Is Free Online Education About To Change The World?

Most would agree that having an education makes a positive difference in a person's life. However, access to learning isn't available to everyone, particularly at the university level. For decades it seemed only the rich and privileged could afford a Harvard or Oxford education, and today, most students without privilege or parental support still face financial hardship if they decide to pursue a traditional university education. If you are determined to get a degree and need to pay for it, you scrimp and save, take a part-time job, and after graduation likely face long years of paying off the massive student debt you have accumulated.

A recurring question asked by many is why education should be available only to those that are able to pay. Interested groups claim that the road to true democracy in a global society is to provide access to education to those that can't afford it – whether this applies to the underprivileged in their own backyards or to similar individuals in developing countries and elsewhere internationally.

It's a fair question which, in recent years, has resulted in a sea change across the academic landscape. Aided by the acceleration of technological development and the advent of the Internet, education is widely available and in many formats. In 2008, the University of Manitoba in Canada offered a course that was attended by students in-house and online. Dave Cormier of the University of Prince Edward Island, and Senior Research Fellow, Bryan Alexander, of the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education are both credited with using the term 'MOOC' to describe this new option.

So what is a 'MOOC'? Otherwise known as a Massive Open Online Course, it is a distance learning method that offers large-scale, free, open and unlimited access to education online to anyone, regardless of circumstance or location.

In fact, distance learning isn't new. As far back as the late 1800s, those that wanted to further their education - but who weren't able to leave home - were able to buy and take correspondence courses, including for tests and examinations. In time, this type of learning transitioned to radio as stations everywhere started broadcasting free educational programs to their audiences. By the time World War II arrived, Allied countries were using film to train their military in readiness for combat. All of these developments culminated in universities eventually using television for teaching on campus and, in the UK, the Open University began regular educational programming for all on the BBC in 1971.

What makes the development of MOOCs significant is global scale and speed of growth, as well as the interactive method of delivery. The model for higher learning has been one where there is a classroom, in a bricks and mortar building, with students physically present listening to lectures, taking notes and viewing videos that augmented what they were being taught. There was – and still is – classroom debate, question and answer periods, problem sets to solve and one-on-one coaching when needed.

Today's educational institutions are faced with students in-house and international audiences that live across different time zones and speak multiple languages. These same students are connected, mobile, more socially and globally aware. Such factors place overwhelming demands on all educational providers to remain relevant, innovative, and able to adapt at lightning speed. The old model of learning has given way to a new model. With technology so central to this new format, staff at universities is taxed with reviewing IT infrastructure and services, rethinking everything from scalability to data aggregation, interoperability and cloud-based platforms.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was an early provider of online learning. 'cMOOCs', as they are called now, were courses designed with an emphasis on creating and generating knowledge. MIT was experimenting with teaching so it could improve its in-house learning. Courses have morphed into another version called 'xMOOCs', where learning is delivered in the classroom-style model referenced earlier. Eventually MIT joined with Harvard University and UC Berkeley and became edX. Now there are many online learning providers offering courses in a variety of formats, including Alison, Khan Academy, Udacity, Udemy and Coursera.

So what does that mean for a potential consumer of these courses? How do they decide what courses to take and provider to choose? What value will the course have for them? MOOCS do have pros and cons. Discussion points focus on the quality of courses and delivery methods; the lack of certification and credits; plagiarism; the huge attrition rate; the inability of students and teaching staff to interact in person; peer review assessments; under-estimation of time and work required for courses, and more. These are all valid concerns.

In an online Financial Times report, Anant Agawal, the President of US MOOC provider edX, has conceded students taking their courses living in developing countries are under-represented, and many students from Western countries are already well-educated, with degrees at Masters level or higher.

Worse still, critics of MOOCs argue that while courses were initially offered with free access, certain providers charge fees, leading to a hybrid two-tier system. This is a criticism aimed particularly at Ivy League universities, seen as having been provided with a perfect 'bandwagon' opportunity to promote themselves and garner a revenue-generating sideline. This suggestion is completely at odds with the altruism that was originally behind the concept of 'education for all'.

MOOC teething troubles will eventually subside. Universities that have offered courses over several iterations have gained valuable feedback from students. In addition, learning analytics methodology means data that will aid in future course design and learning model development. At certain universities, professors, with the help of support staff, utilize Google Hangouts or Skype sessions to interact with their students while the students themselves organize local meet-ups or online study groups. A huge part of the user experience comes from online forum activity, enabling students to learn and collaborate with each other and staff.

Requests from students for certification validating course study for a bricks-and-mortar university or college have been acknowledged by universities as well. It is now possible to pay a small fee for courses so that students' work is certified as genuinely theirs. For some, particularly those in countries with high unemployment, gaining new skills and a verified certification might be the key to a new job. Employers want new employees to demonstrate a desire for lifelong learning and professional development, with skills that may contribute to their abilities to assess and analyze in a work environment.

Independent studies suggest that despite the issues and concerns surrounding MOOCs, a high percentage of worldwide enrollments do come from targeted developing countries like India, China and Brazil. While there will always be students on any course that decide to drop out, whatever the reasons, many more value studying for its own sake rather than for a certification. MOOCs offer a spark of hope to those wishing to change their lives. While flawed, these courses largely remain free and open to all. A wealth of information online will help you decide if taking a MOOC is the right option for you.

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