Why tier-X engineering institutions of India need MOOCs?
In this article, I would like to describe how a student of non-ivy league college can compose a career she/he aspires to, what is lacking in a tier-X engineering college, the expectations of the industry from academia and how online courses can come handy in all these circumstances.
I graduated from a tier-2 college in Kerala, India. My under-graduation alma mater was, maybe tier-3 in the state. Well, there are legit official metrics to divide these tiers, but my view is from a student’s angle. In that perspective, aspects like minimum rank in entrance examinations for admission, placement history, and alumni are the primary judging factors on the selection of a college/university.
To cut a long story short, I’m not an alumnus of any ivy league institutions in India. I don’t have the prestigious tags of IITs, NITs, BITS et. al. I tried twice to get in, for graduation and under graduation, but both of the times, I couldn’t make it. My bad.
If you don’t have an ivy league alma mater, well, you don’t have ivy league alma mater. It does matter at times, be it your career or higher studies or whatever you would like to do after your college. From irksome relatives to hiring managers, people do judge you upon that node. But you can’t dissolve just because you didn’t get into a top institution right? :D
The crowd I would like to address in this article, are the engineering students in India who couldn’t make it big to an ivy league, admitted in a tier-X engineering college and interested in an engineering career. Since I have the similar background, I know how much worried this group would be, about their career and the very future. In the rest of this article, I would like to explain how this group can get benefitted from MOOCs to fit themselves in the job market and thus build a fabulous professional life.
What are MOOCs?
MOOC, the abbreviation of Massive Opening Online Course were first introduced in 2006 and emerged as a favorite mode of learning in 2012. Before the digital age, we had correspondence courses for distant learning. When internet grew, we saw the initial forms of MOOCs as e-learning. But these models were sloppy; the dropout rates were high. The 2000s saw radical changes in online presence, MOOCs were launched with the aim of unlimited participation and open access via the web.
MOOCs are not just a bunch of recorded lecture videos, like e-learning. They provide interactive user forums to support community interactions among students, professors, and teaching assistants (TAs). The faculty are the pioneers in the respective field and courses are focused on skill building. The assignments and evaluations are time bounded and challenging.
Let’s examine three potential areas of the Indian engineering education system where MOOCs can help out immensely.
1. The active gap between academia and industry: Skills
Indian engineering education system has some fundamental flaws. We fumble the fact that engineering is intrinsically experimental, not theoretical. In fact, most of the vital engineering principles are formulated empirically not the other way around. When we experiment theories, we understand the methods better, develop new ones, and along with that most importantly, we learn new skills. If skill development is unprioritized in academia, students will miss the cause of the degree itself. Because, once the course is over, they are thrown into the job market, where the elemental interest is skills.
I’ll elaborate the aforementioned with an example. Consider a mechanical engineering student who studies about the lathe machine. She/he learns about its working, father of lathe, year of invention and solves equations of its design paradigm. During the examination, she/he writes about all these stuff with a neat diagram, full mark is assured. Neither the student nor her/his lecturer (Could be someone who was unemployed after his masters, joined the lecturer post for a brief setup. Again, the lecturer is helpless since the system is expected to work in this fashion.) thinks about the practical aspect of it. As a matter of fact, the student is not going to design a lathe machine by hand in her/his career. ( If there were such jobs, the temporary lecturer would’ve got it for sure, because she/he studied the same at her/his times. ) Meanwhile, in industry, Ansys , a 3D simulation & design software is used for design applications. While modeling lathe on Ansys, the student gets the chance to explore the design in a whole new viewpoint, she/he can extend it to even machines which are not in the curriculum. She/He becomes a practitioner of her/his knowledge and discovers much more engineering design in industrial level. Now, a lathe machine in the textbook is the theory, and Ansys is a sought skill in the job market , learning lathe with Ansys will be the perfect blend of theory and practice. This combination will deliver industry fit candidates out of college.
But there are labs in our engineering curriculum to address this concern, ain’t it? What if the above example is little deluding?
A tier-X engineering college student might’ve have seen a method executed by bulk placement-santas like TCS and other service industry tycoons. They first send their recruits to a 6 to 12 months training program, which is envisioned to build industry fit, skilled professionals. This particular action validates the argument of the active skill gap between academia and industry. Yes, we’ve labs in our curriculum, but unfortunately, they are no match for the industry standards. Moreover, all these employers are aware of it.
Another anxious find is this Ficci-Nasscom report  which says, by 2022, 9% Indians will be in jobs that don’t exist today. Again, this report manifests that the industry evolves much faster than the academia, how are we going to prepare our students for such a volatile ecosystem is a simmering question.
