As a younger man, I was not a good Indian boy. I did not study Engineering, or graduate from MIT or Harvard. However now I can easily atone for those errors.
Recently, Harvard, MIT, NYU, The University of Pennsylvania, and other top-tier universities have begun to offer comprehensive online courses, free of charge, and open to all who wish to apply. In some cases Universities are offering entire curricula of study online, formally, complete with offline learning tools, coursework supplements, and collaborations with private education companies. What began as an experiment is clearly an opportunity not just to shake up the antiquated system of traditional university education, but a new means of delivering education to millions without access to meaningful schooling.
In India a toxic cocktail of poverty, poor infrastructure, weak administration, and mismanagement often mean millions of students lack access to basic education. As universities and educational institutions offer online courses, students will be less dependent on public infrastructure and rent seeking officials to acquire basic skills. Formal degrees will still be bound to the onsite, admissions based system, but in many subjects the advantage that a formal degree offers will be minimal. As a means of delivering basic education and post-graduate skill-sets, in literacy or language studies, clearly the future in India must lay in some hybrid-model of online and onsite learning.
Regardless of whether this immense opportunity is seized and developed upon, the University system itself will undoubtedly be shaken up in the next several years. In certain areas like medicine or aerospace engineering, online courses would be an interesting supplement but not a path to a career or true skill-building–although innovative universities could still enhance the knowledge and skills of working doctors and space engineers through well-designed courses. However in Liberal Arts fields where expensive equipment or hands-on training is not required, there might be little difference between a campus student and an intelligent and motivated online student. Just as newspapers discovered, someone else may offer for cheaper what they will not.
In recent times, students in Indian Universities have had the privilege of watching MIT or Stanford professors teach physics, computer science or electronics engineering and compare their teaching with that of their own professors. In the humanities and basic sciences Indian students could supplement their lectures with the extraordinarily rich set of courses from Yale University. Skeptics could check these videos and see the chasm that separates the Indian classroom and a Harvard or Yale classroom. Now students can not only watch these lectures passively but also participate in them like an overseas student would, discussing the topics and performing the exercises. The biggest impact of the online education revolution will be on India. India has millions of students itching to learn, and this ought to be a new area of extensive co-operation between India and the United States.