Study abroad at home: Online courses by foreign universities

Online learning platforms have made courses from top universities across the world available at a fraction of the cost. They saw interest surge during the pandemic.

Study abroad at home: Online courses by foreign universities
Pritha Roy Choudhury | Jan 15, 2021 - 5:11 p.m. IST
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NEW DELHI: Sujeet Kumar made good use of the protracted COVID-19 lockdown in 2020. In his sixth semester of the computer science engineering programme at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), he completed eleven courses offered online by foreign universities. Some, like the half-dozen courses he studied on data science, machine learning and cybersecurity, were linked to his degree programme. Others, like introductory Korean, were picked “out of interest”, Kumar explained.

Five of the courses Kumar studied were offered by the University of Michigan, including ‘Introduction to Data Science in Python’; ‘Applied Plotting, Charting, Data Representation in Python’; ‘Applied Machine Learning in Python,’ ‘Applied Text Mining in Python’ and ‘Applied Social Network Analysis in Python’. He studied two by the University of London – ‘Responsive Website Basics: HTML, CSS and JavaScript’ and ‘Responsive Web Design’. He studied a course on cybersecurity and internet of things offered by Kennesaw State University and another, ‘Image Processing in Python’ by the Coursera Project Network. These were linked to his undergraduate degree programme. But Kumar also joined ‘First-Step Korean’ offered by Yonsei University and COVID-19 contact tracing, by Johns Hopkins University.

Sujeet Kumar_new

Kumar plans to go abroad for further studies after completing his B.Tech but he got his first taste of a foreign education in India and free-of-cost. He has enrolled in two more courses, both on machine learning. One is by the Imperial College London and the other by Stanford University where the massive open online courses (MOOC) revolution that he has so benefitted from, began. The stack of certificates, he figures, may help him go abroad. But he is certain they will help him at the campus placement drive and even later, while looking for jobs.

Foreign education in India

“When we were told that we could take Coursera classes and they were free, I immediately enrolled,” said Kumar. “The machine learning course offered by Stanford University is probably the best thing on the internet when it comes to the field and covers almost everything in it. It is taught by Andrew Ng who is one of the top scientists in the field of robotics and artificial intelligence in the world. Getting an opportunity to learn from someone like that is a nice thing in itself.”

That, in a nutshell, is why many join the MOOCs offered by foreign universities online. They afford access to lectures by some of the top academics in the world and teaching at the best universities but at a fraction of the cost or, like in Kumar’s experience, at no cost at all.

From its inception, the MOOC sector has been linked to universities. Since then, most online learning platforms have “tied up” with universities and academics. Coursera, where Kumar took his courses, has over 150 university partners offering programmes. Computer science, data science and technology dominate in the 11 domains on Coursera and courses provided by Johns Hopkins University, University of Michigan, Yale University, Georgia Institute of Technology and Stanford University are some of the platform’s most popular.

However, there is a wide variety of programmes in other domains as well. Berklee College of Music offers 19 courses including ones that teach how to play guitar in four months and song writing. California Institute of Technology (Caltech) offers ‘Getting Started in Cryi-EM’; New York University, ‘Engineering Health: Introduction to Yoga and Physiology’; Erasmus University Rotterdam, ‘Serious Gaming’ and ‘Studying Cities: Social Science Methods for Urban Research’; Peking University, ‘Chinese for Beginners’; National University of Singapore, ‘Write Like Mozart: An Introduction to Classical Music Composition’; and Lund University, ‘Urban Nature: Connecting Cities, Nature and Innovation’.

There are over 4,000 coures on Coursera that are open to all, according to its officials in India. Learners are welcome to study them but have to pay a fee – which varies with the course – if they want a certificate. The platform also offers a US $49 monthly and a US $ 399 annual subscription plans. Subscribers can access any number of courses they want to in that period.

Similarly, edX has partners in University of California Berkeley, Boston University, Australian National University, Delft University of Technology, University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the University of Tokyo, apart from its founding universities - Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University. The last offers courses in health, education, music, architecture, religion, history and politics along with data sciences and technology.


Vikas, who does not use a last name, is another engineering student from JNU to study multiple courses online during the pandemic. He completed courses in data science with Python, cloud computing and digital image processing. The first was offered by the University of Michigan, cloud computing by IBM and the last by Northwestern University. Vikas will likely join more once the fifth-semester exams are over in January 2021. But his reasons are different. “These short term certification courses will also help me crack the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE) test which I will attempt once I complete the M.Tech programme,” he said. Engineering students in JNU take admission to the five-year integrated dual-degree programme which leads to an M.Tech degree.

Partnership with industry

Apart from the universities, edtech platforms also collaborate with multinational corporations and industry associations to provide certifications. Udacity, the MOOC platform to emerge from Standford University, focuses on technology and its various domains are divided into “schools”. Its curriculum is designed by industry partners and its most popular courses are in programming and development, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, data science, business, autonomous systems and career. Each of these programs is further divided into nanodegree programmes leading to certificates.

Aditya Sharma

Aditya Sharma, another computer science student at JNU completed the ‘Introduction to Programming Nanodegree’ course on Udacity. When he had enrolled during the lockdown, the four-month course was for available for free, Sharma said. Now, the same course comes with a fee of over Rs. 77,000 for four months of access to the platform.

“The course I attended through Udacity is very student friendly,” said Sharma. “The teacher here not only taught us the course content but also took us through the process of writing a résumé and ways to make us job-ready.” Students need to book sessions in advance. Thirty-minute sessions are arranged with the student and held in real time. Each student gets an opportunity to clear any doubts they may have, he explained. Sharma aspires to be a product manager after completing M.Tech. The skills acquired through such certification courses, he says, will help him have a better understanding of technology which is necessary for a product manager’s role.

The master’s level programmes offered by foreign universities across platforms, including Indian ones, typically run for over a year and often follow the standard nomenclature of Indian degree programmes, MSc, MS, MEd and so on. Where they fit in the higher education landscape is complicated. The qualifications earned through these are recognised by the universities that offer them but may not be accepted as degrees by the Indian higher education regulators. Credits earned by completing portions of the full programme may count toward a future master’s degree in universities that allow the transfer of these credits. How recruiters see these qualifications depends on the sector as well as the company concerned.

Indian platforms

Homegrown online learning platforms like upGrad, Great Learning and, to a lesser extent, Talentedge, too offer certificate and degree courses in collaboration with foreign universities. upGrad has partnered with universities like Deakin Business School, Liverpool Business School and University of Essex online. For example, Deakin Business School and Institute of Management Technology (IMT) Ghaziabad jointly offer a two-year “MBA (global) degree” progamme thought the platform. IMT Ghaziabad also offers a 20-month MBA programme in collaboration with Liverpool Business School.

In partnership with University of Essex online, upGrad offers numerous master’s level programmes in a range of fields including management, digital marketing, health, human resources management, law, psychology, public health, criminology and education. Portions of the same curriculum are taught as individual modules leading to diplomas or certificates. With Michigan State University, it offers ‘Global Master Certificate in Business Analytics’.

Similarly, Great Learning has management courses that are offered jointly by Great Lakes Institute of Management, an Indian institution, and University of Texas. With Stanford Graduate School of Business it offers a three-month course in “design thinking”; with Stanford Center for Professional Development, it teaches “advanced computer security program”; and with Northwestern School of Professional Studies, it offers “MS in Data Science Programme”.

Recently, upGrad acquired recruitment and staffing solutions company, Rekrut India. This allows upGrad to have complete involvement of the learner right till employment. According to upGrad, Rekrut now has access to over half a million learners who have completed their courses on upGrad.

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