Thursday, February 16, 2017

Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo: A more democratic learning

Digital learning is here. The number of online courses are exploding. Many of the most famous scholars across fields are being lured by the promise of being able to reach a global audience to record Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs. In 2015, there were 35 million learners taking online classes from 570 universities.

And we in India should be very grateful that it is happening. We talk a lot about the demographic dividend we are about to get, but less about how to convert all that talent into the skills that we need. In particular, our entire system of higher education is desperately short of teachers; most new business schools and engineering schools survive on part-time professors who travel from institution to institution, delivering bread and butter courses. Even the best colleges, universities and institutes have large numbers of jobs at the professorial level that have been unfilled for years. This is despite the fact that salaries have risen substantially in recent years — the problem is that the private sector demand for the kinds of people we want as professors is also growing fast, potentially even faster. In other words, we should not expect this problem to fix itself any time soon.

However, there are also some positive reasons to embrace this change. First, and most obviously, the cost of another person viewing the same lecture online is essentially zero and if that is the case, why have a hundred thousand professors redo the same lecture in different forms in different places? Why not have the person who is best at explaining the material and conveying what makes it exciting do that job? There will of course need to be multiple such lectures, in multiple languages and at multiple levels. But we are still talking about a few hundred basic physics or economics lectures, not several hundred thousand.

Of course, lecturing is not all that professors do. We all remember that moment in the lecture when the professor asked a question and we had the answer and the two of us connected for an instant, and we felt inspired. Teaching and being taught is a lot about making those connections; how will that happen in this brave new world of ours, if each student listens to lectures at home?

The answer is that switching out of the task of delivering the syllabus frees teachers to take on a very different role. Simply delivering content from a pulpit is not the most effective way to communicate with students. The standard lecture format, where students do their listening in class and their thinking at home is topsy-turvy: It does not encourage students to bring their questions to the teachers, and does not help teachers figure out what students have mastered and where they need help.

This is why the best universities in the US, like Harvard and MIT, despite having the luxury of having some truly excellent teachers on their payroll, are increasingly embracing the “flipped classroom” format, where students listen to video lectures at home, and spend class time applying their knowledge, solving problems, discussing examples, etc. Professors guide that discussion and fill in wherever necessary, explaining those bits that seem to be eluding the students and throwing in advanced ideas that happen to be topical.

What is really exciting is, however, that these universities have made the video lectures which they use to teach their own students available to the world free for anyone who wants to listen and learn from them. They are also encouraging colleges and universities all over the world to integrate these online courses into their own pedagogy, picking the pieces that are appropriate for their needs and building a package around them.

The most recent step in this unfolding might be the most exciting. These universities are now preparing to offer actual credentials based on these online courses. On February 6, MIT launched what it calls a Micromasters in data and economics for development policy, which is a package of five online courses that, on successful completion, will lead to a degree from MITx, a newly set up degree granting institution under the MIT umbrella (for full disclosure, we are excited about this initiative in part because we created it). The Micromasters, unlike the courses themselves, is not free but the entire package will cost at most Rs 1 lakh for all but the richest Indians, and much less than that for those who can demonstrate that they cannot afford that much.

One main reason why the degree is not entirely free is because the exams for these courses need to be credible and it is costly to organise properly proctored exams. As a result, students need only pay when they decide to take the exam for the course — till then it’s just another set of free online lectures; although by signing up early they will get the support of a remote MIT teaching assistant and the community of Micromasters students.

This Micromasters programme has no fixed schedule. A student could take all five courses at once, or just one every year or semester, and whenever she gets done, in four months or four years, she is entitled to the degree. It is open to anyone who can complete the courses successfully, even if she has no previous qualifications whatsoever. MIT is also encouraging other institutions worldwide (including in India) to follow suit and offer their own masters programmes with the MITx Micromasters as the foundation and the primary qualification. The idea is to make getting advanced credentials easier and cheaper without diluting the content. This is, of course, just the beginning. But many other Micromasters will be coming online soon, and they have the potential to make high quality higher education much more democratic.