Talking about new skills, we can’t ignore the unusual significance of computer science in engineering nowadays. Back in 2016, I’ve written an article on the topic Why all should learn how to code . In that article, I’ve explained about the importance which great universities gives to computer science while setting up their departments and curriculum. Even the topics which are barely related to computer science explicitly, are now learned and practiced more effectively with the help computation; we’ve computational cell biology  to computational psychiatry . But, why computer science? Why not chemistry or civil engineering?
In last 100 years of human history, the most volatile technological area is computer science. In an Atlantic report on the topic The 50 Greatest Breakthroughs Since the Wheel , Internet and Personal computers are the youngest yet the most influential technologies that changed our world forever. From Turing’s Machine  which cracked Enigma code in 1936 to quantum computers and q-bits of 2018 , computer science not just matured itself, it revolutionized everything around us including the way we think  and learn . It is applicable and scalable almost everywhere. Computers are less vulnerable to mistakes and working environment. They can take logical and optimal decisions, sometimes even better than humans . The progress in mathematical modeling of physical phenomena and growth of semiconductor technologies helped computers to govern all its applied fields.
No matter which branch of engineering you’re enrolled, the real-life practice of that stream will require computation. And computation requires set of instructions to be performed by a computer, no wonder, coding is becoming the rudimentary skill of 21st century. So brace yourselves, future engineering job market might not need someone who ignored computer science completely. No, I’m not implying that everyone should become software engineers, rather we should accept the reality that programming and software skills are becoming basic abilities for any future engineering jobs.
Sadly, in India, as quoted by Hindu Business Line , only 4.77 % candidates can write the correct pseudocode for a problem — a minimum requirement for any programming job.
Keeping up with the pace of industrial trends requires the periodic update of the curriculum, but that’s not something Indian education system is well acquainted with. So, at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of an engineering student to have the idea about the current booms in business, the jobs that are disappearing, and the ones which are popping out. Along with that information, she/he can plan how she/he is going to fit in the job market.
When traditional academia is sluggish in building these essential skills, a MOOC is primarily designed to build skills. Every course, we see in MOOC platforms like Coursera, edX, Udacity, etc. is a reflection of the current job market. The providers study the current job trends to design courses. Enrolling such a timely class will help students to be aware and ready to suit themselves in the industry. For example, as we are beholding the growing buzz of Artificial Intelligence(AI), all the MOOC platforms are providing high-quality courses to learn and practice AI.
The profits don’t stop there. Micromasters , an initiative by edX, offers a series of sessions on specific topics while collaborating with industrial giants. Each MicroMasters(MM) is sponsored by at least one industry partner, currently a list of 40 which includes GE, Microsoft, IBM, Hootsuite, Fidelity, Bloomberg, Boeing, WalMart, PWC, Booz-Allen Hamilton, and Ford. Again, MM presents the exceptional opportunity with university credits. It is simple, you enroll and complete the courses in MM, then apply to the university that accepts your MicroMasters certificate for credit, if admitted in that university, your credits will be transferred to the coursework. You only need to take courses for the remaining credits. For undergraduate students who would like to study abroad for their graduation, this is a great deal. Some of the universities which accept MM credits are Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Columbia University, Indian Institute of Management, Australian National University, University of Michigan and Rochester Institute of Technology.
Udacity is providing a chance to earn a Developer Scholarship from Google , and it is open to Indian residents who are eager to master web and mobile development skills. Again, Udacity’s Nanodegrees are built with industry experts and leading technology companies from Silicon Valley like Google, Amazon, and Facebook, to ensure the student to master the skills she/he needs to meet the requirements of the industry.
Thus, these programs become a three-way arrangement between educator, student, and employer.
2. The quality of faculty
A trend is mounting up in our country that people who don’t have an option for employment after engineering, go to teaching in a tier-X engineering college for a temporary setup. Again, this is the aftereffect of the aforementioned skill gap. Many tier-X colleges are functioning with these temporary faculties, which is economically favorable for the management. This bias itself can tamper the quality of education.
Concurrently, a significant percentage of permanent faculties in tier-X engineering institutions misuse their comfort zones. I’ll give you a quick example. In tier-X colleges of India, professors have paid vacation. That is, they’re actually get paid in semester breaks. But to our surprise, an MIT professor doesn’t have such a privilege . Now think about it, the quality difference between candidates both professors are creating?
Again, lack of research aspirations, industry collaboration, and credible personal projects among the faculties make them unfit to inspire their students. Teaching becomes an exercise with less or no intellectual effort, the art of storytelling is not even worth considering at this scene. This culture is apparently horrendous, but there is no quick fix for it. Establishing the quality of faculty would be a long-term process which requires a lot of restructuring and benchmarking. A student who does a 4-year degree, can’t wait till the new dawn to happen to set up his career.
Why great teachers matter?
