Taking on Courseras & Udemys of the World – India’s NPTEL

What started as a project called NPTEL to make quality education available to students from all over the country has now evolved into the largest repository of over 600 courses in engineering, basic sciences and select humanities and management subjects. 
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In 2003, Professor MS Ananth, the former director of IIT Madras, came up with a novel idea of recording all the lectures at the institute and providing them to all colleges on demand. What started as a project called National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL) to make quality education available to students from all over the country has now evolved into the largest repository of over 600 courses in engineering, basic sciences and select humanities and management subjects. 

Analytics India Magazine caught up with  Dr. Ramkrishna Pasumarthy, NPTEL coordinator and faculty at the Department of Electrical Engineering, IIT Madras, to understand how this project is working towards becoming India’s answer to the Courseras & Udemys of the world.

Started from there, now we are here

“It is a project by IITs and IISc and is funded by the Ministry of Education. The initial idea was to make available all the video lectures to college students all over the country and I am talking about the time when YouTube and other video streaming services were not popular. By 2014, we revamped the portal to offer certifications to make students employable or enable them to pursue suitable higher education,” Dr Pasumarthy told us. There are over 2400 courses offered  through over 60,000 hours of video content; it has been viewed by 1.4 billion students. NPTEL also has a YouTube channel with a subscription of 4 million.

The project is completely funded by the Ministry of Education. As for private company partnerships, TCS facilitates exam conduction, and Persistent Systems helps in maintaining the programme data on the cloud. Several companies have joined NPTEL as CSR partners.

“In 2014, we started off three courses. And in this semester, we are running up to 630 courses,” Dr Pasumarthy said. Anybody can pursue their course of choice here. One of the oldest students was 86 years old who pursued a German language course. “My 72-year-old mother completed an NPTEL course, too,” he added.

To receive the certification, the students have to register for the courses (4-, 8-, or 12-week) at the beginning of the semester. Subject matter experts from IITs or other partner institutions create recorded content for these courses, which is then uploaded to the portal. At the end of the course, students should register for an in-person proctored certification exam conducted in over 170 cities (in partnership with TCS).

We asked Dr Pasumarthy for one factor that differentiates NPTEL from other educational portals. Dr Pasumarthy gave us four. Firstly, all the content is free of cost; the student would only have to pay INR 1000 when registering for the exam. Secondly, this content is prepared by professors from premier institutes in the country, like IITs and IISc. Next, NPTEL has partnerships with 5000 odd colleges, called ‘local chapters’. “So whenever a student gets a certificate, they can use it to get a credit transfer of up to 40% at these partner colleges (through a platform called SWAYAM),” said Dr Pasumarthy. This academic bank of credits—as it is called—can also help students who may have dropped out of college and would like to resume their education. Most importantly, NPTEL also supports students in getting internship opportunities. This additional feature was made available in 2018. In 2021, more than 90 top students got internship opportunities with various faculty members.

Dr Pasumarthy finds comparison with other online education platforms ‘misplaced.’ “Their success is based on revenue of thousands of dollars, but our success is based on the increase in the number of certifications handed out and courses offered,” he said.

Future goals

Dr Pasumarthy envisions that NPTEL in near future will be a one-stop shop for all kinds of students. “We want to expand our programme to include more courses, especially in subjects like art, science, and commerce. Right now, we have more courses in the emerging technology section,” he said. Unsurprisingly, AI, machine learning, and data science are currently among the top pursued courses on NPTEL.

Dr Pasumarthy further said that he would like more students to benefit from the programme and hence would like to offer courses in local languages. Currently, all the courses come with subtitles and transcripts for 80,000 hours of lectures. He also added that he would like for the programme to have more job-oriented courses.

Along with his team, Dr Pasumarthy is very optimistic and ambitious about the future of NPTEL. “I think in future, we may offer a degree or diploma, giving us more credibility,” he said. He reasoned that a lot of children (specifically girls and those from underrepresented communities) miss out on many challenges since they can not afford to move thousands of kilometres to reach colleges and this is also the reason behind a lot of high school dropouts. A digital ‘University’ like NPTEL could greatly help in such cases.

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Shraddha Goled
I am a technology journalist with AIM. I write stories focused on the AI landscape in India and around the world with a special interest in analysing its long term impact on individuals and societies. Reach out to me at shraddha.goled@analyticsindiamag.com.

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