As robots replace Indian techies, online education strikes gold

Under siege by robots and hampered by outdated skills in an environment of drastic change, India's tech workers and tech giants are increasingly leaning on online education outfits for a much-needed reboot.

I first wrote about India's tryst with MOOCs, a free, open-source online education platform that was the hottest new thing in education, five years ago. At the time, I was astonished to learn that India formed the second-largest cohort on edX, a MIT-Harvard MOOCs platform, even though the whole concept was relatively new around the globe and broadband penetration in the country was still pretty lousy.

To me, this simply emphasized a recurring theme that in a land where sub-standard education abounds, any reasonable alternative stands a good chance at shining.

Yet, while the appeal of online education was tremendous -- who wouldn't want to take an economics course from a Nobel Laureate for free? -- many questions about its efficacy and longevity remained.

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Could an online course ever be a replacement for one in a classroom that contains all of the interactive essences of dynamic learning between a teacher and his or her students? Or could technology eventually make that gulf irrelevant? Also, how on earth would this new industry make money in a world of "free"? And lastly, who would accept these courses as legitimate college credit in applications for admission?

With no ready answers to these important questions, the promise of MOOCs and the models of global franchises such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity hung in the balance.

A few days ago, a crucial deal struck between Indian IT major Tech Mahindra and edX reveals the true potential of the above-mentioned online platforms. edX would reskill 117,000 of its employees in India and around the world in skill sets that are desperately sought-after today: IoT, cybersecurity, virtual reality, machine learning, big data and analytics.

In an ancillary boost to edX, Mahindra also stated that it would select high performers in the MicroMasters learning platform who were not amongst the IT major's employees for interviews, provided they fulfilled the minimum criteria of education and work experience -- basically the equivalent of winning the lottery in a country where opportunities are slim.

This development couldn't have come at a better time for Indian techies who are under siege from robotic processes that are laying waste to tech jobs. India's IT trade body NASSCOM predicts that as much as 25 percent of IT jobs will vanish in three years, but Gartner thinks that eventually as much as 70 percent of IT jobs will vanish thanks to automation.

Already, there has been ample blood spilled on the floors of IT companies, with laid-off engineers resorting to communicating with chatbots for therapy and succor (if that doesn't define the word "irony" I don't know what would). Most worrying for them are kernels of truth in assertions of people like Capgemini India head Srinivas Kandula, who was famously quoted last year saying that as much as 65 percent of IT workers in India could not be retrainable.

Indian IT is going through the kind of convulsions never seen before. The glory days of infrastructure maintenance and application development are now over and the world of digital is calling for new skills, the kind that have to be absorbed and learnt quickly and, if possible, validated on a piece of paper for employment purposes. No wonder that online education companies are on fire.

US-based Coursera has attracted an astonishing 2 million learners in India and is tacking on 60,000 new learners every month -- a scorching pace that surpasses that of its global platform. When I first reported on them, edX had its second-highest cohort of learners from India -- and this is when they weren't even a corporate presence in the country.

One of the key things that this US-based organisation is focused on establishing is deep corporate connections that could both drive the formulation of industry-relevant coursework and ultimately be a source of business. Apparently, edX has already formed a corporate advisory board with some of the top tech entities in India such as TCS, HCL, and Genpact.

Local outfits are also experiencing unprecedented success. According to the Times of India, UpGrad has a 11-month data analytics program to help IT professionals transition into analytics roles within or outside their companies and charges a whopping 2 lakhs for it, which is no modest sum by Indian standards. Yet, the course was oversubscribed to the extent that UpGrad was forced to reject 30 percent of the applications it received.

With the online education market set to mushroom to $1.96 billion by 2021, catering to 9.6 million users, according to a KPMG report, homegrown companies such as AcadGild, UpGrad, Simplilearn, and Emeritus -- who are all experiencing unprecedented interest and business in their online offerings -- will continue to prosper. And with Indian IT going through its current convulsions, their basic proposition and allure will only grow.

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