particular set of skills or knowledge set is going to help them at work. They are the ones who are going to end up completing it as well, like you gave the example of Python. Can you profile your users? How far are Indian women interested in your courses? 

 Within our profile of users we have several different communities. I have talked a lot about the group that is the skills-based learner. And those are the ones that are usually highly engaged. In fact in India it is actually our largest market. Globally they tend to be in their 30s and 40s. In India they are a little bit younger. They are in their 20s and they are looking for very specific courses. We have a smaller group who are actually in the true sense of the academic community, they are high school students or they are young college students who are actually looking to help themselves advance in college or get into college. But we have a very large proportion of students and it varies again. Right now we are just starting to look at some of this data. It is a little bit less in India but we call it the ‘enrichment learner’. I think it is the model that you just used. They are interested in learning for the sake of learning. The topic could be different from what they might have done. They want to keep their minds busy, they want to be able to have good cocktail party conversations. And that demographic tends to be in the United States a little bit older, 50 plus. They have a higher income because obviously they have leisure time available to them. In India we do see that there is a population of women who have higher degrees and they are there who are taking courses in a broad range of areas. And they are doing the course to enhance the level of their knowledge.

Which are the other countries where you have partnerships with universities and what is the typical kind of first partnership? What are the kinds of things you do to roll it out and to market it?

I think we have partnerships now in about 20 countries. I will separate out partnerships with universities and then our overall country strategy. What we are looking for in our partnerships with universities globally are the very best universities in the world that have content that they want to deliver to people around the world. And that is why we are very excited about our partnership with ISB because that is the model of ISB, which is to bring a global audience together. And so the kinds of topics that are being proposed here are very exciting because we see them as very significant value for a global audience. We also have focus specifically on countries and we obviously have the United States as a very large market. India is actually our second largest market in the world after the United States and that has been without any partnerships in India, without any content delivery partners or content producing partners or any marketing. This trip is just really about learning more as well as solidifying our partnership with ISB about the potential in India and it is a very exciting time. The directions that the new government is indicating in terms of technology and education and so we are keen. Let’s see how we can work with partners in India-whether it is academic institutions, the government, corporations, foundations, NGOs. We have worked systematically in a few other markets to date: in China and most recently in Brazil. And we have also done some small experiments like the example I gave in Trinidad and Tobago. As we have gone into those markets, what we have looked at are what do we need on the content side. In many other countries in the world a big starting point for us is actually translation of content. In India English is the language for much of higher education and so we have that as a starting point. Although we do have global translation programs and we expect that over time that community will translate courses into other languages for India. We are also thinking about, if there are other local delivery partnerships either on the technical side. Particularly if we think about working with internet portals, working with telecoms or companies that can help extend the reach of courses. So part of this trip is to identify those partners.

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