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The future is in open and online tertiary education

Anka Mulder

THE World Economic Forum (WEF) says the global economy will need to create about 600-million new jobs in the next decade to preserve social cohesion and ensure sustainable growth. This poses a big challenge and was a key topic at the WEF’s meeting in Davos last week.

Education is key to delivering on this agenda. Human advancement has always been driven by knowledge and by our capacity to impart this, cumulatively, to succeeding generations. But as the global pool of education and knowledge expands and demand for access to it increases, traditional means of sharing and disseminating it are under unprecedented strain. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation says that, by 2025, there will be about 80-million more people seeking higher education.

How can this issue best be addressed? Much of the answer lies in realising the full potential of digital technology and the internet. They already provide access to vast resources of information, most of it free. But not all of this data is reliable and even credible information is only a stepping stone to real knowledge.

That is why, a decade ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) made all its educational materials available online — free. About 300 educational institutions have followed since. Together, they created the OpenCourseWareConsortium, which now provides 21,000 courses and has about 360-million online visits per year.

Instead of searching the internet for information, students can now access focused courses, along with support materials such as sample tests that gather, assess and organise information into coherent blocks of knowledge. This has played a pioneering role in a global educational revolution.

Despite the major benefits of providing educational materials online, this development has not been without critics. Some scorn online learning as exclusively “virtual”, but for many young people, digital communication is the new reality. They increasingly video-chat; use web-based forums to search for and share useful information; connect with friends via social media such as Facebook; buy their goods online; and play games.

Other critics point out that online programmes are often not interactive and focus too much on content, which cannot be equated with knowledge, and that learning needs interaction between students and teachers.

However, as pressure on higher education intensifies, the reality of campus-based study is that teachers often find themselves mere content providers to hundreds of students in a lecture hall, particularly at the undergraduate level.

Moreover, in the past two years, major steps have been taken in open and online higher education that deal with exactly the questions of how to enable the learning process, provide structure and facilitate interaction online.

At present, almost every aspect of education can be found online: content, homework, interaction among students, automated feedback, testing and certification. Good examples are Stanford’s and MIT’s MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), which have attracted about 100,000 students a course. These are top-level quality courses. And, on top of content, they include structure — a starting and finishing date for all — homework, a community and a final test.

This example has been followed by many other institutions. For instance, Open Study and OpenCourseWareConsortium have provided interaction by building student communities around online materials, the largest one being mathematics, with 83,000 students. They have also started granting informal certificates to students who finish a course. EdX, a joint MOOC platform of MIT and Harvard, is doing the same and the first US University has already decided to formally recognise certificates from EdX.

Taken overall, digital technology and the internet are thus key to tackling several of the grand global challenges in education, including: allowing people from around the world, especially in developing countries, access to education materials they would not otherwise have; circumventing the rising cost of “traditional” education in many countries; accommodating the increasing number of students seeking higher education; and bridging the gap between education and new generations of students.


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