What makes NPTEL India’s EdTech hero — without newsy fundings and valuations

Sriram Sharma July 24, 2017 9 min

Story Highlights

  • Initiated in 2003 by seven IITs, NPTEL's YouTube channel has over 245 million views.
  • To put that in perspective, MIT's OpenCourseware, another top Massive Online Open Course (MOOC) has fewer than half its views.
  • Online certifications are offered at Rs 1,000 per course, through an in-person proctored exam.

“Some people train for JEE from their 6th standard. There’s a huge number of people in India, students particularly, who have a strong analytical and problem-solving background. Not all of them get into IITs or the top institutions. What happens to those guys? They go to other colleges, and they do engineering. When they have access to IIT courses, a huge number of people are able to appreciate that. I think it really starts somewhere there,” says Professor Andrew Thangaraj, electrical engineering department, IIT Madras, in a phone call with FactorDaily.

Thangaraj has been serving as NPTEL coordinator at IIT Madras since 2001 and is currently national MOOCs coordinator for NPTEL in the SWAYAM project of the ministry of human resources development (MHRD) of the Indian government.

We’re discussing the impact and reach of NPTEL (National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning), which by some measures, is already a world beater. It’s also quite likely that you haven’t heard of it, unless you’re from an engineering background.

NPTEL was initiated in 2003 by seven IITs (Bombay, Delhi, Kanpur, Kharagpur, Madras, Guwahati and Roorkee) along with the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, in 2003. In its first phase (2003-2009), NPTEL developed 235 courses in web/video format, at http://nptel.iitm.ac.in (now defunct). In Phase II (2009-14), an additional 600 web and video courses were recorded, with new features, such as indexing and keyword search. A YouTube channel was created in this period. In Phase III, starting 2014, an optional NOC (NPTEL Online Certification) was offered for Rs 1,000 through a proctored exam, which has seen over one lakh registrations so far.

NPTEL is the most accessed library of peer-reviewed educational content in the world, an emailed fact sheet states. According to Alexa, it’s ranked at 328 in India. Its YouTube channel, with close to 20,000 videos, has more than 800,000 subscribers and over 245 million views  

“With over 250 web and video courses and more in development, NPTEL’s extensive offerings are rivalled in scale by few other online courseware programs,” wrote Taylor Walsh in his 2011 book entitled Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities Are Opening Up Access To Their Courses. A lot has changed since then, most significantly, the rollout of a proctored certification program that costs Rs 1,000. Enrollments for July 2017 are open now for 159 courses, its course explorer states.

So, how big is NPTEL? It’s the most accessed library of peer-reviewed educational content in the world, an emailed fact sheet states. According to Alexa, it’s ranked at 328 in India. Its YouTube channel, with close to 20,000 videos, has more than 800,000 subscribers and over 245 million views. Head-to-head, MIT OpenCourseware has more subscribers, but fewer than half the views (112 million views). But Youtube stats alone don’t give a full measure of this mammoth beast. Its content is also free to download, available on DVDs, and distributed under the CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike) license.

IIT Madras and IIT Kanpur have provided a bulk of the online courses on NPTEL

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In its product brochure, NPTEL calls itself “the largest online repository in the world of courses in engineering, basic sciences and selected humanities and social sciences subjects.” That’s quite a mouthful, and kind of explains why it doesn’t get more recognition for its achievements. The former President of India felicitated the programme earlier this month, if that helps.

“The video repository provided by NPTEL and mirrored in YouTube is the largest technical education online video repository in the world, which is structured and developed according to a unified curriculum, with free and unlimited access without a formal registration for downloading them,” wrote professor Mangala Sunder Krishnan, National Web Courses Coordinator, NPTEL Project (2003-2015), in a draft entitled The Story of NPTEL. The article is currently under review for publishing by the Commonwealth of Learning, an intergovernmental body with its head office in Vancouver, Canada. The programme has recorded more than 300 million visits, the article states.

In its product brochure, NPTEL calls itself “the largest online repository in the world of courses in engineering, basic sciences and selected humanities and social sciences subjects”  

“Unfortunately, no agency bothered till now to verify our claims,” wrote Professor Krishnan, clarifying in an email to FactorDaily that this figure does not include the millions of visits to Google Scholar, the MOOC platform used by NOC. NOC has hosted more than 350 courses and run proctored exams, and issued certificates to more than 100,000 registrants, he said.

