What I found interesting in the world of higher education last week, with some added thoughts and views. I work for the Times of India Group. All views are personal.

The Point is MOOC 

What do I think about MOOCs? What do I think of their impact? How do I think they will evolve?

Enough has been said and written about MOOCs. So for this post to be useful reading, I need to look at aspects or implications of MOOCs that have not been examined. Now that isn’t easy, given that the subject has been endlessly dissected, explored and commented on by almost all and sundry, be they educationists or not. Still, here is my take and I think it is worth your time.

I see this as the first of many posts, as my thinking evolves with the developments in this fast-changing space. From time to time, I hope to revisit ideas and suggestions made, and see if they still hold water.

1) For all the hype and the numbers registering for MOOCs (popular MOOCs see registration of 100K+, though 20K is the average; from Katy Jordan), the actual completion rates are in single digits (7.6% according to this take on Ms Jordan’s 2013 survey). This does increase when students have some skin in the game – those students who sign up for Coursera’s Signature Track program, where they pay about $50 for a certificate proving that they themselves have taken the course, implying that it is being used to signal to employers, sees completion rates of about 70%.

One of the key reasons MOOCs see low completion rates is because they are fundamentally a badly designed product. A well-designed educational product (I will look at what well-designed means, in detail in a later post) such as school or college almost always has Calendaring (Credit to Lokesh Gupta for introducing me to the term) built in. By Calendaring, I mean an automatic slot for learning built in, such as a program which has 2 defined slots in the evenings. By the very nature of MOOCs which are “massively online” programs designed for flexibility, calendaring impossible.

In the absence of Calendaring, you need powerful incentives such as an independent assessment leading to an employer-recognized certification (such as CFA or ACSM CPT exams). Since this is missing as well, we are likely to see MOOCs haunted by low completion rates for a long time to come.

2) MOOCs enable different age-groups to be part of the same ‘classroom’. As much as 2/3rds of MITX MOOC students are graduates or upwards. The recent Stanford2025 Initiative discussed 4 reinventions of the undergrad education model, one of which (Open Loop University) was an admissions process which looked at age-blind admissions and not the present one which focuses exclusively on admitting 17-19 yr olds.

MOOCs are already there in the diversity of their student cohorts. What if every university had a parallel MOOC track for its courses? Now it might be an administrative challenge doing this for all the courses, but it might be doable if it was restricted to say the Common Core or certain courses such as Great Books etc which benefits from diverse perspectives. In order to make it viable, Universities could also charge students who sign on for Live or Concurrent MOOCs. Completion of a Concurrent MOOC would automatically confer a certificate, attracting certification-seekers. This could make for a new revenue stream as well.

Incidentally the course that really set off the MOOC phenomenon, Introduction to AI by Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig was a concurrent MOOC. Strange that Concurrent MOOCs haven’t become a standard since then. Incidentally a Concurrent MOOC also has another advantage. It forces Calendaring – I think this is one of the reasons 23,000 out of 160,000 (nearly 15%) completed Thrun’s AI course, twice the normal rate.

3) MOOCs have also been used, on a one-off basis to select promising undergraduates. In a previous post, I mentioned about how MIT recruited Battushig Myanganbayar, a 16-yr old Mongolian Whizkid who came to MIT’s attention after he aced the Circuits & Electronics MOOC on edX.

What if top-end colleges such as MIT, Stanford etc could roll out a series of MOOCs aimed at high-school students, or restrict a couple of MOOCs only to K12 students? Performance on these MOOCs could bring performers to the notice of MIT’s recruiting office. Thus these K12 MOOCs could become the equivalent of a long-drawn out admissions test, especially for students outside the US. In fact Universities could also charge students in select affluent geographies for signing up. I would consider this as one of the Signalling possibilities that MOOCs offer.

Another Signalling possibility would be for a University to offer a ‘Scholar’ or ‘Member’ status to students who complete an x number of MOOCs. Thus anyone doing at least 3 MOOCs from MIT could be invited to become an MITx Scholar (or Member) by paying $10. This would entitle him to monthly newsletters, invites to MIT events (maybe a restricted list of events and select swag / merchandise. There is potential through MOOCs to create the geek equivalent of Man U / Arsenal following.

A related idea – What if there was a LinkedIn Badge (MITx Scholar etc) that could be unlocked (managed) only by the University and then offered by LinkedIn / Xing etc. This becomes equivalent to a certification badge, verifying that the owner of the profile is a genuine MITx scholar.


To summarize, I have listed 3 concepts and related ideas

–          Calendaring and how the lack of it impacts MOOCS
–          How Concurrent MOOCs could help drive Calendaring and also bring in revenue
–          Signalling potential of MOOCs – How performance in select K12 only courses (paid-for) could be used by Universities as a recruitment tool; and how Universities could invite those who have completed a select number of MOOC courses to become members (for a small fee), and thereby meet these members’ personal branding needs.



Just in case you still haven’t had your fill of MOOCs, a look at Simon Nelson, the head of Oxford University’s MOOC initiative FutureLearn, a venture that hopes to reduce the “loneliness of distance learning”.


Harvard is experimenting with hybrid courses that blend its traditional courses with MOOC material. The results are mixed.


Turf war between UGC and IITs. Why is UGC taking on IITs? Because if the IITs can offer 4-year BSc degrees, then other private universities could appeal to the courts that they have been discriminated against, and use it to overturn the ban on 4-year BA and BSc degrees. There is a lot at stake for the UGC on this than is apparent on the surface.


Controversy around the role of English in India’s Civil Services Exam. If you are curious about the exam, then this story by Hindu Business Line is worth a read.


Ed-Tech funding is going strong. VCs aren’t too bothered that their previous investments have yet to yield any big wins.


Johns Hopkins is not having a good run in Asia. It ended its partnership with Malaysia’s Perdana University. This is its second divorce in Asia – the previous one was in Singapore.


Not everyone is happy with Peking University’s new superelite Masters Program aimed at attracting global students. The Masters program offered by Peking University’s Yenching Academy seems to be a kneejerk reaction to Tsinghua University’s Schwarzmann Scholars program, and not a carefully thought-through initiative. That is perhaps the key issue here. Here is NYT on Yenching Academy and the ensuing controversy.


Education-driven segmentation in the Indian marriage market.