MOOCs II: Distance education at tertiary level and beyond

Wednesday, 24 July 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

In February 2013, I wrote a column on the effect Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were having on tertiary level education worldwide. Within the last few months there have been a number of new developments. The sector is expanding in an unanticipated rapid manner. On 14 May, the Georgia Technology University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA, announced that it would offer the first master’s degree course in computer science and that the degree can be had at a quarter of the cost of a typical on-campus degree. This is the first time full academic credit is being offered in a graduate course of study by an American University through a Massive Open Online Course. The USA and the world are facing up to a huge shortage of computer science graduates. It is estimated that by 2020 around one million high-tech job openings will remain, unfilled, according to analysts’ predictions. Nothing new Readers know well, as had been said before, distance education is nothing new. At the undergraduate and master’s level, many local institutions conduct classes for foreign university exams, mostly in India, Australia and Britain. This sector has widened with professional courses in accountancy and foreign university degrees being awarded and classes being conducted locally. The Open University has added a whole new dimension to distance learning. The demand for tertiary level professional and university education increasing by leaps and bounds and the inability of the taxpayer-funded universities, here, to expand to take in the majority of students qualifying for university admission drove this process. The employability of these graduates was also an issue, the Government having to be the employer of the last resort, which had a huge negative effect on the budget deficit. The Sri Lankan universities themselves began to conduct external degrees. This has now been curtailed. The employability issue remains critical. The push for the legitimisation of private fee charging universities is also driven by this inability of the State universities to cope with the number of students qualifying for admission. Critics call upon the Government to increase investment in higher education in order that more students will be able to access higher education and the ambition of the Government to become the knowledge hub of South Asia could be realised. Lack of funds The Sri Lanka university system faces one major problem: the lack of funds for investment. As long as the Government is dependent on deficit budgeting, concessional aid and foreign borrowings, this situation will not and cannot improve. Recently it was announced that the National Savings Bank would fund a Teaching Hospital for the Kotelawala Defence Academy, to be built by a Chinese contractor. What return on investment the depositors of the NSB will get on this investment remains to be seen. Will it be a for-profit, fee-charging military teaching hospital? However, this reinforces the point of unavailability of taxpayers’ money for the expansion of university education. Officials have stated that 63% of students who sat the GCE A/Level have passed the exam, but the fact is that a very small percentage of these students will actually gain admission to existing State universities. MOOCs providers The internet and the World Wide Web have given distance education a huge opportunity to expand way beyond the limits of traditional constraints. Let’s take a look at some MOOCs providers. Coursera is a social entrepreneurship company that partners with the top universities in the world to offer courses online to anyone to take, free of charge. Coursera envisages a future in which the world’s top universities are educating not only thousands of students, within their brick and mortar campuses, but also millions in the virtual world through the internet. Through this Coursera intends to give everyone and anyone access to a world class education that, so far, due to the money and geography, mostly has been limited to a few. A student participant on a Coursera course will watch world class professors delivering lectures. They will learn at their own pace, test their knowledge and reinforce concepts through interactive exercises. Coursera’s students are members of a global community of thousands of other students learning at the same time alongside the participant in a virtual world. Coursera offers courses in the humanities, medicine, biology, social sciences, mathematics, business, computer science and many others At a recent Davos World Economic Forum, Khadija Niazi from Pakistan’s remote North West Frontier Province, described how she used Udacity, another MOOCs provider, which is a private educational foundation founded by three Stanford University professors – Sebastian Thrun, David Stavens and Mike Sokolsky. Niazi said she had followed a course in astrobiology through a satellite connection to her home computer. The origin of the brand, Udacity, according to the founders, is from the company’s desire to be ‘audacious for you, the student’. Udacity is in reality the outgrowth of the free computer classes offered in 2011 through Stanford University. As at the end of academic year 2012, Udacity had 15 active courses. Professor Thrun said that 90,000 students had enrolled for the initial two classes on Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, as of March 2012. Udacity is funded by Professor Thrun himself and two of Silicon Valley’s prominent venture capital firms Charles River Ventures and Andreessen Horowitz. Udacity is the medium being used by Georgia Tech for its fee-charging, certifiable, online computer science degree. This is seen by analysts as a game changer in the delivery of higher education. The New York City authorities spend US$ 7,000 a year of bussing school students around New York; for this identical cost you can now get a master’s degree from one of the most respected programs in the country. As more courses become available, the cost is bound to go down. Another well-established MOOC is edX, a Massive Open Online Course platform founded by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University to offer online university level courses in a wide range of disciplines to a worldwide audience