How NPTEL is charting a new course

In the first 10 years of its operation from 2003 to 2014, NPTEL functioned as a repository for self-learning content. In March 2014, NPTEL gave its MOOC programme a unique value proposition — a certificate from the IIT or the IISc. The courses as such were free, anybody could enrol, go through the content, answer the assignment, and make use of the forum.

But for Rs 1,000 per course, an in-person proctored exam would provide proof of proficiency.

“We get them (the students) a hall ticket, photo and ID. Our representative is there at each centre, and we verify the credentials, and they take the exam in a proctored environment. That was the change we made in the Indian setting because it was important for us to know who is writing the exam,” said Bharathi Balaji, senior project officer at NPTEL. The platform support was given by Google, and launched by the MHRD, with TCS iON (a business unit of Tata Consultancy Services) as an exam partner, she said.

Certificates are awarded on the basis of a 25% weighting for the assignment score, and a 75% weighting for the final exam score. Certifications come with three tiers of merit — Gold (90% and above), Elite (60-90%), and Successfully Completed (40-60%). Every course conducted on NPTEL records a wide range of statistics on enrollments, registrations, certificates issued, and top-ranking students.

NPTEL’s courses are also differentiated on the basis of diversity of the courseware offered, regardless of their popularity. It is also indirectly influencing the quality of teaching and technical skills of college faculty in the country — 15% of the enrolments are from faculty members

NPTEL’s courses are also differentiated on the basis of diversity of the courseware offered, regardless of their popularity. While courses on computer science, Indian philosophy, quantum physics, and design get thousands of enrolments, there are some that get just hundreds.

“We don’t do just popular courses — IoT, big data, and digital marketing are in hot demand today, but that’s not all we do. All the core engineering disciplines are covered in our courses. We cover all disciplines, including management and humanities, UG (undergraduate) and elective courses, PhD-level courses. Some courses have just a 100 students, but you won’t find them being offered at any institute across the country,” Balaji said.

Based on NOC Statistics, computer science is the most followed subject on the platform in terms of top enrolments — the top nine enrolments are all from just this stream.

NPTEL is also indirectly influencing the quality of teaching and technical skills of college faculty in the country. Fifteen percent of NPTEL’s enrolments come from faculty members, an NPTEL infographic on learner profiles shows. “This is something that has naturally happened, and it’s turning out to be a faculty development programme without us even thinking it to be so,” said Balaji.

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Upping the talent stack

Why would anyone visit NPTEL when there is a plethora of world-class options available, including MIT OpenCourseware, and dozens of courses from the world’s top universities on edx.org? One clue might lie in the fact that not everyone in India is comfortable with a western accent.

“There are plenty of MOOCs available, but the accent of the teachers is not Indian, and they charge more money for certification courses. So I have not applied for them,” said Alok Shakya, a final year engineering student at KNIT Sultanpur, UP, who has completed five certifications from NPTEL. He had applied to IIT-JEE earlier but didn’t get through, he said.

“There are plenty of MOOCs available, but the accent of the teachers is not Indian, and they charge more money for certification courses. So I have not applied for them” — Alok Shakya, final year engineering student at KNIT Sultanpur, UP  

Shakya took NPTEL’s courses to get a better grasp of concepts in the IT industry, as he didn’t find any good resources in his college. He stumbled upon NPTEL while searching for an explanation on a programming concept on YouTube. “I watched the videos and my doubts regarding that particular concept became clear. My college seniors also advised me to go for NPTEL courses,” he said. His favourite professor on NPTEL is Tanmai Gopal, who co-created the course entitled Introduction to Modern Application Development (IMAD), he said.

While 80% of NPTEL’s audience comes from India, it also has participants from across the world. “We have a lot of traffic from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri-Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi, apart from US and Canada,” said Balaji. “Even for our exam in March, there was a faculty member from Saudi (Arabia), who had enrolled for a course and wanted to get the certificate. So, she actually flew down on the day of the exam in the morning, and got her certificate,” said Balaji.

