Online Learning

I’ve enrolled in a mooc (massively open online courses) from Coursera. It’s not until October, so plenty of time to get all anxious about it. It’s fairly technical and I may discover that it’s way over my head. If I survive, I hope it will have proven to be a good experience.

Coursera is one of the big orgs providing moocs.  They have some stunningly cool offerings from highly reputable institutions. Many are pretty advanced or technical, others are more introductory. But they all seem to go into some depth on the subjects. As far as I’m aware all the courses are free. You get a certificate of completion at the end if you make it. Because they have no way to verify the identities of the participants, the certificates don’t really carry much weight with anyone. That could change. iphone-education

I’ve been watching these developments for several years. It dawned on me right around the time the first iPhones started appearing that this could be a game changing technology for education, and within the last couple of years my predictions have come to the forefront of issues facing higher ed. When I heard that MIT was offering its introductory course in electronic engineering online for free, it sealed the deal. What I saw was about to happen, and is happening now, is that the marketplace for higher education would be shifting rapidly to a consumer model. Rather than expecting students to line up and beg to be admitted to a 4 year undergraduate program at some university, they will be able to cherry pick their curriculum from major course providers around the world. They’ll get their history courses from Oxford, engineering from MIT, writing from Stanford, etc. The provider institutions will be competing with each other for students on a course by course level.  Students will pay a discount because they don’t need the whole physical infrastructure of a bricks and mortar school. It also means that the student base will be massively broader when people can learn from anywhere in the world. There are relatively minor hurdles, like identity verification and figuring out who is going to certify a course of study from multiple institutions as a degree of some kind (assuming that’s even necessary anymore). A degree will become less important except to the extent that employers will want some kind of certifiable summary of a student’s record of work. That can be done by an independent certification entity.
I haven’t had time to take an online course like this before, but I’ve been wanting to, if only to see how it works. I have actually taken classes in Second Life, which have been astoundingly effective. The trick is not to just put class lectures in a video archive, but to design courses from the ground up for the medium. Also, having support in the form of peer forums and so on. From what I’ve seen, there is very little in traditional education that can’t be done pretty effectively online. The ripple effects promise to be far-reaching and highly disruptive, but should ultimately mean more educated people in the world, which can only be a good thing.
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