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Education in the digital world

Published Mar 18, 2013 10:37am

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Online learning is nothing new. Many schools and universities have been offering some form of virtual education for a few years, either to complement a class or as a full alternative to real life interaction in a classroom.

Many universities, such as Stanford and MIT, have made educational material, known as Open Courseware, available. However, in the past year, there has been a major growth in what are known as Massive Online Open Courses or MOOCs.

These courses, offered by services such as Coursera, edX, and Udacity, permit students to enroll in university-level classes and receive instructions via recorded lectures and supplementary materials posted by course staff. Other services, such as Khan Academy, simply offer many instructional materials on a variety of topics, and are intended primarily as a study guide.

Coursera and edX both evolved separately from Stanford and MIT’s existing open courseware platforms. Each started with a small group of universities, and in just under a year, and has expanded significantly; Coursera now offers over 100 courses from 62 universities, with edX providing a more modest 25 courses from 12 universities.

Udacity is a unique case; it was started by Sebastian Thrun, a former engineer at Google, and offers its own set of courses, independent from traditional educational institutions. All of them offer certificates of achievement or completion, depending on the grade received, with each course having its own grading system. Completing a course generally involves watching lecture videos and reviewing any supplementary material, completing quizzes, and doing homework assignments, with some courses integrating a final exam into the curriculum.

The offered subjects vary drastically. A diverse range of classes are available, spanning all disciplines, with selections such as machine learning, medical neuroscience, global poverty, startup engineering, and law. The courses offered mirror the ones conducted by the universities themselves.

Hence, if one decides to take “Machine Learning,” a course offered by the director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, Andrew Ng, they will receive similar instructions and will learn the same materials as the students at Stanford University who take this course. Some classes, such as Networks: Friends, Money, and Bytes, given by Princeton professor Mung Chiang, run simultaneously with the actual university class.

Princeton students enrolled in this class watch the lecture videos before going to class and discuss the material with the professor. The flexibility given by this platform, therefore, suits many different needs, both for students and professors. For distance-learners, it gives them access to previously difficult-to-acquire material at no cost, and for university students and professors, it allows them to save class time for discussion and clarification, rather than simply being told the material.

Some courses on Coursera have even been approved by The American Council on Education for college credit. This allows students who need credit in one of these subjects (Algebra, Calculus, Pre-Calculus, Genetics, and Bioelectricity) can do so via Coursera’s platform. This is perhaps the most promising indicator of the acceptance of MOOCs by traditional educational establishments.

Will MOOCs replace traditional universities?

Most definitely not. The value in university is not only the material or curriculum taught, but the opportunity to communicate directly and fairly easily with the professor. Additionally, the years of study and hard work going into the commitment of a university degree are attractive to employers, as it demonstrates strong work ethic and an ability to thrive in a high pressure environment – qualities which are vital for success in professional life.

However, MOOCs are starting to be seen in quite a positive light, and certainly may be used by students and professionals alike seeking to expand knowledge or give a boost to their CVs.

Can MOOCs survive?

Profitability of MOOC platforms has now become a serious concern as they near a year’s anniversary of being launched. While they remain committed to providing education for free, in order to survive, these platforms need be able to make some income for the material provided.

The universities themselves are not overly concerned, but certainly sustainable revenue would improve the long-term viability of the project. A potential avenue for revenue could be in allowing employers to pay for access to student profiles. This can work because the companies behind the MOOCs have started to form partnerships with different corporate companies interested in recruiting certain students.

Another option would be offering the courses for free, but making the certificates paid for. For the accredited courses, Coursera are offering paid-for proctored final exams via the service ProctorU. In proctoring services, proctors are connected to the students via webcams; such exams cost around 60 to 90 US dollars.

A promising future

The outgrowth of digital media platforms has changed many industries permanently. The music industry, with iTunes and Spotify; films, with Netflix and Lovefilm and books with e-books and the Kindle are the most obvious examples.

Perhaps now even education will get its own overhaul and we will see increasing demand for these services. The future certainly looks promising, and the opportunity to learn material that might normally not be available is certainly beneficial for the intellectual development of an individual, and the society as a whole.

Whether one is a school student, at university, a working professional, or retired, there is something to be learned from the wealth of programmes offered.