NPTEL’s most-watched video on Youtube, a lecture entitled Introduction to Basic Electronics has fairly positive comments from people around the world. “This Man is brilliant! Every American teacher could learn from this man!!!,” writes one commenter.

NPTEL’s greatest hit

According to NPTEL’s statistics, Introduction to Modern Application Development (IMAD) is the most popular course on the platform. The free online course was launched a year ago and has cumulatively seen over 1,00,000 registrations so far.

“People haven’t just taken this course, more than 10,000 applications have been built. I feel it’s pretty amazing for something that was just a side project for us,” said Tanmai Gopal, CTO and cofounder of Hasura, a Bangalore-based cloud infrastructure focused startup, speaking to FactorDaily on the success of the course.

“There’s a huge gap between the kind of knowledge you need when you start doing development, building applications, and what you actually learnt in university and school,” Gopal said. “On a side note, a big difference between India and the Silicon Valley is that everybody really understands tech there. There’s so much awareness in the entire ecosystem about what applications are, and how they’re built etc. But, their rate of innovation is much faster. Their applications are of a much higher quality from the word go. It kind of boils down to this fundamental knowledge of how applications are built, or how to get one built if you’re a business owner,” he said.

Some concept artwork featuring Hasura and Madi, the IMAD mascot

To encourage deep, quality discussions on the platform, Hasura set up a Stackoverflow-type forum for people inside the community. The game-changer for students was the ability to write and deploy code, and see the finished product on their own subdomain.

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“Everybody has the will and energy to do things, but you need money, a credit or debit card, and spare income to do a random thing like hosting a server,” Gopal said. The IMAD.Tech portal was created using Hasura’s back-end technology, which enabled tens of thousands of people to run their own subdomain on a small cluster of servers.

Hasura.io co-founder Tanmai Gopal, the co-creator of the IMAD Tech course

“I could learn basic things by executing them on the console that the course provided on IMAD,” said Yogesh SP, a developer who works at Pathtracker.io, a Bengaluru-based tech startup. He appreciated how one could “learn by doing” in the course. “The course is more about creating a live website. It helped improve my HTML, CSS, JS, SQL skills. It enhanced my skills and provided me with a step-by-step approach to building a website,” he said. His future plan is to crack the Associate Android Developer course, and become a full-time Android developer.

“That was one of the big things for students. It’s not just listening to things; after listening to me, you’re supposed to go try something out, and you’re supposed to go build something. You can build this on your mobile phone, on a tablet, Windows, Mac, Linux — it doesn’t matter,” Gopal added.

Growing enrollments with Local Chapters

Local Chapters, an initiative launched by NPTEL to drive up student participation, was launched in April 2015 as a pilot in Tamil Nadu. Through this programme, NPTEL appoints an SPOC (single point of contact), either a faculty member or a college student, as its ambassador. Until now, NPTEL has on-boarded over 1,000 colleges across the country in the programme and adds 5-10 more each week. Tamil Nadu (192) and Maharashtra (190) have the highest number of local chapters, followed by Andhra Pradesh (91).

Local Chapters is an initiative launched by NPTEL to drive up student participation. Until now, NPTEL has on-boarded over 1,000 colleges across the country in the programme and adds 5-10 more each week

Enrolments are concentrated around industrialised states where there are a lot of engineering. colleges, said Thangaraj, adding that NPTEL’s state-wise statistics are in sync with the gross enrolment ratio for a university education. “Traditionally, even IT recruitment is like that and fits the same patterns. We are trying to make inroads into other states. It’s a bit of a long battle, and we’ll probably get there,” he said.

Since last year, NPTEL has started recognising these Local Chapters as well, and rating them according to performance, based on the number of toppers, gold medalists, and elite students they produce. “We do a rating of the top 100 Local Chapters, also on our site,” said Balaji.

A group photo from NPTEL’s SPOC (Single point-of-contact) workshop at IIT Madras on July 15,2017.

While NPTEL has successfully closed the college loop, the industry loop is something it is yet to nail. However, it has had some success in offering its courses to decrease the onboarding time at companies, Balaji said. “Companies hire freshers and want them to do some courses before they come in. Companies said it reduced their training time at the job. TCS openly announced in one of our data analytics forum that if anybody has completed this course at TCS, we have a vacancy here,” she said.

Lead visual: Nikhil Raj

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