July 17, 2015

Distance Learning - Reloaded

Distance learning using the internet -- that allows students anywhere in the country to learn from the best teachers --  is old news! We have heard of Massively Open Online Courseware (MOOCs) popularised by Coursera and Udemy, applauded the good work done by the Khan Academy and proudly talk about the gigabytes of, rather boring, videos loaded into Youtube by IIT professors under the NPTEL program. But none of all this has had any impact on the critical skill gap that separates students who pass out of India’s colleges from the jobs that await them in a booming economy.

Institutions like IITs, IIMs,  NITs, Presidency and others, may be doing well, but there are another 600 degree granting institutions with more than 35,000 affiliated colleges that have lost the plot completely. Most of these have inadequate infrastructure, teachers who are barely competent or rarely in the classroom, outdated syllabi and an academic atmosphere vitiated by student politics and yet it is to colleges like these that nearly 2 crore students -- potential contributors to India’s demographic dividend -- have to turn to, to realise their dreams of getting a bachelors degree.

Reforming college education in India is beyond the ability of mere mortals. A complex hubris of policy, bureaucracy, corruption, hypocrisy, xenophobia and old fashioned stupidity ensures that modern management techniques cannot be used. Private investors are not allowed to make profits from education but are harassed for bribes by venal regulatory bodies and the government has neither the means nor the ability to deliver. So instead of platitudes about “revamping the system” let us explore an alternate architecture that will deliver education and help students find jobs.

The only way to bypass the local college is to resort, once again, to web based distance learning mechanisms where the technology necessary for creating and distributing online content is available either free or for a nominal cost. The primary content would be videos recorded with a webcam and uploaded into Youtube. The free Google Hangout-on-Air feature allows not only videos recorded on webcams  but also screen capture from Powerpoint style slide decks or any other program. At the student end, all that is needed is a computer and broadband access, and given the amount of money spent on private tuitions, this is an investment that most students and their parents would be happy to make if they see value.

But to show value we need to cross two big hurdles, namely an economic model for content creation and a stamp of accreditation on the education delivered.

Creating online content, of the quality that we see on Coursera or Udemy, is a very labour intensive process and no teacher would ever put in this effort on a sustained basis unless there is adequate compensation. But on the internet, everyone expects everything to be free! Students will happily spend money for movies at a cineplex but not to access online courses. When the courseware is free, everyone will use it but the moment there is a charge, most students will back off -- even though they may be paying the same for tuition! So this is the first challenge -- why would anyone create online content when there is no guarantee of any financial return. Volunteers can never be the basis of any sustainable model.

The second challenge is trust. Corporates flock to IITs, IIMs  not because of what they teach but because students have been filtered through JEE or CAT. Similarly when corporates ask for graduates, a BA, BSc, or BCom, it is not so that they are specifically looking for a detailed knowledge of History, Chemistry or Accounting but only an assurance that the candidate has the discipline to study for and pass examinations in at least thirty subjects and in the process has learnt something useful. Since the stamp of a degree granting institution is a necessary condition for hiring a person, such a stamp is essential for the credibility of any alternate model.

How should we address these two critical issues?

Content remains free for students but government will pay teachers to create it. For each course module or video created and uploaded, the government can pay a nominal amount of money, say Rs 1000, to the teacher who creates content. However the real payoff for the teacher will come if the video is found to be useful by students. Youtube tracks views as well as an approximate duration of the view. Teachers may be paid, say Rs 20 each time more than 70% of a video is viewed on the web. An IIT faculty, for comparison, is paid around Rs 150 per student-lecture for delivering 100 lectures across 4 subjects to classes of 50 students each. So instead of a flat payment to all content creators, we now pay more to teachers who create better content based on an objective metric of actual viewership -- the invisible hand of the market at work!

The next critical issue is certification. Online examinations are possible but given the mutual mistrust that is endemic to Indian society, the credibility of examinations taken by students from home is zero. What we need instead are distributed examination centres where students can take examinations under invigilation. Given the long history of JEE, CAT, AIEEE, Bank PO, UPSC and similar examinations, this process is well understood. In fact there are a number of private companies that have earned the trust of corporates in conducting examinations and can do so at a lower cost and with higher credibility.

Let us now connect the dots.

We begin with one or more UGC approved degree granting institutions, that announce a set of courses for which it will conduct examinations. These would  be standard 96 credit bachelors level courses leading to a BSc, BA or BCom degree -- in areas like computer science, economics, commerce, political science, mathematics or anything that does not require physical laboratory facilities. The institution will specify the syllabus for the 32, 3-credit subjects that the students will be examined on and appoint one or more agencies that have the physical facilities to conduct online examinations across the country. Student will pay and register for a series of examinations, subject to meeting prerequisites, and on successful completion accumulate credits towards the final degree.

In parallel, the UGC will invite teachers across the country to create online Youtube content for the subjects necessary to pass the examinations. Any teacher in any college anywhere in the country can start creating content. If the economic incentive -- in terms of the upfront as well as the monthly payouts -- is adequate, a large volume of high quality content will get generated over a period of time and the best part of the deal is that a significant part of the government expenditure will be directed towards content that students find useful and actually view or use.

For the 32 subjects, leading to a 96 credit bachelors degree, 640 modules have to be created. At Rs 1000 per module, the upfront cost to the government is a paltry Rs 6.4 lakhs if we assume only one set of videos are produced, though in reality multiple teachers may prepare the same videos and compete for popularity. The teacher on the other hand gets Rs 20,000 for creating 20 lecture-modules and then at Rs 20 per view, can easily make another Rs 20,000 per month if his 20 modules are viewed even 1000 times. In fact a fraction of the money received through the 3G/4G auctions would be more than adequate to pay teachers for creating content that will be accessed through these networks

Since students have the flexibility to view lectures from any of the ‘competing’ teachers who are teaching the same subject  enterprising teachers can create social media groups in Google+ or Linkedin and add value to their lectures by creating discussion threads where students can ask questions and clear doubts. This will enhance the popularity of the lectures, increase viewership and lead to higher payouts. In fact, a dedicated social media network, like the Kollaborative Klassroom at Praxis Business School, should be created as well for this purpose.

But the key to the success of any educational initiative in India is job placements. IITs, IIMs command respect, not for what they teach but for the jobs that their students get. So the capstone or pinnacle of this new educational architecture must be a forward integration with a job portal like Naukri or Monster that has a pro-active, professional placement mechanism built around a business model that earns money from successful placements. Those who pass examinations and qualify for the degree should be automatically registered on the portal and actively marketed to corporates. Since the portal makes money from placements, the feedback that it collects from recruiters must be used by the degree granting institution to define curricula and refine syllabi so that the skill gap can be narrowed significantly.

The problem with MOOCs is that without a strong motivation to complete, most students drop out, which is why we need the strong attraction of a degree and job placement at the end. Most of the components of this new ecosystem are already available. It only needs a little money from the government and an enterprising administrative mechanism to connect all the dots and assemble a bold new way of delivering quality education to students and money to good teachers.
this article originally appeared in Swarajya - the magazine that reads india right