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Plugged in: Droves of Students Signing Up for Online Courses Prove that Further Education is No Longer Limited to the Classroom

Discovery - 11 May 2015


The revolution in higher education will not be televised. It will be on YouTube. It will be on the video chats linking a dozen students from around the world, as well as the online coursework of classes that can accommodate tens of thousands of students at a time. It will be on the locally made smartphone of a Chinese rural worker and the laptop of a Silicon Valley billionaire.

The proliferation and popularity of e-learning resources is shattering our preconceived notions of post-school education. But there are myriad ways it is being applied, the combination of real-world, video-conference and online education offering almost endless possibilities. "Learning is an exciting thing these days because there are so many different methods come out,” says Irwin King, an engineering professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong who leads the institution’s online-learning project Knowledge & Education Exchange Platform (KEEP). “Our vision is to use technology to bring people together.”

The first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, began in Canada in 2008 as an online computing course. The “big tree” providers of MOOCs launched soon after in 2012, all in the United States: edX is a nonprofit run by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT); Coursera spun out of Stanford University; and Udacity is a business co-founded by Sebastian Thrun, who taught online computing at Stanford.

Asia has yet to take wholesale to the concept. Sceptics point to the Asian way of learning, or the Confucian model, insisting students in this region are most comfortable with the old way of doing things.

But don’t count on this continuing as the norm. With rural populations in many Asian countries located far from higher-learning institutions and few people owning cars, not to mention inconvenient public transport, developments to bring education to the student are being welcomed. The continent has taken to smartphones so well that its most-developed economies have, on average, more than one device for every citizen. In a part of the world where education is considered a huge competitive advantage, web-ready devices can connect citizens to far-away institutions of higher learning.

It remains to be seen whether they do that via MOOCs offered by the National University of Singapore; China’s online-education portal XuetangX, a consortium of leading Mainland Chinese universities such as Tsinghua University and Peking University; or the KEEP programme founded by Hong Kong’s eight universities.

What they find is likely to share a few principles. “Blended education” combines in-person instruction with micro-modules placed online, interactive content incorporating polling, quizzes and real-time assessment and bite-size videos.

“Students have a very short attention span now,” says KEEP’s Professor King. “We’re really in nano-culture. People want things in small chunks.”

KEEP is a one-stop shop for online education: a way for professors to share pedagogical techniques, a source of tools such as a dedicated education search engine and a place for students to access material.

“E-learning gets people to collaborate and share ideas and resources,” says Ian Brown, the Senior Educational Polytechnic University (PolyU). “Instead of just keeping things to yourself, it has opened up the community.”

PolyU is the home base for the Blended & Online Learning & Teaching (BOLT) project, a facility for educators to enhance their own knowledge about teaching online. PolyU also runs the Clickers project, online tools to encourage peer-to-peer teaching.

The “flipped classroom” predates online learning, but the advent of widespread Internet and mobile devices put it into action. Students prepare by interacting with online study materials in their own time, wherever they want. When they enter the classroom, the teacher is not instructing in a one-to-many style but is a facilitator, answering questions and helping students work through problems with each other in small groups.

Mark King, who oversees the development of MOCCs at the University of New South Wales, says e-learning has produced a revolution on the way we think of learning – the cognitive process takes place inside the mind. But he argues that we now operate in a world of the “extended mind” where learning involves the full body and the way we interact with our environment.

Students interact with phones and computers that remember numbers, faces and facts - an extension of information stored in the mind - and also interactive technology, social networks and a constantly evolving 24/7 world.

With cost of producing slick multimedia courses vastly reduced- an online course takes an estimated US$70,000 produce - early - adopter educators are adept at video production, editing, animation and interactive Web design.

Professors are emerging who are famous for entertaining presentations. Michael Sandel, a Harvard politics professor, made a name for himself by delivering his highly popular undergraduate lectures through the medium of edX.

“There are going to be celebrity professors, I definitely see that happening,” says the University of New South Wales’s Mark King.

While most online courses are offered free, few offer credits that will count towards a university-awarded degree, although some providers grant certificates of completion for a nominal fee. United States telecom company AT&T, for instance, has partnered with the degree in computer science that costs about US$7,000, compared with US$25,000 for on-campus students.

Asian governments may well insist on an online element in education. According to Bob Fox, an education professor at the University of New South Wales, the Indian government estimates that it needs another 2.000 universities to meet its societal needs – a scale that can only be produced quickly online.

“I don’t see the end of the face - to - face university,” says Fox. “But we have to be light on our feet.”


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