MOOCs As A Skilling Platform

Jayakrishnan M, Senior Scientist, NPTEL, IIT Madras Headquartered in Chennai, IIT Madras is one among the foremost institutes of national importance in higher technological education, basic and applied research offering undergraduate, postgraduate and research degrees across 16 disciplines in Engineering, Sciences, Humanities and Management.

As entire industries adjust (to changes), most occupations are undergoing a fundamental transformation. While some jobs are threatened by redundancy and others grow rapidly, existing jobs are also going through a change in the skill sets required to do them,” World Economic Forum, 2016.

The above quote is from the report titled ‘Future of Jobs’ published by World Economic Forum. This is from the data they collected from leaders representing 371 leading industries that are amongst the 100 largest employers across 9 different job categories. The report provides us with a deeper insight into ‘Skilling’ challenge faced by the industry and highlights shorter shelf time for employees’ existing skill sets. Thus, ‘Reskilling’ and ‘Upskilling’ are becoming buzzwords and there is an immense opportunity for academia to support industries in solving the skilling challenge. Particularly in the case of India, where we have the advantage of a favourable demographic dividend coupled with challenge of massive population, this challenge can be reworded into an opportunity for both academia and industry to come together and bridge the gaps. After all the solution to this problem presents a win-win situation for both, a better understanding of skilling to the academia and a pool of learners with required skill sets for the industry.

Massive Open Online Courses(MOOCs) provides a unique platform where academia and industry can engage in effective collaborations and find possible answers to the problem of skilling at scale. Over the past few years we have seen several such initiatives emerge from the top MOOC platforms like the Professional Certificate courses of edX or Specializations of Coursera or the Industry Associate initiative by NPTEL to name a few. Though the operationalization varies across platforms, each of these programs see MOOC providers offer a series of courses from the universities along with the support of industry partners that recognises the skill sets offered in them. Learners who complete these courses are provided with certificates or badges that can be highlighted in their cover letter or
resume or even in their LinkedIn profile. Many learners do share their success stories of utility of these courses in landing them a placement or in advancing their career.

The landscape of skill courses through MOOCs are so varied that on one end of the spectrum we do have courses for niche domain specific skills like ‘Data Science’ or ‘Machine Learning’, while on the other end we have the more generic skill sets like ‘Workplace Communication’ or ‘Business Writing’. This also opens up opportunity for industries to look at MOOCs as a ‘Cross skilling’ or ‘Upskilling’ platform for their existing workforce and create favourable policies that encourage employees to enroll in them. The onus provided by the academic partners will then be the academic recognition of these courses within their operating space. For instance, consider the case of NPTEL courses like ‘Data Science for Engineers'or ‘Soft Skill Development’. While the former can be used as an upskilling initiative within an Industry planning to create products/services related to data analytics, the latter course can be considered a cross skilling course for all employees on essential soft skills required in the workplace. With NPTEL providing a proctored exam and certificate from the offering institute (IITs/IISc), there is an added incentive for the employee to take up these courses.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) provides a unique platform where academia and industry can engage in effective collaborations and find possible answers to the problem of skilling at scale

Till now, we have been focusing only on the possibilities that MOOCs provide both academia and industry to join hands. When it comes to skilling, there are some existing issues with MOOCs that we need to be aware of for better formulation of integration strategies. A major drawback repeatedly pointed out in research is the glaringly low completion rates (10-12 percent) in MOOCs. One of the major reason behind this is the funnelling phenomena or steep drop of participants observed in a typical MOOC right from the publicity of the course till its completion. Some MOOC providers are now adopting strategies like a limited ‘preview’ model for exploring the content and a paid entry for taking up the full course. This somehow dilutes the idea of ‘openness’ of a MOOC and we are yet again looking at differential access on economic ability. This is where national initiatives like NPTEL differs from a commercial MOOC provider, as they acknowledge the funnelling and have introduced models where learners need to pay only for the certification examination and the online content is kept open.

The next biggest drawback is related to the pedagogy used in MOOCs. Many of the commercial MOOC providers have been known to use a linear learning model with behaviourist pedagogy. Skilling courses require more constructivist approaches allowing learners to interact and learn. This will include various activities like artefact generation, peer review on generated artefact, synchronous and asynchronous collaborations to name a few. While Industry can provide academia with scenarios and case studies from their operating context for such constructivist practices, academia can complement this input by leveraging the existing research on constructivist online practices and theory building exercises. The hub and spoke models used by entities like Peer-to-Peer University(P2PU) or NPTEL(through its Local Chapters) are notable in this context. This model allows the community or networked learning to complement the online learning from a MOOC.

To summarise, we see that even with its existing limitations MOOC platforms hold the promise of emerging as a Skilling platform that bridges the Industry and Academia. With many countries trying to create favourable policy environment for the recognition of the MOOC credentials, such partnerships can pave ways for transformation of online learning as we know it now.