We’re still learning about online education

Mon, Jul 22, 2013, 01:00

How many students out there have ever seen chalk used in the delivery of education? For that matter, how many adult teachers remember having used chalk as a “learning device” in school?

The old-fashioned blackboard may only infrequently be in use these days but a lot more than chalk may be abandoned as new methods are adopted to provide education. The process of teaching is going online, breaking down walls and escaping the confines of the classroom. The only problem is: will it leave us better educated, or knowing very little and understanding far less?

The subject is under widespread discussion internationally as educational institutions begin to use Moocs (massive open online courses) as a way for educators to reach and interact with students. It involves delivering teacher expertise remotely with student participants pursuing course work and turning in assignments entirely online.

One of the first Moocs was delivered in the UK just a decade ago but it came to nothing because it cost €58 million and attracted less than 1,000 students. Ireland was also an early participant in the provision of online courses via Alison, Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online, set up in 2007 and now delivering online education all around the world.

Things since then have moved very quickly with big educational guns such as MIT, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and Georgia Tech all involved in offering Moocs. The New York Times went so far as to declare 2012 the “year of the Mooc” and Time magazine claims the approach could help deliver “Ivy League for the masses”, a reference to the possibility of gaining electronic access to elite universities in the US that would otherwise be inaccessible, not least because of their exceptional tuition costs.

Early days
Many early Moocs were run largely as experiments by third-level education providers, unsure about how it would work and whether the students would use them, but the freedom offered in terms of when the student engaged with the educational product on offer and a single lecturer being able to deliver high quality courseware to thousands of students at a time have kept everyone interested. Three Moocs at Stanford on artificial intelligence attracted a student enrolment of 160,000.

Mooc-led education is losing its novelty status however and is getting much more serious. Lots of the early offerings were available free or at nominal costs, providing niche education in computing, astronomy and other popular subjects.

But the scent of money encouraged academic participants to begin developing sophisticated platforms for running Moocs and putting together saleable courseware.

And this spring Georgia Tech and its commercial partners offered a Mooc-based masters degree that will cost about €5,600, a very inexpensive course indeed for the likes of Georgia Tech.

Online education is now also beginning to be applied in the US secondary school system, and this is certain to grow based on current thinking expressed by the US secretary of education Arne Duncan.

Proponents argue that the cost of education can be lowered if we don’t need classrooms and lots of buildings, and they argue that a quality education can still be delivered. Even if you disagree with all of this, it seems we are being impelled in the direction of remote learning whether we like it or not.

Only last week two leading scientific journals Nature and Scientific American undertook a special collaboration with a collection of articles discussing digital education and what it means for learning, teaching and research.

Possible dystopia
Despite much apprehension about online learning it offers a way to escape from the traditional “sage on a stage” lecturing approach, suggests Michael Crow of Arizona State University a comment piece in Nature. He worries however about a possible dystopia where “the masses are taught by robots” while those who can afford to pay get real professors.

Meanwhile Duncan writing in Scientific American argues that the new technology as applied in the US secondary school system will help to individualise the student’s educational experience.

It all depends on how far one wants to take individualisation, and in the Netherlands it is pretty far, some might say extreme. In a trial in 11 schools there, the students will work under an iPad-only learning environment, with no paper, no books, no laptops and certainly no chalk.

“School” will be open from 7.30am till 6.30pm during the week and students will be able to come and go as they please so long as they are present during a core period from 10.30am until 3pm. The school year is a full year with the building only closed on Christmas and New Year and parents can schedule holidays any way they like.

The students won’t miss any classes because there won’t be classes as such, given they will stay connected to education via their tablets.

These are all interesting learning experiments, but the down side is that they are using humans as guinea pigs, potentially enhancing – or damaging – a student’s future prospects. Rote may be a dirty word in education these days but I doubt a third-level business or science faculty will want to have to teach their incoming first years their times tables or how to do percentages.