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Time Out investigates why Bangaloreans are increasingly taking to online courses.

In prehistoric India, the only means for a layperson to receive higher learning was to, first, find an erudite guru and then go through a series of initiation rituals to prove that he (the layperson) was worthy of his (the guru’s) instruction. And then maybe, just maybe, he (the guru) would accept him (the layperson) as his shishya. Or maybe, just maybe, in lieu of a tuition fee, he’d demand that the layperson dislodge a digit off his hand – the thumb of the right terminal prehensile, no less.

Today, all you need is a high-speed Internet connection, a decent headset and webcam and, for some courses, a working credit card to make online payments. And you get to keep your thumb. With expanding web tools, everyone -- from music teachers to part-time chefs -- is taking their curriculum online to reach out to a larger global audience. For instance, the Shankar Mahadevan Academy, founded by the playback singer, teaches 16 courses in Indian classical music to 800 students from across 35 countries and 18 different time zones. “Shankar and I went to college together,” said Sridhar Ranganathan, the CEO of the academy, who explained that the two of them reconnected years later over a shared interest in music education. “People are looking online to learn new skills, but searching for material on Google is like drinking from an ocean with a straw.”

The SMA conducts all their lessons with certified instructors logging in either from acoustically-controlled rooms or studios that the academy has set up in Chennai and Bangalore. “Since quite a few of our teachers log in from home, we must make sure they don’t have a crow cawing or a dog barking in the background,” Ranganathan said. “So we use acoustically-treated, soundproofed environments for their classes with Webex as the interface for communication.”

According to Rangathan, the idea for virtual classes took off on the back of growing comfort with technology in India. The academy, he mentioned, allows students a lot of flexibility in case they missed classes, given that most students have day jobs to balance as well. “Learning music isn’t like doing a chartered accountancy course – you don’t have to finish it as quickly as possible,” said Ranganathan. “We record all classes for batches that have missed lessons. It’s usually two in a batch, led by one instructor.” Apart from the instructor-led lessons, the SMA also runs self-study courses, where students use a specially-developed software tool called the Ombook. All students are also given recorders which they use to submit tracks of their rehearsals.

But it isn’t just big institutions and academies with deep pockets that have taken to the web to teach skills. Independent teachers have discovered that social media tools are a great way to move their classes out of the garage and onto a global platform. Archana Doshi, who trained and worked as a software engineer, made the move from coding to conducting online cooking classes after she had two sons. “I wanted to do something with my time at home,” she said, “And I loved cooking. So what better way than to start blogging my recipes!” After a couple of offline classes in Bangalore, she eventually got on Google Hangout after demand for her classes reached global proportions. In her classes, she teaches vegetarian fare from rajmachawal and biryani to more complex desserts including cheesecakes. Today, she runs a free live class twice a week, which has had over 200 registrations. About 50 per cent of her students are based in the US, Canada and Dubai.

Doshi explained that most of the traffic for the live classes came from abroad because her audience demographic in India, which includes homemakers and stay-at-home moms, aren’t very tech savvy and haven’t warmed up to the idea of online cooking classes. “They’d check out the pre-recorded videos and try the recipes, but I’m still working on breaking that barrier with the Indian audience,” Doshi said.

Her biggest challenge in the early days was to tailor-make her classes to be as hands-on as possible. “I’d heard of online courses before, but a lot of them involved conceptual knowledge that can be taught on a blackboard,” said Doshi, who lists her class on gobi manchurian as the most popular among pupils. “I wondered how I’d manage to get the taste and smells into their kitchen while they were watching me live.” But through audience interaction and taking questions on her live show, she has figured out how to progress from teaching simple rajma chawal recipes to classes on making cheesecake. And then there are those who sign up for massive online open courses based on the sheer novelty of the curriculum on offer. Ayesha Sruti, a 21-year-old analyst, enrolled in a free course run by online service Coursera. org because she found that her favourite author was taking it. “I’d been reading up quite a bit on behavioural economics for a while,” Sruti said. “And I discovered that Dan Ariely, a well-known academic in the field, was running a course on the idea of irrationality.”   

Sruti’s other classes include tutorials on Greek and Roman mythology, the history of rock, and fantasy and the human world. These are courses she couldn’t have taken during her undergrad years, so she’s visibly enthused about logging on after a day at the office, even if it means tests and submission deadlines. Sruti admitted, however, that people quite often sign up for courses but don’t see them through. “The friend who originally introduced me to Coursera didn’t end up finishing any of the courses,” she said. “It takes a lot of discipline and dedication to stay motivated and stick with the programme to the end.” 

By Paul Dharamraj on June 07 2013 12.05pm

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