The Rise of Virtual Universities

INR 12,50,000. This hefty sum, on an *average*, is what it takes for a student to get through graduate college in the US. Despite the existence of world class universities, state of the art infrastructure and teaching facilities, the pedantic appetites of a majority of students who cannot afford expensive college tuition goes unsatiated.  While this is the case in the west, the opposite face of the earth presents an entirely different problem. In developing Asian countries, the global market for qualified professionals is under a major manpower crunch and their governments are investing in human capital building by sponsoring most of the college expenses of the student. However with the increasing number of substandard colleges and universities, the quality of education has taken a nosedive. The declining student-professor ratio, even in premier colleges adds to the problem. This makes the existing professors spend most of their time teaching students and training faculty, rather than devoting their time to R & D.

At a juncture like this, when Salman Khan, a Boston analyst first created math videos for his nephew, he could not have realized how revolutionary his idea would be. Encouraged by the popularity that his Youtube videos attained, he quit his high paying job and created Khan Academy with the sole purpose of dispensing knowledge free of cost. Now initiatives like MIT’s OCW, NewBoston and our very own NPTEL (which we covered in the previous issue) are freely available to anyone with a computer,an internet connection and a passion to learn. While the above ventures started off as social initiatives, entrepreneurs around the world have now warmed up to the idea of disrupting the education industry by leveraging modern technology. On that front, Sebastian Thrun and Andrew NG, both professors at Stanford, have started independent ventures to offer free and fully graded online courses with an option to monetize them for additional certification in the future. – Elaborate courses on natural  language processing, the game theory, designing algorithms and computer security. – Straight from the classrooms of MIT, ocw offers courses in AI, street-fighting mathematics and music , to name a few. - Stanford backed video lectures in Anatomy, SaaS, cryptography, Machine Learning, Model Thinking. –  Famous for video tutorials known to teach any computer programming language within a week. Also has tutorials on adobe products and several game plays. – Want to get a grasp of over-the-head economics and finance? With over 119,421,881 lessons in mainly mathematics and capital markets, Khan academy is the place to be to get your basics right. aggregator of all freely available online resources. Includes content from the above mentioned sites and much more.


How its done

The teaching methodology employed in most online courses is centred around packets of short, informative videos each covering a concept of a larger topic. To keep students engaged, questions pop up periodically and give the lectures a classroom feel. A virtual discussion board with user rated comments help in clearing doubts and mentoring. There’s a lot of emphasis given to homework and their timely submission. Khan Academy, in particular, has developed an open source framework where teachers can set questions and tag them with hints and difficulty levels. Thus homework can be customized to a student’s aptitude level and optimized to suit his pace of learning. Moreover as the course content is entirely digital as opposed to in print, teachers can incorporate any new advances in that particular field as and when they occur.

Apart from the advanced teaching practices, the main attraction for any student to this kind of system is the fact that he is free to choose any subject of his liking. This is especially alluring to Asian students where the competition for every course is immense. Factoring in soaring college tuition, this model is turning out to be a highly viable option to students across the globe. So what is the missing part of the puzzle, the one final ingredient that could put a nail on traditional universities’ coffins?


Delivery Platforms

If the end-users -the students – cannot avail of the latest course work in an economically viable fashion, the entire ecosystem would come to a screeching halt. Questionable internet infrastructure in many countries and the inability to afford electronic devices to consume educational content remains a major roadblock for widespread adoption of online education. Efforts are being made, foremost among them by the Government of India which has pioneered the production of low cost internet tablets. The indigenous Aakash tablet can play local and Youtube videos after hooking up to a Wifi connection. In the west, Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iPad has found extensive use in classrooms. Taking things forward, Apple recently announced its iBooks platform where anyone could easily author interactive books with embedded images, videos, graphs and demos.


The future

Traditional universities will always have an upper hand over online offerings when it comes to interaction amongst peers. The role of universities as agglomerators of inquisitive people, interacting and sharing ideas has always been understated. Learning by oneself, the student loses out on ‘the inductive effect’ as it is popularly known – the mysterious desire to acquire knowledge that rubs off on you when in the company of other competitive classmates. The virtual classrooms have the drawback that only theoretical knowledge can be imparted online, and lesser practical knowledge more often than not means lesser employability.

But clearly, the positives outnumber the negatives. Keeping in mind the manifold development and the ever increasing reach of technology, the online model of learning has exciting prospects in store. In the very near future, we can expect students to take up online courses seriously as their main education and not only as a supplement, thus encouraging inter-discipline study. Quality education could reach every corner of the world leaping over economic and bureaucratic boundaries. This wave of change has the potential to permanently alter the way we see universities & colleges. The seeds of this idea have been sown. It is for us to wait and watch when it germinates and achieves its true potential.