Educating India

NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning) is an online initiative spearheaded by IIT Madras, and supported by IITs across the country, as well as IISc. Aimed at taking quality educational online content to the masses via the Internet, NPTEL has grown and succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In the 12 years since its inception, it has become one of the most popular educational channels on YouTube, with over 17,000 hours of content available. More impressively, NPTEL’s own portal constitutes the most-accessed library of peer-reviewed educational content in the world. Professor Andrew Thangaraj, Professor of Electrical Engineering and NPTEL coordinator at IIT Madras talks about the incredible journey so far and what lies ahead.

Could you briefly tell us about the history of NPTEL?

NPTEL was started in 2003 with the initial aim of creating course material for college students and making it available to everyone on the internet. The first phase of the project extended from 2003 to 2007, when we created 235 archived courses; 120 video courses and 115 textual courses. The second phase, which is almost nearing its end now, had a target of 600 courses, but we were successful at raising it to nearly 700. The Ministry of Education has now sanctioned the third phase, which focuses on Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs.

The online courses and the subsequent E-Certification programme is different from the archived course material on NPTEL in a way that they follow the pace of a regular classroom instead of the enrolee’s pace.

Regarding the MOOCs, when did they start and how has it progressed since then?

We started with 1 course in March 2014, 2 in September and by the time we reached January 2015 we had started 12 courses. Then in July 2015 was where we saw the real expansion in courses, we started 36 courses by then. In January 2016, we will reach 47 and by the time we enter March, we should be at 60 courses. We are expecting to reach a steady state where a certain set of courses will be offered in the odd semester and a certain set in the even semester. The long term aim is to increase the contribution of other institutes towards these courses and to provide a wider range of courses.

How does the e-certification programme via online courses work?

Mainly, we offer 3 formats of online courses; 10 hours courses of 4 weeks duration, 20 hours courses of 8 weeks duration and 35-40 hour courses, which extend over nearly a semester. All the courses being offered in a phase will have the same starting date and students who are interested will have to enroll for it beforehand. Every week, parts of the course content and related assignments will be uploaded on the portal. The assignments will have a due date and the students have to submit them to get them evaluated, which makes up a part of their final scores. There is also a discussion forum for every course, where students can get their doubts clarified by the teaching assistants in charge.

At the end of the course, the student will have to attend an offline proctored exam in their designated centres. Currently, we have at least one regular examination centre in all the states. If there is a substantial number of students from a region which does not have a centre, new centres are set up for their convenience. Overall, we have nearly 42 examination centres all over India. The final certificates will be prepared with marks scored in the assignments and the final exam.

Prof. Andrew Thangaraj, Coordinator, NPTEL
Prof. Andrew Thangaraj, Coordinator, NPTEL

What is the role played by the Teaching Assistants (TA) at NPTEL?

Students, or rather teaching assistants play a very vital role in the smooth functioning of our courses. Many MS, PhD and even final year B. Tech. and Dual Degree students are a part of this programme as TAs. Depending on the length and degree of difficulty of the course we have the number of TAs ranging from 2 for certain courses to even 10 for some.

They learn about the portal and upload material on it. They are a part of the discussion forum to answer the various questions raised about the courses. They also help in the correction of the exam papers. The TAs have also helped out students with their preparation for exams such GATE. They have mapped out the answers to the questions asked in GATE in the last 3 years over 5 disciplines. Overall we have had excellent interaction with the TAs.

How is NPTEL different from other MOOC platforms like MIT Open Courseware and Coursera?

The largest faction of our viewership consists of Indians, apart from people from USA, Pakistan, Africa, etc. We prepare our courses so as to suit the requirements of the Indian educational system more and to make our audience more comfortable with the learning process. Also, we conduct offline proctored exams at the end of our online courses. The certificates that students receive in this way has a greater value attached to them since they serve as proof of their own achievement.

The classroom where NPTEL lectures are recorded at IIT Madras
The classroom where NPTEL lectures are recorded at IIT Madras

Could you briefly tell us about the outreach programmes and workshops carried out by NPTEL?

We have held so many workshops in recent weeks that we are starting to lose count! We have started this effort of creating local chapters in colleges. As a part of this programme NPTEL has a representative in each of these colleges. He provides the necessary information regarding the feedback on the courses, the work that must be carried out, how to improve the course and also on the various courses required by the students.

We have coordinated workshops all over the country. We have gone to Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka to name a few places. We have even gone to tribal areas in various states such as Orissa. At these places we go and describe what NPTEL is, what a local chapter is, what online courses are and how they might benefit from them. We have organized more than 200 local chapters till now and get requests for more each day, with requests for local chapters even coming from countries like Ecuador.

As the coordinating institute for NPTEL, what role has IIT Madras been playing in its functioning and development?

IIT Madras has been one of the primary institutes in laying the foundation of NPTEL. It has provided financial support for this programme right from its launch in 2003. It has also helped in the proper distribution and efficient use of this money. Many components of the courses have been initiated at IIT Madras. Online courses, transcription and even the subtitling of these courses have seen their beginnings at IITM.

The work that goes on behind the scenes for NPTEL.
The work that goes on behind the scenes for NPTEL.

What is the budget of NPTEL and how is it distributed in the phases?

The budget that we were provided for Phase 2 was Rs. 96 crores for five years. This amount was meant for the creation of 600 courses. Since there was a lot of money left even after the creation of 600 courses, we used the remainder for setting up of studios and for hiring more staff members in the 8 institutes involved in NPTEL. This amount which was meant for 5 years in fact lasted for 7 years and was used very efficiently among the institutes.

As a part of the next phase which begins in 2016, the Project Advisory Board has sanctioned Rs. 93 crores. This money is meant for the next 3 years and is to be used for the creation of more online courses.

What is your future vision for NPTEL?

We are looking towards creating a virtual technical university. We have laid out a clear plan for this purpose and are working towards it. We are also looking to initiate a credit based curriculum for all universities in India and this will hopefully become a way through which students can earn credits wherever they are. In the future we want to be a body which keeps offering courses online that students can take from anywhere and use for credit or even for employment.

Aryendra and Aslamah are second year undergraduate students at IIT Madras. They are correspondents for The Fifth Estate.

All images are courtesy of NPTEL, IIT Madras.