India: Digital Education and the road to MOOCs

Access to education in India has not always been available to everyone seeking it. Although affordability may have been an issue, having educational institutions in the vicinity of ones place of residence has been an issue. Even today, it is not uncommon, especially for children, to have to walk several kilometres to reach their schools or colleges and many people have to shift from their places of residence to be able to access institutions of higher education.

The higher education sector has witnessed a tremendous increase in its institutional capacity in the years since Independence. In the year 1950-51 India counted 30 universities and 395 colleges. The equivalent numbers for 2012-13 are 700 and 35’539 respectively. Even though these figures seem impressive, the growth in number of higher education institutions has not kept pace with the increase in population and the gross enrolment ratio in higher education today is about 19% in the age group 18 to 23 years. Some 22.3 million students are enrolled in in higher education in India (UGC Higher Education in India at a Glance, June 2013). However, not everybody who wishes to, can physically reach a classroom. Given the above, it is no surprise that distance education, and now digital education has taken an important role in reaching out to prospective students. Written by Indraneel Ghose, Counsellor for Science & Technology, Swiss Embassy in New Delhi

Open and Distance Learning

India has promoted a system of Open and Distance Learning, where teachers and learners are not necessarily present at same place or same time. The system is flexible and allows students to learn at their own pace and at a time suitable to them. This system is significant for delivering quality higher education, especially to persons from economically disadvantaged strata of society and those with no access to higher education institutions, continuing education and upgrading skills of working people.

The most ambitious component of this system is the Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU; which was established almost 30 years ago in 1985 by an Act of Parliament. At the time of its establishment the IGNOU had two main responsibilities: enhancing access to higher education through distance mode; and promoting, coordinating and determining standards in open learning and distance education systems. Since then, the IGNOU has undergone rapid expansion and emerged as an international institution in the field of Open and Distance Learning. Education is imparted through a variety of channels: printed material, audiovisual methods including broadcasts on radio and educational television channels, teleconferencing, video conferencing, as well as one to one counselling, at its 2667 study centres located throughout the country. The educational programmes run from the academic to the professional and vocational and lead to the awards of Competency Certificates, Diplomas, Bachelor’s, Master’s and Doctor’s degrees

In addition, there are 13 state Open Universities in India. It is estimated that over 4 million students are enrolled in a distance education programme in India.

The National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technologies (NMEICT)

With the advances in information technology, the falling costs of hardware, and bandwidth and the increasing penetration of mobile devices, the Indan Government launched the National Mission on Education through Information and Communication Technologies (NMEICT) with the aim of addressing the education and learning related needs of students, teachers and lifelong learners. By providing broadband connectivity to all colleges and universities; making computing devices accessible for students and teachers at low cost and generating high quality e-content, the programme aims at addressing issues of access, equity and quality which are the cardinal principles of India’s education policy.

343 institutions are already connected through the National Knowledge Network  under this mission. 86 projects have been supported so far with an investment of INR 678 crores (approx. CHF 102M).

Some of the achievements of the Mission can be found here.

MOOCS in India

Given the massive demand for access to education, it is no surprise that India has jumped onto the MOOCs bandwagon, both at the student and the institutional level.

With 250,000 Indian students registered for courses on edX, Indians represent some 12.5% of total registrations by nationality (after the USA which accounts for 30% of the registrations). For Indians, the most popular courses have been those related to computer science, engineering, and public health. Some 50% of the 70,000 registrants for Harvard’s course on quantitative methods in clinical and public health research are Indians. Looking at the demographics, the median age of Indians registered for courses on edX is 23 years. 5% of them are high school students while 40% are aged between 18 and 25 years. (Source: Time of India; to access the whole article click here)

Similarly, Indians are the second largest registrants on Coursera platform with 8.5% of registrants, after the USA, which accounts for 31.7% (data from October 2013)

Indian institutions have also taken to MOOCs and several of them, such as the Indian Institutes of Technology in Delhi, Mumbai and Kanpur, the Birla Institute of Technology and the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore offer courses.

The National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning  is a joint initiative of the Indian Institutes of Technology in Bombay, Delhi, Guwahati, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras and Roorkee and the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The courses are free to access, but there is a nominal fee for the certification examination.

Today, there is even a MOOC on MOOCs conceptualised in India! The course began on 5 September 2014.

