A more democratic learning

Higher education can be made easier and cheaper without diluting content. New beginnings are being made in this direction

Written by Abhijit Banerjee , Esther Duflo | Published: February 16, 2017 12:31 am
education, higher education, us education, us universities lecture, lecture videos, university lecture videos, distant education, india education Universities have made the video lectures available to the world free for anyone who wants to listen and learn from them.

Digital learning is here. The number of online courses are exploding. Many of the most famous scholars across fields are being lured by the promise of being able to reach a global audience to record Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. In 2015, there were 35 million learners taking online classes from 570 universities.

And we in India should be very grateful that it is happening. We talk a lot about the demographic dividend we are about to get, but less about how to convert all that talent into the skills that we need. In particular, our entire system of higher education is desperately short of teachers; most new business schools and engineering schools survive on part-time professors who travel from institution to institution, delivering bread and butter courses. Even the best colleges, universities and institutes have large numbers of jobs at the professorial level that have been unfilled for years. This is despite the fact that salaries have risen substantially in recent years — the problem is that the private sector demand for the kinds of people we want as professors is also growing fast, potentially even faster. In other words, we should not expect this problem to fix itself any time soon.

However, there are also some positive reasons to embrace this change. First, and most obviously, the cost of another person viewing the same lecture online is essentially zero and if that is the case, why have a hundred thousand professors redo the same lecture in different forms in different places? Why not have the person who is best at explaining the material and conveying what makes it exciting do that job? There will of course need to be multiple such lectures, in multiple languages and at multiple levels. But we are still talking about a few hundred basic physics or economics lectures, not several hundred thousand.

Of course, lecturing is not all that professors do. We all remember that moment in the lecture when the professor asked a question and we had the answer and the two of us connected for an instant, and we felt inspired. Teaching and being taught is a lot about making those connections; how will that happen in this brave new world of ours, if each student listens to lectures at home?

The answer is that switching out of the task of delivering the syllabus frees teachers to take on a very different role. Simply delivering content from a pulpit is not the most effective way to communicate with students. The standard lecture format, where students do their listening in class and their thinking at home is topsy-turvy: It does not encourage students to bring their questions to the teachers, and does not help teachers figure out what students have mastered and where they need help.

This is why the best universities in the US, like Harvard and MIT, despite having the luxury of having some truly excellent teachers on their payroll, are increasingly embracing the “flipped classroom” format, where students listen to video lectures at home, and spend class time applying their knowledge, solving problems, discussing examples, etc. Professors guide that discussion and fill in wherever necessary, explaining those bits that seem to be eluding the students and throwing in advanced ideas that happen to be topical.

What is really exciting is, however, that these universities have made the video lectures which they use to teach their own students available to the world free for anyone who wants to listen and learn from them. They are also encouraging colleges and universities all over the world to integrate these online courses into their own pedagogy, picking the pieces that are appropriate for their needs and building a package around them.

The most recent step in this unfolding might be the most exciting. These universities are now preparing to offer actual credentials based on these online courses. On February 6, MIT launched what it calls a Micromasters in data and economics for development policy, which is a package of five online courses that, on successful completion, will lead to a degree from MITx, a newly set up degree granting institution under the MIT umbrella (for full disclosure, we are excited about this initiative in part because we created it). The Micromasters, unlike the courses themselves, is not free but the entire package will cost at most Rs 1 lakh for all but the richest Indians, and much less than that for those who can demonstrate that they cannot afford that much. One main reason why the degree is not entirely free is because the exams for these courses need to be credible and it is costly to organise properly proctored exams. As a result, students need only pay when they decide to take the exam for the course — till then it’s just another set of free online lectures; although by signing up early they will get the support of a remote MIT teaching assistant and the community of Micromasters students.

This Micromasters programme has no fixed schedule. A student could take all five courses at once, or just one every year or semester, and whenever she gets done, in four months or four years, she is entitled to the degree. It is open to anyone who can complete the courses successfully, even if she has no previous qualifications whatsoever.

