Distance learning: The online learning revolution

Elite US universities including Harvard, Princeton and Stanford are making their classes available for free online. Jessica Moore asks why.

Elite US universities are known globally for their excellent standards of education, and for their astronomical course fees. At Harvard, the full whack for an undergraduate programme is around $60,000 a year. For all the current anxiety in the UK, that makes our new £9,000-a-year maximum look like pocket money. But then, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

Or is there? Enter "Massive open online courses", or MOOCs – a rapidly growing phenomenon launched around a year ago in the US, whereby prestigious universities such as Harvard make selected courses available over the internet to absolutely anybody around the world for free.

Here's how it works. MOOC students work through set assignments online, usually using involving online video and interactive materials. They commonly study at their own pace and evaluate one another's work. Graduates are awarded a certificate but not a credit. Anyone can enrol, and it's all completely gratis.

This apparent boundless generosity begs the question: why? It appears to be a mixture of genuine altruism and research. MOOCs can deliver quality education worldwide, reaching anyone with access to the internet and the required course materials. Meanwhile, universities can test the effectiveness of online platforms and explore their potential uses.

Cynics might point out that, trendy new acronym aside, the UK's Open University has offered similar free courses for years. That's certainly true, but two factors set this latest distance learning trend apart.

First of all there's the institutions involved – a who's who of US academia. The not-for-profit venture edX offers classes from Harvard, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Berkeley. Coursera showcases Stanford, Princeton and other coveted US universities, as well as the Universities of Edinburgh, Toronto and Lausanne. Then there’s Udacity – a smaller outfit set up by the Stanford professor Sebastian Thrun.

On top of that are the take-up rates. Some of the enrolment figures that have been quoted have been astoundingly large - 154,763 students registered for edX’s launch course. But closer inspection reveals a major caveat - fewer than half of these even looked at the first problem set, and only 7,157 passed.

Still, the rise of MOOCs is exciting both in its potential impact on campus learning, and in widening participation. It’s global. But is it really “the single biggest change in education since the printing press”, as Anant Agarwal, President of edX, has claimed? That’s a massive and, thus far, unsubstantiated claim.

Experts have suggested these low completion rates show MOOCs are attracting "aspirational learners" – the majority of whom won’t meet the high standards required to graduate. The fact is we simply don't know who the MOOC students are – even those running the courses admit that it’s very difficult to track online students. Who’s to say, for example, that the person awarded the certificate is the person that completed the course? All of which leaves speculation over dropout rates tenuous, and could make recruiters wary of the value of their graduation certificates.

There are other teething problems. Thrun himself has said: “I haven’t seen a single study showing that online learning is as good as other learning.” He also agrees that the technology may not be ready. “We are rushing it a bit,” he has admitted.

The business model is unclear too. edX was set up with investment from Harvard and MIT; Coursera with $16 million in venture capital. So far, no one appears to earn anything. In fact, everyone but the students seems to be out of pocket – which is a refreshing change, if arguably an unsustainable one.

Just months after launching, the days of completely free MOOCs may be numbered. Udacity already charges for certificates and edX is planning to start. Coursera and its affiliate universities, meanwhile, have an agreement in place to share any revenue streams, should they emerge.

One potential source of income, according to Coursera’s co-founder Andrew Ng, is for online providers to act as recruitment agents, introducing MOOC students to employers – something Udacity already does. Others may include advertising, or optional charges to students for "premium services", such as personal tuition.

Such speculation aside though, MOOCs are an innovative addition to the education landscape, which may bring quality education to millions worldwide. For those wanting to scratch a personal itch to learn, these schemes are accessible and exciting

Original source here


Post a Comment

Grace A Comment!