Millions join the education free-for-all on the internet
Free online courses allow anyone, regardless of educational qualifications, to study whatever they like
“Online education has been around for decades. The thing that has really changed is that we now have the technology for one lecturer to teach a hundred thousand students. It changes the economics of higher education and allows us to take the most amazing courses in the world and give them away for free.”
Andrew Ng, computer science lecturer at Stanford University and co-founder of Coursera. org, is talking about MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses. In the past year, millions of people have enrolled in these courses, mostly through the big three MOOC providers, Coursera, Udacity and edX.
These platforms offer online courses from prestigious US educational institutes including Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Princeton. This means that anyone anywhere can watch the “superstar professors” of elite universities teach classes on anything from Greek and Roman mythology to quantum mechanics.
The defining characteristics of the MOOC is that it is open to anyone regardless of educational background, it’s free to take part – all you need is an internet connection and students – are encouraged to interact through online forums and, in many cases, help grade each other’s work.
“Coursera got started nearly two years ago when I put one of my courses online and it reached 100,000 students,” says Ng. “To put that number in context from the instructor perspective, I usually teach 400 students in my class at Stanford and to reach a comparably-sized audience I would have had to teach that class for 250 years.”
The term was coined back in 2008 during an online course delivered by the University of Manitoba, Canada, and the concept is still very much in development. The UK’s Open University is a veteran presence in online distance learning and is launching its own MOOC platform, FutureLearn, later this year. One of its first international partners is Trinity College Dublin.
The first third-level institute in Ireland to deliver a MOOC is the Dublin Institute of Technology with the launch of PharmaMOOC last month. This was also the world’s first MOOC in Pharmaceutical Manufacturing. The three-week course was delivered using the BlackBoard CourseSites platform and enrolled more than 800 students from around the globe.
“PharmaMOOC was advertised worldwide through social media and we got people enrolling from all over – Europe, India, China, Singapore. There’s been a lot of interest so we plan to run it again in October/November,” says Dr Frances Boylan, the eLearning Development coordinator at DIT’s Learning, Teaching and Technology Centre.
PharmaMOOC is the brainchild of Dr Anne Greene from the School of Pharmaceutical Sciences and is designed as a taster for related BSc and online professional development courses offered by DIT. Boylan says that “just because it is free and open doesn’t mean it can be approached in anything less than a professional manner”; there were 11 dedicated instructional staff working on the MOOC in conjunction with IT professionals and the main lecturer.