THE rapid evolution of the internet has revealed avenues of learning that are challenging the traditional norms of education. Instructional content, previously restricted to the classroom, is now being broadcast at lightning speeds to anywhere from bustling metropolises to rural suburbs. Information that was inaccessible is suddenly present, organised and ready for consumption by anyone who is yearning to learn.
In our neck of the woods, where public universities are rife with enormous student teacher ratios and private education comes at the expense of debt-inducing tuition, the online learning phenomenon can prove to be a game changer.
In fact, Pakistan was among the pioneering nations to develop and successfully implement distant learning in the form of Allama Iqbal Open University (AIOU). Courses were offered and degrees conferred in several disciplines in humanities and sciences to those who couldn’t access higher education due to distance, financial woes or simply luck.
Along the way, however, we lost our grand vision of ‘education for all’ — mostly due to our own inability to recognise the magnitude of the breakthrough we had made. AIOU took a backseat and a half-hearted Virtual University emerged.
Online learning could help us regain that lost footing as well as bridge the gap between public and private education.
Offered free or at a fraction of the cost online learning is a multifaceted and impactful medium of instruction that takes educational content developed at universities or by specialist educators and houses it on the internet for popular consumption by the masses.
Education via the internet can be a game changer.
Unlike conventional learning settings with time constraints, limited student-teacher interaction etc, virtual learning provides education tailored to meet the specific needs of each student. Passive exercises of listening to lectures and jotting notes are replaced with audio or video instruction, which enables students to stop, pause or rewind often until mastery over a topic of interest has been achieved.
While some students might pursue advanced topics that further their understanding of a discipline, others might chose to take foundational courses. The freedom to choose, therefore, rejects the ‘one size fits all’ model of education and presents a more coherent, customizable form of curriculum. This manner of end-to-end control over learning was previously absent in one-dimensional classroom environments.
Analysing the core ingredients of these unique courses reveals that, once constraints of conventional classrooms are removed, several lucrative opportunities emerge. The hour-long monolithic lecture, for instance, can be broken down into modular eight- to 12-minute units, each representing a coherent concept.
Accounting for an average human attention span of 15-minutes, these digestible chunks allow students to traverse the materials in several different ways depending on their background, skills or interests; thus allowing for better absorption of knowledge.
Interestingly, one unexpected benefit of online learning manifests in the form of data. Intelligence gathered from online interactions gives unprecedented insights into a student’s learning patterns/interactive behaviour.
Imagine the possibilities: human learning can be transitioned from hypothesis-based mode to data-driven mode to understand fundamental questions like what learning strategies are effective versus ones that are not. Similarly, in the context of specific courses, common misconceptions can be identified and solutions developed.
Advocates of conventional learning often highlight the multisensory appeal of the traditional method. The ability to participate in group projects, experience on-campus, and most of all, develop lifelong friendships are all plausible arguments in context of attending a formal institution of study.
The glaring reality, however, stands in stark contrast to those parallels. According to Unesco, 25 million children in Pakistan — 63pc are girls — are not enrolled at any institution of study. This ranks our country second behind Nigeria in the line of nations where the youth are not afforded the opportunity to academically train and develop suitable skillsets.
The majority of that number represents youth who face social, cultural or financial barriers, restricting their access to mainstream academics. Providing cheap smart devices that connect to internally developed opencoursewares could be one such solution that solves the accessibility problem to a large extent.
Virtual access not only leads to unparalleled proliferation of knowledge, but also creates a curriculum singularity that offers the same educational quality to every student regardless of age, location or financial situation. Political rhetoric about implementing the same curriculum throughout the nation could become a tangible reality if the online learning framework is properly road-mapped and strategically implemented.
The writer is the founding CEO of a digital services startup.
Published in Dawn September 1st, 2016