The new order of the day in higher education is the concept of ‘Flipped Classrooms’. MIT, Harvard and top universities are adopting it where the students prepare for the class in advance by watching the lecture on a video at home. The students spend time in the classroom discussing examples and solving problems with the Professor guiding them through the learning process.
Abhijit Banerjee and Ester Duflo, professors at MIT, Boston published an Editorial piece in the Indian Express, February 16, 2017, on a new model of teaching online. Micromasters in Data and Economics for Development Policy is a package of five courses. Students can register and take it online, on the payment of a fee, and on completion of the course she would get a Degree from MITx, a new start-up degree granting institution under MIT Umbrella.
These are essentially online courses similar to MOOC, courses that are recorded and delivered online. According to Banerjee and Duflo, “In 2015, there were 35 million learners taking online classes from 570 universities”. They argue that online courses are a blessing for India where the skill sets required are not being acquired fast enough. And worse still we do not have a sufficient pool of Faculty to deliver high quality courses. All this is in addition to the fact that the cost of an additional person viewing a lecture is zero. They argue “Why not have the person who is best at explaining the material and conveying what makes it exciting, do that job?” And this best person of course exists in MIT, Harvard and top universities in the US!
Fortunately, Indian Express published a counter to this argument in the next few days, February 21, 2017 in the Op-ed Page, by Apoorvanand Jha, a professor of Hindi in Delhi University. Apoorvanand takes strong objection to the title of the piece by Banerjee and Duflo, “A More Democratic Learning”. To quote him for the punch, “Our colleagues in the high-end institutions like the MIT and Harvard tell the third world youth that since your universities would never be able to appoint excellent academics as teachers, it would be better for you to register with start-ups like MITx and get access to the lectures of the brightest minds of the earth and get credentials bearing their stamp”. What arrogance!
The MOOC courses, also being advocated by them and with the government buying into it, are set up by foreign companies like Udacity, Coursera and Edx. These companies first offer free courses under MOOC and soon start to charge a fee. Once they acquire your mail-id when you register or enquire about a free course, they bombard you with emails every other day with their course offerings! How democratic is this? With the ability to choose your own time and space to study and complete the course and of course the variety on offer. No thank you.
Apoorvanand quotes the case of the teachers of the department of Philosophy, San Jose who strongly objected to include MOOC course by the famous Michael Spencer on Social Justice. Why should there be only one voice on Social Justice? Five teachers could have five views on the subject and all of them should be heard for a really democratic university set up. Certain basic straightforward topics under MOOC (for example basic science topics), if done well can be useful. However, human interaction is quite critical for complex topics as discussion can bring out various nuances.
Online courses, with content mercifully developed in India including by IGNOU, has become popular in the country as well. But degrees from these courses are never considered on par with good institutional degrees. The reason becomes clear if you get a chance to teach in a class of a non-elite institution in the country. Non-elite colleges have to deal with vast learning deficits that the students come with from the schooling systems. When students do not want to listen to a teacher delivering a lecture in front of them, do not want to read the assigned readings before the class, or even glance at the presentations shared in advance, how do we expect them to watch videos of lectures in advance and come to the class for discussions? Learning from a remote teacher from a laptop does not compare to learning from a teacher on hand. Online courses requires a tremendous sense of discipline to go through, given the kind of distractions available to the youth today. Further, the University system generates massive employment in a country with a huge demographic dividend.
Flipped classes in the true sense are a good idea, provided students would take them seriously, are disciplined and come with some basic skills. Flipped classrooms with a teacher on hand are very different though from MOOC or MITx courses where an entire programme of five courses are delivered online, with evaluation components online as well. On the lighter side our classes are truly flipped, with half the students engaged in their own conversations in the classroom, another one third staring at smartphones or laptops, some staring vacantly and a small fraction listening to the teacher. Or perhaps the teacher has flipped!!