Taking the plunge – IITB joins edX

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With the advent of websites like Khan Academy, Udacity, Coursera and edX, geographical barriers are being brought down and free education, in its truest sense, has become a reality. Being a strong proponent of this school of thought, IITB too has taken the plunge into this open-for-all non-profit online learning enterprise and has launched three courses on the edX platform – Introduction to Computer Programming (Parts 1 & 2) by Prof. D.B. Phatak and Thermodynamics by Prof. Uday Gaitonde.

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Why edX?

It was announced on June 25, 2013 that IITB had signed an MoU with edX, becoming the 28th global university of the xConsortium composed of leading global universities like MIT, Harvard and Cornell. As to the events which engendered these developments, there was a committee set up which included the then-Dean AP Prof. Shiva Prasad and Dean R & D, for choosing a suitable partner from amongst the well-known alternatives, and zeroed in on edX. The decision to partner with edX was influenced by several factors. One is that edX is a non-profit organization, initially funded by contributions from MIT and Harvard. While there is nothing wrong with for-profit organisations, the comfort level of IITB is greater otherwise. Another is MIT’s Open Courseware history, which is in consonance with IITB’s policy to open-source as much content as possible. Last but not the least, is their decision to open source the edX platform itself, for future collaborative development. The current edX platform is to be modified and deployed for Indian usage, which removes the hassle of creating a new online platform from scratch and will significantly reduce development efforts and time.

Motivation and long-term goals

When asked about the motivation, goals and expectations regarding this venture, Prof. Phatak, who spearheaded IITB’s involvement with edX, says that the captioned idea sprung up from deliberations with the HRD ministry, CDEEP (Centre for Distance Engineering Education) and other related parties in the institute. The aim is to provide courses for a wide range of objectives.

The chairman of AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education), Dr. Mantha, announced last year, that AICTE may permit up to 15% of the credits of a degree to be obtained through MOOCs.

IITB proposes to adopt a blended model of MOOCs which will address the limitations that exist in their present form. Acceptance by Universities throughout India is a vital part of this vision. The quality of engineering education in Indian colleges suffers primarily because of the rigidity of our University system. The prescribed syllabus changes at a snail’s pace, questions in examinations are mostly descriptive, problem-solving abilities do not get adequately tested and students resort to guide-books to ace their exams with the least possible amount of study. MOOCs permit learners to access and benefit from the teaching by renowned professors and offer an unprecedented opportunity to revitalize education. This will cause complete disintermediation of the University system, resolving the dilemma of a student of an affiliated college of the University – whether register for an MOOC with far more difficult assignments and examinations which are significantly different from standard University papers, or invest this time in guide-books which are a far more pragmatic choice apparently. In the blended model, a university should accept the grade obtained by the student in a MOOC as the grade for an equivalent university course. The chairman of AICTE (All India Council for Technical Education), Dr. Mantha, announced last year, that AICTE may permit up to 15% of the credits of a degree to be obtained through MOOCs.

The list of all courses offered by IITB as displayed on the edX website.

The list of all courses offered by IITB as displayed on the edX website.

The second component of this approach is to use a ‘flipped classroom’ model, in which students will study available digital material on their own, including viewing of pre-recorded lectures. They will then attend classroom tutorials and discussion sessions, and practise solving problems in groups, under the supervision of a teacher. In addition to this, relevant laboratories and course projects can be conducted by the affiliated colleges. The score for each student in the assignments and group project, will be directly factored into the final grade awarded by the MOOC. The weightage of the online score to the teacher’s score is proposed to be 80:20, or 85:15. This ensures that the local teacher stays an important stakeholder in the entire process.

The weightage of the online score to the teacher’s score is proposed to be 80:20, or 85:15. This ensures that the local teacher stays an important stakeholder in the entire process.

For those Indian universities which accept such MOOC grades, IITB proposes to train teachers of all affiliated colleges in this approach. In fact, IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur already conduct these large-scale training programs under NMEICT (National Mission on Education using ICT).

edX can also, in some ways, be a potential replacement/augmentation for Moodle. It has a better interface that Moodle in many ways such as multiple hierarchical levels (Branch -> Lab Batch -> Project Group) etc.

IIT Bombay and IIT Kharagpur already conduct these large-scale training programs under NMEICT (National Mission on Education using ICT).

Course development

IITB has decided to offer three courses in the next academic year, through edX. Two of them, Introduction to Computer Programming, Part 1 and Thermodynamics start on 29 July, 2014. Another one, Introduction to Computer Programming, Part 2, starts on 23 September, 2014. Another course, Signals and Systems by Prof. V.M. Gadre, is in the offing. A summer project was floated by ISPA (Institute Summer Project Allocation) concerned with the development of the Signals and Systems course.

As far as the development of these MOOCs is concerned, there is project staff apart from the teaching faculty and course TAs. The administration team interacts and coordinates all MOOC-related activities with the edX team in the USA, teaching faculty and other support teams in IIT Bombay. The studio team works on the recording and editing of the courses. The content team is involved in documentation, transcription of lectures, uploading of videos, assignments, quizzes and other course material on the edX platform. The software team gives backend support and is also involved in modifying the present edX platform for the Indian university system. During the conduct of MOOCs the faculty and teaching assistants would be involved in answering the queries from the participants on the edX platform.

The plan is to try at least one course for adoption of this blended model by multiple universities. Initially, only a limited number of students of select colleges and universities will be a part of this experiment, restricting it to about 200,000 students with involvement of about 5,000 to 8,000 teachers. After finetuning this approach from experience, it should be possible to engage all of 1,125,000 Indian students being admitted to first year of engineering degree, in some core course offered as a MOOC, in future.

Visit the following links for more details:
1. Adopting MOOCS for quality engineering education in India by Dr Deepak B. Phatak
2. IIT Bombay on edX