It took a 14-member committee 50 days to come up with a name: Study Webs of Active Learning for Young Aspiring Minds.

The name is a mouthful; the committee had to work backwards from ‘Swayam’, a phrase coined by India’s then-Human Resource Development (HRD) Minister Smriti Irani in 2016. Swayam, Hindi for self, is India’s first, national Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) platform. 

Like its name, Swayam’s purpose was also decided in advance. It was meant to be a one-stop national melting pot of courses from grade nine physics to university level robotics. With nine national coordinators spread out across technical and non-technical disciplines, and over 3,800 local chapters, Swayam is a sprawl. 

The idea, says Manpreet Manna, was to improve access to good quality education online, especially for students who couldn’t attend elite, urban colleges. Manna was the head of Swayam’s launch committee, and instrumental in bringing the nine national academies under one wing. Manna and his team were also clear that Swayam needed to be different and bigger in scope to its intellectual predecessor—the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning (NPTEL). 

NPTEL, launched in 2003, was a joint effort between the seven Indian Institutes of Technology, like IIT Madras IIT Madras The Ken The Reinvention of IIT-Madras Read more , Bombay and Kanpur, and the Indian Institute of Science. NPTEL was a platform for recorded lectures, which were hosted on Youtube and the NPTEL website. By no means a modest operation, NPTEL’s coordinator Andrew Thangaraj claims that the platform already had “hundreds of millions of hits” by 2014. When it came to launching a nation-wide MOOC platform though, the HRD Ministry decided to start afresh.

With its “learn anytime, anywhere” MOOC approach, the disruption caused by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic is a tailor-made opportunity for Swayam to be a composite solution for teaching and assessing. The pandemic led to the indefinite closure of over 1,000 universities, shutting out roughly 38 million students. Colleges scrambled to put together a patchwork of tools—Google Classroom, Webex, and Zoom—to bring college education online. 

Swayam was supposed to address this variable quality of teaching and learning across universities, but it is conspicuously absent from the long list of tools and websites being used to teach online right now. Instead, it’s plagued by the same problems it set out to address. 

Even a cursory glance through Swayam reveals that quality, format, and assessment patterns are inconsistent. Some teachers use a creative mix of presentations and quizzes to teach, while others are monotonous lectures in front of a green screen. The Ken spoke to 25 students and teachers across 10 cities in June about their experience with online classes. 

AUTHOR

Olina Banerji

Based in Delhi, Olina writes about mega-trends in urban mobility, education, skilling and the environment, with a focus on how institutions and innovations can help cities grow sustainably. She is a graduate of the London School of Economics, and has worked previously with India Today and global non-profit Ashoka.

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