Ankit Khandelwal was ambling along the highway at 2 a.m. in Kota, India, when a police van pulled up alongside him. The officer asked him for identification, wondering why the 28-year-old student was wandering the streets alone at night. The reason? Khandelwal had an assignment due for his online course, but he couldn’t catch an Internet signal from his apartment. In an attempt to complete it on time, he was headed toward the telephone tower in hopes of a better connection. Unfortunately, the cop turned him around and sent him home – the Internet didn’t come back up until 6 a.m. He eventually completed the assignment and passed the course.
It’s just one of the many challenges Khandelwal has encountered on his way to cobbling together an education in global management for free. For more than two years, from May 2012 to June 2014, the native of the northern Indian state of Rajasthan slogged his way through some 50 online courses, ranging from An Introduction to Operations Management by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School to Global Strategy and Organization by MIT’s OpenCourseWare. He’s also completed coursework in economics, negotiations, mergers and acquisitions, financial accounting, and design thinking across platforms ranging from edX and Coursera to Open Yale Courses.
For Khandelwal, the decision to design his own curriculum stemmed from a desire to be a 21st-century global management leader. “That’s what I’m aiming to be in 10 years, so why not start now?” he says. A self-labeled lifelong learner, he’d already passed through the traditional college experience – he holds a bachelor’s in chemical engineering from the Vellore Institute of Technology and a master’s in chemical and biochemical engineering from the Technical University of Denmark. Plus, he simply didn’t want to shoulder student debt for another degree.
HE DEDICATED TWO YEARS OF HIS LIFE TO TAKING ONLINE CLASSES
Instead, he took a small loan from his father, moved back to his hometown of Kota where he could live cheaply, and opted to pursue coursework instead of plugging away at a full-time job. He dedicated the next two years of his life to taking online classes, becoming a more globalized citizen (he learned three languages), and reading news from all around the world. Just in case that didn’t keep him busy, he set a goal to become ambidextrous – one he’s still working on.
Developing oneself into a global leader is a complex process. There’s no definitive curriculum, nor are there any guarantees that the skills a student picks up today will serve them well in the future. To create his global management program, Khandelwal scoured employment reports from governments around the world and “used his imagination” to predict what skills would be necessary 10 years from now. He then made a list of skills he already possessed, such as managing people, and skills he needed to acquire, such as product management terminology.
Then, he selected the MOOC courses that would fill his knowledge gaps. He also enrolled in some subjects he already knew for deeper understanding of those topics. Khandelwal points out that he technically knew about project management before enrolling in a course on the subject at the Open University in Australia, but he lacked the formal terminology. “When you’re presenting it to another person, it needs to be in a proper framework,” he says. “They were skills I had, but I didn’t know how it all looked in corporate life.”
‘IN DISCUSSION FORUMS, YOU SEE A CONCEPT EXPLAINED IN 50 DIFFERENT WAYS’
Khandelwal supplemented his business courses with other subjects that would expose him to future trends and challenges, including urban planning and disaster management. Coursework aside, interacting with students from around the world in online forums has given him a more international perspective and valuable experience in communicating with people in different countries across multiple time zones, he says. “In discussion forums you see one concept explained in 50 different ways, and that’s pretty amazing.” He also sends thank-you notes to his virtual professors. A few have responded, including one who advised him, “Do remember — life is a marathon, and while your efforts are, for the time being, highly admirable, the real challenge will be to maintain this level of commitment and discipline over a period of decades (regardless of the path in life that you choose to pursue).”
It’s a reasonable piece of advice, given that only 4% of enrollees on average complete the MOOCs they sign up for. But Khandelwal has motivation in heaps. When he moved to a new house on the outskirts of town in 2013, he’d walk to an Internet cafe several miles away where he’d regularly spend three hours downloading video lectures to watch at home. Still, Khandelwal says he’d occasionally get nervous about the future and consider scrapping the plan altogether, but the appeal of learning sucked him back in.