What MOOCs are popular among MS applicants?

It is not surprising that online courses (MOOCs) are helping Indian students compensate for their poor quality of education. Growing number of engineers who apply to graduate schools abroad are facing a massive challenge. With engineering colleges sprouting in every corner, the quality of education and infrastructure has taken a huge beating. With barely qualified teachers, students lack any avenues to learn and get the kind of exposure that would make them competitive against their counterparts from China, Europe and USA. So how do these students learn when their colleges are offering so little?

Most of the engineering colleges are struggling to find qualified faculty. While the courses are being taught for the sake of it, students are passing not by proving their knowledge but by last minute rote learning, copying assignments and solving previous year question papers. They say a true engineer never studies until the last two days before the exam!

But this jugaad engineering falls flat at the first contact with professional world. After all, you need to know and do things when you show up at work. Similarly, when a student applies to universities abroad, they expect you to be not only conversant in the basic subjects but also exhibit mastery over some of them. And getting into these top notch universities is not about cracking an entrance exam, but impressing with your overall profile – projects, grades, experience, scores etc. Poor Indian student realizes that his jugaad is not going to work here.

Enter the number of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), thanks to education startups like Udemy, Coursera and so on. MOOCs are online courses targeting open access for student participation via the Internet. In a world where everything is one click away, why should the education be left behind? Why do we need to be in a physical classroom for gathering knowledge? This was the sentiment when MIT and Harvard created edX in 2012 that hosts online university level paid and free courses. Soon, sites like Coursera, Udemy, Udacity and Khan Academy established their mark in the space by offering a large variety of courses for academic, professional and interest based learning.

With quality courses and online availability, an increasing number of students are resorting to taking such courses to augment their knowledge of popular subjects like Data Science, Basics of Computer Science and so on. If you are expressing an interest in Computer Security in your study abroad application and your college did not offer enough relevant electives, you can take such of courses on a MOOCs provider website. While MOOC grades might not be taken too seriously by the Admission Committee, it still shows enthusiasm on your part and gives additional credibility to your application. Few skills that can be advantageous during your hunt for on-campus jobs and assistantships are web development, perl scripting, excel modeling etc.

Yasho Vardhan, an MIS applicant that I worked with, was feeling that his average GPA was putting him at a disadvantage in his applications. To further enhance his profile, he decided to take Introduction to Python for Data Science on edX and R Programming on Coursera. Since he was interested in Analytics which is growing much in popularity and competition, he felt that he needed something more than his academics and work experience to differentiate himself. Further, such courses were highly recommended by his seniors at University of Maryland, the place where he is heading to this September.

Another popular online course is Machine Learning by Andew Ng on Coursera. When Sheelabhadra Dey, an Electronics Engineering student at NIT Trichy, started applying for MS in Computer Science (CS) programs with an interest in Machine Learning, he knew that CS is one of the most competitive programs. With a non-CS background, he needed to prove his mettle. So, he opted to complete online courses that would help him develop the CS skills that he could not in college. Now that he has admits from multiple reputed CS programs such as Texas A&M University, and University of Florida, he thinks his decision was a life saver.

Notable is the fact that whether you get a certificate or not is not the key factor here. The point is to gather the real skills. Besides, developing good projects in these classes can be a great way to show you are a pro-active learner! These can also help to compensate for your low grades in a similar class you took in college or can fill in for lack of a formal education in the area you are applying to.

So, if you feel that you lack certain skill set that is hampering your career growth, it is time to go for a MOOC!

This article was originally written for and appeared in Tribune newspaper. 

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