Amol Bhave

Amol Bhave meets MIT physics professor Walter Lewin, whose course he took online at home in Jabalpur, India. (Photo: Amol Bhave)

Amol Bhave, a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is like many kids his age. He loves music, electronics, hanging out with friends and the independence of being away at college. But there’s one big difference: If not for a massive open online course, or MOOC, offered by MIT, Bhave would still be back in his native India, probably studying at a technical university with a traditional fixed curriculum and far fewer research opportunities.

“I’m not from a city where most people go to college in the U.S.,” Bhave said. “It’s a pretty different thing to do. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I applied to an American university, but I was very impressed by the online video courses and really wanted to learn here.”

It’s a story being played out around the world as more universities begin offering MOOCs, free online noncredit courses (typically with video lectures) that anyone with Internet access and a hankering for knowledge can tap into. That includes kids like Bhave, ubersmart students living in remote parts of the globe who until recently had little access to intellectual power centers and almost no reason to dream of attending a top university half a world away — a loss for them as well as for academic institutions like MIT, Harvard and Berkeley that pride themselves on recruiting the world’s best and brightest.

That’s why universities increasingly view MOOCs as more than just a way to share their educational riches with a wider swath of already well-schooled Westerners or professionals brushing up on job skills. They’re also using them to discover gifted students from underserved regions, both here and abroad, and give them the kind of top-quality education once available only to kids from the most affluent and influential families.

An educational game-changer

Growing up in the city of Jabalpur in central India, Bhave was always passionate about computers, physics and technology. He learned what was possible at school and from his father, an engineer who encouraged his son to read the few books he had on computer programming languages. But Bhave wanted more.

More came during high school when his family got cable Internet at home. Bhave quickly stumbled upon the world of MOOCs and immediately signed up for a series of video physics lectures by esteemed MIT professor Walter Lewin, whom he’s since met. He spent the year glued to his computer monitor, devouring every word. When the chance came in 2012 to take an MIT course on circuits and electronics taught by professor Anant Agarwal, he jumped on that, too.

“It was pretty exciting,” Bhave said. “Without the Internet, I wouldn’t have this access in my town.”

He earned a 97 percent in the course, which included problem-solving exercises and a certificate at the end. Hungry for the next level, Bhave was disappointed to discover there wasn’t a follow-up course. So he and two other virtual students created one. It attracted 1,000 students — heady stuff for a high school kid in India.

He emailed Agarwal to thank him for offering the first course and mentioned his work on the follow-up course. Turns out Agarwal had been following along behind the scenes. He was so impressed that he encouraged Bhave to apply to MIT and offered to write him a recommendation.

“At that time, I was focused on applying to the Indian Institute of Technology,” Bhave said.

Going to MIT seemed entirely out of reach, but he decided to apply anyway. In March of 2013 he received his acceptance letter and arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, that fall.

Bhave is still finding his footing in America, adjusting to the new culture and learning to navigate the harsh Boston winters, unheard of back home in balmy India. And like many college sophomores, he doesn’t yet know what he’ll major in — computer science or physics, or maybe both. But there’s one thing for certain: Bhave is grateful for the unexpected opportunity and freedom to explore his many interests and learn from the world’s leading experts.

“The timing of the [MOOC] was just so perfect,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to go to MIT. It was a pretty nice thing that happened, and I’m very, very happy about it.”

To see a sampling of MOOCs, check out edX and Coursera.

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Online class leads to spot at MIT for Indian student
Free remote courses are helping universities recruit gifted students from underserved communities around the globe.