The Governmental Intervention

The Indian Government is already heavily investing in the infrastructure to provide connectivity. The National Knowledge Network is a state-of-the-art multi-gigabit (multiples of 10Gbps) pan-India network for providing a unified high speed network backbone for all knowledge related institutions in the country. Built with a finanical outlay of INR 5990 crores (CHF 920M approx.), the network will enable scientists, researchers and students from different backgrounds and diverse geographies to work closely for advancing human development in critical and emerging areas. The target users for the network are all institutions engaged in the generation and dissemination of knowledge in various areas, such as research laboratories, universities and other institutions of higher learning, including professional institutions. 934 institutions are already on the network, with an aim of connecting 1500 institutions. For more on the National Knowledge network please visit

A move is also being made to accept some of the credits earned through MOOCs for a formal degree. The Chair of the All India Council for Technical Education, the regulator for technical education in India had announced last year that the Council may allow up to 15% of the credits for a degree to be obtained through MOOCs.

An official India specific MOOCs platform, likely to be christened ‘Swayam’ indicating self-learning, is expected to be launched later this month. This platform will take off with three courses. The courses on offer will include two from IIT Bombay and one from Princeton University. It will be completely free of cost and also promises to offer top quality courses in a number of Indian languages. The process has already begun to ensure effective translation of the IIT Bombay and Princeton course in Hindi and other languages.

The industry viewpoint

Industry in India has also gotten interested in MOOCS. The Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry has come out with a vision paper (August 2014) on MOOCs entitled MOOCs and the Future of Indian Higher Education. It articulates a vision or MOOCs and how it can help augment, enhance and transform the systems of education in India. Quality, affordability, scalability, inclusion and employability have bene kept in mind while drafting the document. Dividing the Indian higher education system into three sectors – formal, non-formal and informal, the report describes each sector, outlines how MOOCs can be leveraged to fulfil needs in that sector and summarizes the key challenges that adopters may face. It also provides a practical guide by suggesting some applications of MOOCs in these sectors. The report proposes the next steps for the government, education providers and professional associations and employers to consider in their strategy for adoption of MOOCs. These recommendations span MOOC structure, policy, certification, accreditation, interoperability, infrastructure, R&D, quality and advocacy. You can follow the debate on alternate futures for MOOCs in India at

Reactions from the student community to MOOCs

In October 2013, the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur and the Commonwealth of Learning delivered a 6 week MOOC on mobiles for development (M4D). The course attracted 2,282 registrants from 116 countries. Of the registered participants 1,441 were active through the MOOC. 333 participants received either a competence or a participation certificate at the end of the MOOC.

87% of the respondents were highly satisfied with the instructors, course content, resources, and delivery format. In a survey conducted after the course 71% of the respondents said that they would have taken the course even if no certificate was awarded at the end, while 97% said they would recommend the course to others.

The course content, and especially its practicality, the course format and especially its use of videos with scripts, slides, case studies and online quizzes, the relevance of the topics and case studies to the developing world, agriculture and banking, the professional knowledge of the instructors, their preparation, and the quality of explanations of the course topics and the convenience of the online course format and the flexibility of the design to accommodate students’ working lives were particularly liked by the participants. However, the length of videos, the strong technology focus of the MOOC, the intensity of the course, the heavy video content load and the number of quizzes with too many technical questions for non-technical participants was not liked about the course.

Summary and comments

Distance education already plays an important role in educating Indian students through the open universities. Several private players also provide training, either in classrooms or at distance, supplemented by face-to-face interactions. Distance education and MOOCs will not replace traditional universities in India but can only complement them.

This is particularly pertinent, considering that the Indian government has to ambition to increase the GER in higher education from 19% currently to 30% by the year 2020. This translates into creating space for some 40 million learners, an increase of some 18 million in six years. It would mean an additional requirement of over 10,000 technical institutions, over 15,000 colleges and over 500 universities, at an investment anticipated at INR 9.5 lakh crores (CHF 146B approx.).

Some form of distance education is also used within the traditional educational system, even at the most well-known institutions. For example, when several new Indian Institutes of Technology were set up in the past few years, each one was (and in some cases is still being) mentored by one of the established ones. This translates into, amongst others, faculty being shared between the two institutions and often classroom lectures being delivered physically in one institution and through electronic means in the other through real-time two-way connectivity. Are the students in the remote location getting their lectures in physical mode or in distance mode?


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