The online revolution

Education has never been more accessible, but where does that leave third-level institutions?

Tue, Feb 18, 2014, 02:00

Here’s some food for thought. The largest education provider in Africa is based in the west of Ireland. With three million learners and a further 200,000 joining every month, Galway-based Advance Learning Interactive Systems Online (Alison) is heading up a quiet revolution in education.

Offering 600 free online courses, Alison is shaking things up. Suddenly education is accessible to anyone with internet access. It is a mass and comprehensive democratisation of education and training. The courses help people develop workplace skills and are available to diploma level.

These free courses are known as Moocs (Massive Online Open Courses). Alison has been providing Moocs since 2007, before the term was even coined.

In the past few years, other major players have been getting in on the act, granted with a different audience in mind. Coursera, a Mooc provider with investor backing of $85 million (€62m) provides free online, interactive courses from some of the world’s best-known universities. Students can sign up to take courses in Roman architecture from Yale, for example, or calculus from the University of Pennsylvania. EdX is another offering, from MIT, Harvard, Berkeley and the University of Texas.

But are universities running themselves out of business or simply using Moocs as a clever marketing tool? Many argue that while material can be made available, the true value of a qualification comes from assessment, interaction and accreditation.

Huge strides are being made in this area. Coursera uses information gathered from its students to better understand how people learn and to tailor programmes. There is research on how best to assess students effectively and creditably. Technology such as keystroke biometrics and iris recognition is used to ensure students are doing the work themselves. It is possible to sit supervised examinations via webcam. Recently, the American Council on Education recommended five Coursera courses to their institutions for college credit.

Progress has been incredibly rapid. Coursera has been around for less than two years. Existing educational institutions will need to move quickly to carve out a place in the new order. In the US, colleges are rushing to join various start-ups to get a foothold in the Mooc revolution.

Brian Mulligan of IT Sligo’s Centre for Online Learning, which ran one of Ireland’s first institution-affiliated Moocs last year, sees huge potential in these developments. “It’s changing everything. There are whole courses available online. If I want to be a computer programmer, I can learn how for absolutely nothing. Being examined will cost me money but every other aspect is free. There is a point at which parents and students are going to twig this.”

“I can see third-level education retreating back into the higher level of provision,” says Mike Feerick, CEO and founder of Alison. “I think that the lower level training and education [certs and diplomas] will be supplanted entirely by online education. A tremendous amount of fact-based learning can be provided online for free.”

There are drawbacks. Critics argue online learning, particularly Moocs with their pre-set curricula and assembly line approach, can never substitute for the subtlety and added complexity of teacher-student interaction. With lecturers struggling to educate hundreds on campus, can a quality education really be delivered to thousands? Also, many students are simply not motivated enough to complete online education under their own steam. Many need the structure and framework of an on-campus environment. For young undergraduates, in particular, everyone seems to agree that at most, the online and campus experiences should complement one another in a blended approach.

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