New Delhi: There’s much buzz that the National Digital University (NDU) to be launched this year will help India become a “Vishwa Guru” by offering university credit programmes on the government’s Swayam portal for massive open online courses (MOOCs).
But five years since its launch, Swayam is confronting dismal course completion rates, disillusioned students, and weary teachers.
Ministry of education data shows that between January and June of 2021, three crore students signed up for courses on the Swayam portal, but only 11.3 lakh registered for exams and got a certificate. This essentially means that less than 4 per cent of enrolled students completed their courses.
“Setting better benchmarks to determine the success of MOOCs is the need of the hour. It is essential that we ensure students complete their courses and appear for the exam,” said Ajay Semalty, a professor at Uttarakhand’s HNB Garhwal University and a member of its Swayam Board.
When Swayam, which stands for Study Webs of Active-Learning for Young Aspiring Minds, was launched by the Union education ministry in 2017, hopes were high that it would help democratise education by making a variety of courses available for free to students across the country — in line with the new National Education Policy’s thrust on “access, equity, and quality”.
However, several students and professors ThePrint spoke to cited issues on all three fronts.
Students’ complaints include uninspired teaching, lack of flexibility, outdated course materials, and far-off exam centres, although some drop out since their aim is supplementing their learning rather than acquiring a certificate.
Professors, too, have their own share of complaints, including lack of infrastructure, a paucity of training, inadequate compensation to prepare digital content, and difficulties in teaching certain subjects, especially from the humanities. Some also said that formulating and uploading courses required a cumbersome approvals process.
These issues become particularly relevant with the upcoming launch of the National Digital University (NDU), which Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in the 2022 Budget.
Intended to help solve the problem of seat shortage in higher education institutions, the NDU framework allows students to sign up for the courses of their choice, each of which will have a certain number of credits. When students gather sufficient credits from partnered universities, they can apply for a degree from the NDU.
All the courses will be offered through Swayam, where the existing snags in the teaching and learning process point towards broader issues with online higher education.
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Swayam’s journey so far
Back in 2016, then human resources development minister Smriti Irani unveiled the ambitious plan to launch Swayam as a repository of MOOCs, or free online courses, covering subjects from high school onwards.
The idea essentially expanded the scope of the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL), a MOOCs platform started by a grouping of seven Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 2003. The NPTEL is currently a repository of courses in engineering, basic sciences, and select humanities and management subjects
The Swayam portal was launched in July 2017, but gained visibility during the pandemic as the push for quality online education increased.
The platform seemed well-equipped to provide it, especially since the University Grants Commission appointed various top education bodies and universities to regulate the content and act as national coordinators — for instance, NPETL for engineering, the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Bangalore for management, and the National Council of Educational Research and Training (NCERT) and the National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) for school education.
Presently, Swayam has nine national coordinators, as well as 4,575 local chapters that work to build awareness about MOOCs on the platform.
The objective of the platform is to facilitate hosting of online courses, usually ranging from four to 16 weeks, accessible free of cost by anyone, anywhere, and at any time. To give the exam for certification in a course, however, students have to pay a fee of Rs 1,000.
On this last front, there is not much uptake. But while some professors are concerned about the number of exam enrollments, others say it is not necessarily a problem.
“We have an exam enrollment rate of 20-50 per cent. I don’t see it negatively,” said Ramkrishna Pasumarthy, an IIT Madras professor and the national coordinator of NPETL.
“Sometimes, students and working professionals enroll in courses for different reasons — certification may not be their end goal. Sometimes they may also enroll simply because they want refresher courses,” he added.
Cumbersome procedure, lack of infra
With the launch of the new National Education Policy in 2020, the push for digital education seems to have become more formalised and prescriptive.
In a July 2022 order, for instance, the UGC asked universities to offer up to 40 per cent of their courses in any programme online on Swayam. Many professors opposed the move at the time, citing lack of resources as well as the academic usefulness of the idea.
Preparing a MOOC is an unwieldy endeavour, professors claim, especially amid overstretched schedules and faculty shortages.
While the IITs are set up with adequate infrastructure to create MOOCs, which is something they have been doing via the NPETL since 2003, and follow a simpler uploading procedure, professors from state and central universities admitted to struggling.
One professor from a state university described the process as more gruelling than applying for a research grant.
The professors first need to send their course proposal for approval to the Ministry of Education or their national/state coordinators. Once the course is approved, the professor needs to design, record, and upload the content.
It can take over 40 hours to create an online course with 20 sessions, and the entire process from start to finish takes about eight or more months. Despite putting in the hard work, professors say they often receive negative feedback about their delivery skills. In addition to this, some professors claim that the remuneration for creating MOOCs is not worth the effort, when overheads are factored in.
According to a notification by the UGC in 2017, a sum of Rs 4.5 lakh was the budget for a MOOC’s subject matter experts and reviewers for 40 hours of content creation and recording work; Rs 9 lakhs were sanctioned as production cost.
Semalty, who teaches pharmaceutical science at the HNB Garhwal University in Uttarakhand, added that there are some unique struggles for professors who want to record MOOCs in the state.