In his last lecture , the famous MIT professor Walter Lewin quoted about how to learn Physics.
You’ve to love it. If you don’t love it, don’t touch it. And if you hate it, it is because you had a very bad teacher. I make my every student … love physics.
Lewin knows that physics is so intriguing that no one can hate it. Still, if someone hates it, then the most responsible person for that trouble, would be the teacher who introduced Physics to them. It applies to every subject we learn, not just Physics.
Teaching requires passionate intellectual effort and storytelling. People don’t just get abstract ideas without examples. Once they don’t get it, they’ll miss out the fun of it. And once they lose the joy, they’ll start hating it. Now imagine, say if you hate coding, how about making a living out of it after college?
In MOOCs, the scene is diametrically opposite. You can learn Python from Eric Grimson , the Bernard Gordon Chair of Medical Engineering at MIT. Keith Devlin , Executive Director, H-STAR Institute, Stanford University, will introduce you to Introduction to Mathematical Thinking. Sebastian Thrun , the founder of Google X and Google’s self-driving car team, may teach you Self Driving Cars at Udacity.
In a click away, you’re getting the world-class teaching from the pioneers in your interested field. You couldn’t make it to Stanford or MIT for attending their lectures, through MOOCs they are coming to your living room for teaching you at your convenience. How cool that would be, ain’t it?
3. Enforced disciplines in Engineering
If we examine the history of science and engineering, it was always interdisciplinary. Micheal Faraday  who is famous for Electromagnetic Induction, also isolated and identified benzene. Geoffrey Hinton  who is known to be Godfather of Artificial Intelligence did his bachelors in experimental psychology.
However, between students in India, there is a misconception about core jobs. Say, I studied electrical engineering, I’m destined to vest my life in high power generators. This attitude is futile. You’ve joined an electrical course, doesn’t mean that you should be working on maintenance of electric motors. You can optimize the brain imaging machinery too. That is the gracious virtue of an engineering career.
When we tag ourselves as an Electrical Engineer or Mechanical Engineer, we abstain from the fact that engineering is inherently applied. A right engineer is someone who can solve a problem by applying his domain knowledge. Same time, to understand a problem in another field, one should have a basic grip on that discipline too. In favor of that prospect i.e. to create engineers with multi-discipline knowledge, optional subjects are added to our curriculum. However, in tier-X colleges, most of the times there won’t be a faculty with domain knowledge for all optional subjects, the students are forced to learn a topic with faculty is available.
MOOCs can help with this problem as well. MOOC platforms offer courses on supply chain management  to neuroscience ; students can get acquainted with a broad spectrum of topics. This facility helps students to widen the application of their domain knowledge to multiple terrains.
Coming to a halt, I would add some aspects of MOOCs yet not discussed. As years gone by, MOOCs have achieved many milestones. Despite their potential to support learning and education, MOOCs have a major concern related to attrition rates and course drop out. Even though the number of learners who enroll in the courses tends to be in the thousands range, only a very small portion of the enrolled learners complete the course. According to the visualizations and analysis conducted by Katy Jordan (2015) , the investigated MOOCs have a typical enrollment of 25,000, even though enrollment has reached a value up to ~230,000. Jordan reports that the average completion rate for such MOOCs is approximately 15%. Early data from Coursera suggest a completion rate of 7%–9%. Coffrin et al.  (2012) report the completion rates are even lower (between 3 and 5%), while they say there is a consistent and noticeable decline in the number of students who participate in the course every week. Others have also shown attrition rates similar to Coffrin. Yang et al.  (2013) suggest that even though there is a large proportion of students who drop out early on due to a variety of reasons, there is a significant proportion of the students who remain in the course and drop out later, thus causing attrition to happen over time.
Having said that, research indicates that completion rates are not the right metric to measure the success of MOOCs. Alternate metrics  are proposed to measure the effectiveness of MOOCs and online learning. I personally believe that dropping out is a choice a student can always take, but before making that choice, she/he should evaluate the worth of its returns. It tests your perseverance, patience, learning capacity, adaptiveness, and aptitude, implicitly the course is helping you to understand who you truly are. And trust me, there is always room for improvement for these personal skills, else I wouldn’t be completing almost 15+ MOOC certifications in last two years.
Finally, the tale in the early days of the MOOC space was around the disruption to universities. Now, we know that MOOCs are not going to lead to the demise of universities. However, according to the previous CEO of Coursera, Rick Levin, while MOOCs may not have disrupted the higher education market, they are disrupting the labor market and it’s been a long time Indian engineering industry is yearning for such a disruption in the talent search and supply.
I’m adding the link to my Quora profile, where I write answers on FAQs of MOOCs.
So, Happy MOOCing Everyone :D
3. MOOCs Wiki