at no charge. The two institutions have each contributed US$ 30 million to the non profit project. edX’s learning platform is developed on open source software and is made available to other institutions of higher education which want to provide similar courses, there are plans to allow other universities to offer their courses on the edX web site also. Online learning software has been created to move beyond videos of lectures to provide an interactive experience in real time. Other than the Georgia Tech course referred to, college credit is not offered yet, but for a modest fee certificates of successful completion will be issued. At MIT Professor Anil Agarwal leads the project together with Provost of Harvard –Alan. M. Garber, assisted by Dean Michael D. Smith of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Negative reaction However there has been a reaction from academics in a negative way to MOOCs. The San Jose State University in California, last year, ran a test course in electrical engineering as a MOOC. This was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Student who followed the MOOC passed at a higher rate than the classroom students – 91% to 60%. The school’s President decided to expand MOOCs to cover the humanities, due to the success of the electrical engineering experiment. Some academics objected. The San Jose philosophy professors wrote an open letter on April 29 to the university – let’s not kid ourselves: administrators at the California State University are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education. In April the faculty at Amherst University also decided against MOOCs. At Duke University, the Faculty Council at the Arts and Science College voted against granting graduation credit for taking a Duke MOOC. Sri Lanka For the problems that Sri Lanka faces, a massive demand for tertiary level university education, the proven social mobility provided by tertiary level education, the unavailability of taxpayer funds to expand the State university system, the resistance to private universities, due to misbegotten concepts of defunct socialism long past its time and the fear that a fee charging system will create a huge inequality in access to university education, access to MOOCs may provide the answer. Of course the issue of the courses being in the English language is a problem, but there is an awareness today of the need to have a knowledge of English for employability. There is much talk of burgeoning exposure and access to computer terminals, personal computers at the home and office, laptop computers, computers at private communication centres, Government facilities such as Nanesa, Vidatha Centres, etc., so both the push and pull factors are present; MOOCs online and access to computer terminals. All those genuinely interested in the rapid increase in access to tertiary education should get together and promote knowledge and information on MOOCs among Sri Lankan students in particular and society in general. This need not be an initiative of the State, even a non-State actor can take on the responsibility of promoting access to MOOCs among Sri Lankans, as a service to the youth of this country. Change ahead Whatever the resistance from traditional professors, tertiary education is inevitably going to change. Students could be issued with an iPad or an Android tablet to access the courses. The comparative costs to using existing teacher cadres will be competitive. There is no doubt that the global online education on the MOOCs model is the future. Education is the most proven way of lifting people out of poverty. It has the potential to unlock the capacity of billions of brains to work to solve the world’s problems. In May 2012 Coursera had around 300,000 people taking 38 courses taught by professors from Stanford and a few other elite universities. In January 2013 it has 2.4 million students, taking 214 courses from 33 universities, including eight international universities. At edX, since May 2012, 155,000 students worldwide have taken its first course. President of edX Professor Agarwal says: “This is greater than the total number of MIT alumni in its 150 year history.” Imagine the applicability of this model to Sri Lanka. One has only to rent space in a suitable building in any of our villages which has electricity and high speed satellite internet access (which at our present state of development is not rocket science), install a couple of computers, hire a local person and train him or her as a facilitator and invite any person who wants to take an online course with the best professors in the world, subtitled in Sinhala or Tamil. Certification and fee charging has been pioneered by Georgia Tech. All stakeholders must get together to maximise Sri Lankan youth’s exposure to the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) in university education. In Sri Lanka we have to grasp such revolutionary initiatives such as MOOCs with both hands and move forward if we are to break through the barriers to knowledge which are holding back the full flowering of our young people’s ability. Surely there will be problems and issues which have to be addressed. But MOOCs are a huge opportunity which shows us a way out, in making tertiary level higher education available to the vast majority of our people, in a cost-effective manner. It is a once-in-an-epoch opportunity. It should not be missed. No major policy changes are necessary; only positive, effective, facilitation. Since Georgia Tech is offering a certificated degree course through Udacity, other MOOCs providers and universities worldwide are bound to follow suit in short order. Sri Lanka should cash in on this opportunity. At one stroke it will offer an immediate solution to the inequities which exist in the access to tertiary level education in the country today and produce graduates for whom the employment market is dynamic. Students can choose their course of study and not be compelled to confine themselves to what brick and cement universities here offer. Financial service providers already have in place loan schemes for tertiary education; these can be expanded to assist in meeting the costs. Of course, like in any new idea, there will be resistance, but rational thinking should win the day. (The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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