“The number of studios in Uttarakhand is abysmally low. For professors wanting to take the initiative, the process is long and arduous. Due to difficulty in terrain and accessing studios, several qualified and interested professors drop out,” he said.
Humanities & commerce underrepresented
According to a list collated by online course aggregator Class Central, as of January 2023, the Swayam portal has 410 science and technology-related courses — 231 for engineering, 58 for computer science, 23 for health and medicine, 60 for mathematics, 19 for programming, 12 on data science, and seven for information security.
In contrast, it has only 270 courses for all other subjects: 96 for social sciences, 58 for humanities, 18 for art and design, 17 for education and training, and 81 for business.
Some professors pointed to difficulties in teaching certain subjects online.
For instance, Debraj Mookerjee, who teaches English literature at Delhi University’s Ramjas College, suggested that a lot got lost in translation while imparting instruction online.
“If I want to explain the beauty of a sonnet or a poem, it will have to be through a dialogue in the classroom. Of course, there can be some theoretical bits that can be taught in a single dimensional and instructional format of a recorded lecture but for the most part, content needs to be delivered offline,” he said.
However, Dr Dhiraj Sanghi, director of Punjab Engineering College (deemed to be university) in Chandigarh, believes that MOOCs are helpful in institutes which do not have specialised faculty for all subjects.
“In subjects where we do not have faculty, our students take the course on Swayam. Our present faculty helps them with doubt solving and assignments,” he said.
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‘Not flexible enough’, distant exam centres
Of the 10 students ThePrint spoke to, seven said they did not complete their Swayam MOOCs course and dropped out midway for reasons like monotonous teaching and lack of flexibility in the study schedule. Far off offline examination centres was another limiting factor.
Take the case of Kashish Shivani, a third-year student of Delhi’s Gargi College. She says she enrolled in a MOOC course in her first semester but dropped it mid-way since the examination centre was too far.
“I took up a course called ‘Introduction to Cultural Studies’, but did not complete it because the examination centre was very far, and during the pandemic it made no sense to expose oneself in an offline centre for a certificate course,” she said.
While exams for MOOCs courses were cancelled during the first two years of the pandemic, many students dropped out of courses fearing long travel and unnecessary expenses.
Other students simply found it difficult to keep up with study requirements and thus got disappointing results.
Ria Singh, a former student of mass communications at Jamia Millia Islamia, a central university in Delhi, says she took up an online course in the aesthetics of philosophy but scored poorly on the exam.
“I took that course so that I could finish my documentary projects. But after attending the first couple of sessions I had to spend some time working on other assignments. When I logged back into my account to finish the course, I realised I had missed scheduled lectures and assignment deadlines,” she said.
She asked: “If a MOOC is just like a classroom session which is scheduled and delivered at fixed times, only online, how does it offer students any flexibility?”
Singh added that maintaining interest was also difficult since she found the content delivery flat and the visuals unhelpful.
“The professor had visual effects of birds flying and chirping behind them. It had nothing to do with the subject,” she said.
Several of her batchmates ThePrint spoke to also claimed that they faced difficulties travelling to the exam centre, which was 20km from the campus.
A student who wished to remain anonymous said: “I reached the centre last minute and was not allowed to sit for the exam.” This, she added, was because the test was online/automated and the teacher at the centre did not know how to start it late.
Another 23-year-old postgraduate student said that she dropped out because the MOOC course she took did not “add value” to her education.
“The course was on communication and after I enrolled I realised that the content was not any different from what I was learning in my class,” she said.
Need for training, personalised interventions
Several professors and students ThePrint spoke to claim that there is a dire need for training and assessment workshops for professors to gauge and improve their delivery skills.
As retired IIT-Kanpur professor T.V Prabhakar put it, an online course is like a “media event” and not all teachers were up to the job of performing.
“Not everyone is comfortable on camera. We need to create a system of checks wherein only those who are passionate performers are allowed on screen. The others can be provided training to become better orators,” he said.
However, there is no simple solution to keeping students motivated enough to complete MOOCs.
For instance, a large-scale 2020 study attempted to identify what kinds of behavioural interventions might help students with “low persistence” in online courses.
The researchers tracked over 250,000 students from several countries in 247 MOOCs offered by Harvard, Stanford, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) for a period of 2.5 years, and found that keeping diverse students engaged from beginning to end was not a simple task.
“Online education provides unprecedented access to learning opportunities… but adequately supporting diverse students will require more than a light-touch intervention,” the researchers wrote. The interventions studied included behavioural measures like plan-making and ensuring social accountability.
To make MOOCs effective, interventions have to be targeted “depending on individual and contextual characteristics,” the researchers added.
Targeted interventions, of course, are not easy to implement in an online learning set-up due to a lack of the kind of support infrastructure and personalised attention that may be found in a classroom.
And in the case of digital classrooms with unlimited members, as proposed for the National Digital University, the challenge only increases.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)
Update: Retired IIT professor Prabhakar T.V’s name was earlier incorrectly published as P.V. Prabhakar.
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