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How are the IITs meeting the challenge during COVID-19 and beyond

On June 30 2020, a quantum leap was enabled in access to education in India. IIT Madras launched the world’s first Online BSc degree in Programming and Data Science. This ‘world’s first’ moment did not come lightly or suddenly, even though it was timely given the current circumstances. It was preceded by a remarkable journey showcasing foresight, imagination, dedication, and a focus to serve the educational aspirations of learners in India.

Today we recognise that the era of digital education has arrived. Yet, as recently as five years ago, poor internet connectivity as well as limited affordability of devices, were barriers to large scale formal online education. Experience was limited and good models to adopt for online education were unclear. At the same time, online education presented the promise of democratisation of education and hence needed close examination, good ideas, and active pursuit, to deliver on its grand promise.

While the world has scrambled to adopt ‘online education’ in the past six months, the IITs had the foresight to initiate and deploy the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) as early as 2003.

Coordinated by IIT Madras and funded by MHRD, Government of India, NPTEL enabled the IITs and IISc to share videos of their classes, with the world. NPTEL is hugely successful with nearly a billion views of the content posted. It is the most accessed higher education content on YouTube.

The IITs have built on the positive societal value of this initiative and since 2014, NPTEL has offered MOOCs based on NPTEL courses- for free. Students and learners across the nation can now enrol for IIT courses, have a unique online interactive experience with IIT faculty, the rigour of an in-person examination, and the satisfaction of receiving an e-verifiable certificate from the IITs, upon successful completion of the course.

MOOCs from NPTEL has been a popular initiative with over a crore of students enrolling for these courses and nearly a million registering for the in-person exams. No other international online offering is even comparable in this scale with these features. The uncompromising quality, rigour, and not-for-profit nature of this effort have contributed significantly to its success. It is now routinely used for credit transfer by lakhs of students, and for Faculty Development Points by tens of thousands of faculty each year. There is growing international interest in and use of NPTEL MOOCs. NPTEL participates in and plays a prominent role in enabling the SWAYAM project, which encompasses more streams of education.

With the intent to make education accessible to all interested learners, and with a strong focus on quality, the promise of online education is sure to be delivered through these IIT-led initiatives.