31 December 2016


Sanjay Kaul

It's only a matter of a few years when on-line education becomes the most sought-after mode in the world. Age will no longer be a barrier and everyone will be able to join the learning curve from wherever they want

Today out of every five people living on the planet, two have access to the internet and what’s even more amazing is that nearly all of them have a smartphone.

Pushed by the likes of edX, Khan Academy, Coursera, Udacity, Udemy et al, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) has emerged as a popular genre, growing into a full-fledged “for- profit” and “not-for-profit” industry. Two main formats are now available, one based on the connectivist approach known as cMOOC, where content could be repacked as per need and requirements. The other goes by the name of MOOCx, an extension of traditional and blended thinking with a clearly specified syllabus driven by recorded lectures and films through expert providers.

Not much of mixing, re-purposing is possible here. Ever expanding TED lectures and Khan Academy videos are the apt examples. MOOC is no longer a trend, it’s the future. Two in every three US universities offer MOOC, so it’s only a matter of a few years when on-line education is the most sought after mode in the world. Age will no longer be a barrier and everyone will be able to join the learning curve from wherever they want. In the times of virtual reality not just one session but the entire curriculum and a classroom experience on and off campus is delivered to students within their individual comfort zones.

Learning transformation: Singularity

The process of learning is transforming at a revolutionary pace. With mobile learning, cognitive computing — powered by IBM’s Watson — virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, which is also self-learning, next generation group technologies, robotics and gamification, have accelerated the process to achieve singularity. Today digitally the technologies are already mimicking “ability to comprehend” and can make humans “actually learn” in a certifiable way. It’s a stage in time when the machine world and the human world would only be distinguished by sentience. But then humanoids — robots with emotions — are already here!

Scenario today

User forums are transforming into millions of mini Think Tanks, propping interactive learning among students, teachers, researchers and the industry specialists! No longer it’s just the scholars who are learning, education is evolving real time where the community is learning through MOOC interactions supported by virtual teams, projects, assignments et al.

The rise of MOOC

MOOC was introduced on the initiative of Yale, Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Watershed developments came up in 2012 — known as the year of the MOOC — as several universities and financial institutions backed service providers like Coursera, Udacity, Khan Academy and edX emerged on the scene. The first two were prominent ‘for-profit’ players. Khan Academy and edX besides many high-end universities — Pennsylvania, UCLA (Berkeley), Texas (Austin), San Jose State turned out to be ‘not-for-profit’ partners. Threads were picked up by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Science Foundation and American Education Council. Investments came from Google and Pearson PLC. Venture capitalists too made their appearance around the same time giving a fillip to the process.

From idea to revolution

Before the universities’ move, the idea of online distance education was presented to the world by Salman Amin Khan. A hedge fund analyst, Salman started helping a cousin late in 2003 with maths. More in the family and some acquaintances joined him on his YouTube account. The turning point was when a mother wrote that her son had autism and was having a terrible time with maths till the pupil started understanding decimals and fractions through the videos put out by Salman Khan. The result was more online students, more videos and resignation from the job.

Grants started flowing and he hired more people, began uploading videos on algebra, trigonometry, grammar, English, history and lot more. Then came the Los Altos experiment, a small town near San Francisco, where interactions with the 7th graders turned into flipped classroom — studying and learning at home and doing assignments in the class.

During the trial runs, Kolkata was among the destinations connected with provision for a feedback. MOOC was in the offing as Khan’s idea was lapped up by educational institutions.

Today there is a video on every topic making use of pictures, graphs, live shots, stop motion and time lapse clips, robotics and simulations all rolled in one. Rather than teaching 30-40 in a class, a good teacher, empowered with modern gadgetry, can now make millions across boundaries learn from basic arithmetic to vector analysis, a host of other subjects, topics and courses simultaneously.

This learning is based on conduction of a sequence of specified actions called algorithms. In this era of smart learning using tablets, e-readers, laptops and smartphones, the students have a mechanism to know which mode of learning suit their system the most. Simulations are getting more and more real and simply accessing recorded lectures are replacing notes. Do schools kill creativity — Sir Ken Robinson, is a TED Talk video watched 11.3 million times. We take a rough guess of TED lecture viewers to 5-6 times their subscriber base i.e. 30 million, we can imagine the power of knowledge and learning through videos.

Gamification, VR, AR — The Evolution of MOOC

The single largest game changing opportunity still lies in virtualisation of entire universities and gamification of curriculums. This is where students can experience any university anywhere in the world using just a pair of VR headsets and attend any class anywhere, anytime. For the first time within VR education environments it has been recorded that students never checked their social media messages and were fully attentive and engaged throughout the learning process which is a leap forward from the Mobile world.

No wonder Snapchats latest gizmo launched in 2016 was nothing other than a pair of fashionable VR glasses just ahead of the IPO. In the entertainment industry computer graphics, multi-dimensional animation, SFX, stop motion simulations and gaming have brought the world face to face with Virtual Reality (VR).

Augmented Reality (AR), the integration of digital information with the user’s environment in real time, has taken things to another level. Unlike VR, which creates a totally artificial environment, AR uses the existing environment and superimposes new information on top of it. AR has added the real things you would see ordinarily instead of replacing them.

What next?

Contextual Computers offering Mixed Reality! Innovations being worked upon by Magic Leap Inc. have the potential to affect every business — make personal computers, laptops, even mobiles redundant. Head-mounted displays and wearable gizmos replacing the hardware of today, creating an image of any size and shape in the middle of nowhere may be tomorrow’s technology. MOOC are already on the agenda of Magic Leap technology, wherein robots and may tackle manpower shortage. The 45 billion USD project should start unfolding in 2017. Next on the blocks are humanoids — robots with emotions and many times more intelligent than humans.

It is about time that regulators, entrepreneurs, technology Cos, at least private/self funded universities and colleges, coaching classes embark upon a defined “blended approach” to education with semester targets of increasing the digital education quotient and percentage increasing disproportionately over a defined time period. Time for technology and service providers to piece together robust technologies to create ‘a reality of an interactive class full of students & faculty’ virtually! 

(The author is the founder of UPES, Dehradun and UTM, Shillong. He is former Head of Energy and Resource Practice of Deloitte and a Thought Leader on EIT (Energy, Infrastructure and Transportation which contribute around 65% of the world’s GDP)

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