MIT is also encouraging other institutions worldwide (including in India) to follow suit and offer their own masters programmes with the MITx Micromasters as the foundation and the primary qualification. The idea is to make getting advanced credentials easier and cheaper without diluting the content.

This is, of course, just the beginning. But many other Micromasters will be coming online soon, and they have the potential to make high quality higher education much more democratic.

Banerjee and Duflo teach economics at MIT and are co-creators of MIT’s Micromasters in Data and Economics for Development Policy

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  1. K
    Feb 16, 2017 at 2:25 pm
    Already there is little content in indian education ..if it is made cheaper, the content may still go down as teachers may not be adequately paid
    1. L
      Feb 16, 2017 at 7:23 am
      The idea of universities in India offering their own master's programs, with the MITx Micromasters, as the foundation, is interesting and should be tried by some universities in India.
      1. A
        Feb 16, 2017 at 4:18 am
        A thought provoking article by two distinguished economists with a sensitivity to sociology of higher education. It is possible to agree with them that technological miracles--internet and google--can help to disseminate the lectures delivered by gifted professors all over the world; and this 'democratization' can enable not so privileged universities to improve their quality without much cost. Even though it is a good intention, the authors, it seems, have missed a fundamental point about the deeper meaning of education, and the significance of a living/real teacher-taught interaction in a physical setting. Education--even higher education--is also about great values; and mere 'intellectual' analysis of a talk from the distant land may not be adequate for this. Furthermore, every insider knows that a lecture has its own specificity, its cultural context, the dynamics of the teacher-taught interaction. In the age of reproduction, Walter Benjamin once wrote, culture loses its 'aura'. Likewise, the reproduction of great lectures delivered in a distinctively human context may lead to their abstraction and the devaluation of their essential spirit. Education is not a soulless product, even if the market wants us to believe that. Technology has its positive uses. But don't make it into a fetish. I hope these two professors from the metropolitan centre of power are listening!
        1. Mahender Goriganti
          Feb 16, 2017 at 1:02 am
          Yah!! try it on Madrah trained and Sharia indoctrinated rusted minds?? 20% of them a lot of wasted human resources with reverse effect if nay with Jihad on Hindustan. .
          1. P
            Feb 17, 2017 at 6:45 pm
            [[lt;br/gt;What is really exciting is, however, that these universities have made the video lectures which they use to teach their own students available to the world free for anyone who wants to listen and learn from them. lt;br/gt;]]lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;really, IITs started sharing their online lecture material much before MIT. Many other schools/professors all over world do the same for decades. Check individual blogs of European professors on their lectures/study material/schedule etc.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;---------------------------------------------lt;br/gt;And definitely anything in economics, social sciences/humanities should be free, because these are very vague subjects, useless for most people, most of that teaching is useless for everyone who is not dealing with laws based on that stuff. So while economics is most useful among them, for general person it is still useless. If people from MIT want to learn how their economics is useless, they should talk to traders and motel owners from India. The best in cl businessman in India do not learn any economics, because you do not need to, but they are most successful in their business everywhere. You can still see that an Indian motel owner or grocery store owner will do better than a US one that is because neither in management, nor in economics you need much more than a good enough common sense. And Indian traders are used to having more common sense and less formal baggage. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;50 years from now, most social sciences will become part of literature, only psychology will become more scientific and economics will basically be national and international laws of trade without theories, most of the other theories will be treated as fiction or limited context strategies. lt;br/gt;There is no economics but just national/international laws of trade that people need to know, knowing trade laws of US is generally useless for somebody who is dealing with India or some Indian state only. lt;br/gt;For example theory of demand and supply only need to be taught to people who have almost no common sense for doing business.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;50 years from now, the traders from India will again be most wealthy and most of economics will be proven as good for nothing.
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