Massive Access to Learning

Be it for prospective students or lifelong learners, MOOCs offer unprecedented access to quality education.

By Jason Chiang

April 2023

Massive Access to Learning

Millions of people utilize MOOCs for different reasons, including college preparations, career development, changing careers, supplemental learning, lifelong learning and training. (ma_rish/iStock/Getty Images)

Traditional classrooms are limited in how many students can enroll, but there are millions of learners around the world who are looking for more ways to access quality course material, upskill or explore new domains.  

“Recent trends suggest that Indian learners are increasingly recognizing the needs of the digital economy and building future-proof skills,” says Raghav Gupta, managing director, India and Asia Pacific, at Coursera. In addition, Coursera has noted a rising uptake of courses related to professional certificates, “which are designed to prepare learners without a college degree or technology experience for a wide range of high-demand digital jobs.”  

Launched by Stanford University professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller in 2012, Coursera is a provider of massive open online courses (MOOCs).  Millions of people utilize MOOCs for different reasons, including college preparations, career development, changing careers, supplemental learning, lifelong learning and training.  

“My love for science fiction and the workings of the modern world came together in a University of Michigan MOOC, titled ‘Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World,’ on Coursera. It helped me analyze several great works of literature and explore their significance and contribution to the development of the world, both cultural and physical—all using my personal device(s),” says Suparna Mukherji, a public engagement specialist at the U.S. Embassy New Delhi. The course offered a mix of readings, video lessons and pre-recorded refreshers, written assignments, forums to read and comment on writings by other participants, and voluntary multiple-choice activities. “While I delved into literary history, psychology and culture regularly over several weeks, I formed great bonds with fellow participants from across the world.  The MOOC also offered a glimpse of the incredible choices of courses U.S. universities offer and the engaging communities they help build,” she adds. 

Most MOOCs are created by universities. Some of the first and most active MOOC makers are Stanford University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. However, the universities rarely distribute MOOCs themselves. Instead, they rely on digital learning platforms such as Coursera and edX to offer the courses to online audiences.  

In 2015, for the first time, learners earned college credit for MOOCs on edX. Both Coursera and edX have worked on expanding collaborations with partner universities to increase the number of MOOCs that offer accepted credits into college degree programs. 

The online learning and the opportunity to interact with fellow participants make MOOCs not only a platform for professional development but personal growth too. “I find MOOCs an easy space to navigate and convenient. One course I enjoyed completing was International Women’s Health and Human rights offered by Stanford University,” says Sentirenla Asung, who is part of the Public Diplomacy team at U.S. Embassy New Delhi. “Although online, I had the opportunity to have written discussions with peers in the course, which was interesting. This course raised my awareness and helped me be a better advocate for women’s rights, and myself.” 

 Accelerated growth 

One key impetus to the growth of MOOCs came during the COVID-19 pandemic, which accelerated digital transformation and transformed the way people work and learn.  

“In India, we have added over 14 million learners since January 2020—this is the highest number of new learners globally,” says Gupta. “A heartening trend is also the increasing number of women learners. In 2022, 44 percent of new learners in India were women, up from 37 percent in 2019.”  

“Thousands of learners, educators and companies from around the world flocked to, and our network came together to help them stay connected, move forward and keep learning,” says Amit Goyal, edX’s group head for India and Asia Pacific. “We welcomed 10 times more new registered learners and saw a 15-time increase in course enrollments.” 

edX was founded in 2012, when MIT professor Anant Agarwal and his colleagues from MIT and Harvard envisioned an experimental platform that could offer their courses online, open to any person, for free. Professor Agarwal taught the first edX course on circuits and electronics, which drew around 155,000 learners from 162 countries. edX now hosts online university-level courses in a wide range of disciplines for students across the world, including some courses at no charge. Over 41 million learners and over 160 partner institutions use edX to increase access to high-quality education.  

In November 2022, edX announced a collaboration with Emeritus, another provider of online classes. The partnership will provide access to a specialized catalog of courses to millions of edX learners across India, Latin America and Asia Pacific. After the United States, India is edX’s second-largest market in terms of registered users.  

Over 1100 higher education institutions in India have leveraged Coursera for Campus to improve graduate employability, bridge the industry-academia gap and help faculty upgrade their skills.  

“With the government propelling the adoption of online learning, allowing 40 percent of credits in any category to be earned through platforms like Coursera, we’re excited about this momentum spreading across the country and supporting more universities and colleges to build India’s young and competitive workforce,” says Gupta. “Through the high-quality blended learning options, institutions will be able to arm their students with in-demand skills and help them identify new pathways into well-paying jobs.”  

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.


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