Face crisis with online education

Nieuws | de redactie
14 maart 2012 | Universities are called upon to kick-start Europe's economy with innovation, still the crisis cuts into their budgets. Anka Mulder, global president of OpenCourseWare, now advocates for an open education revolution to increase HE participation while freeing valuable research resources.

Anka Mulder from OpenCourseWar writes:

“Europe’s higher-education institutions are perhaps confrontingtheir biggest crisis ever. A sag in state funding and the mismatchbetween research output and the need to drive innovation-led growthare converging to create a ‘gathering storm’.

For the European economy, let alone its higher-education sector,the stakes could hardly be higher. In the midst of this turbulence,there is little doubt of the growing importance of digitaleducation to the future of European prosperity.

Unremarkable, commonplace

Neelie Kroes, the European commissioner for the digital agenda,last month reiterated her goal of making “every European digital”,setting out a vision in which information and communicationstechnology in the classroom will be “so commonplace, sounremarkable, so integral to learning, that people cannot think ofthe classroom without it”.

This is the right starting point. However, an even more radicalapproach is needed if Europe is truly to succeed in the digitaleconomy and if the Commission is to succeed in its ambition toincrease the number of Europeans with a tertiary education from 26%to 40% by 2020. A more radical approach could also provide freshencouragement to use the internet to the remaining quarter of thecontinent’s population who remain offline.

Online learning

A key part of the answer lies in Europe embracing, much morefully, online learning, or the so-called ‘open education resources'(OER) revolution. This has become an unstoppable global phenomenonsince the Massachussetts Institute of Technology started publishing educational resources onlineas OpenCourseWare (OCW) in 2001.

OER and other forms of digital learning may not be effective forall types of education. For example, OER will not easily replace alaboratory practical or social training. However, some types ofvirtual learning methods are as effective as live teaching, perhapseven more effective.

Since the OCW consortium was formally founded, more than 250institutions have joined, including the university of which I amthe secretary-general (Delft University of Technology). Today, OCW,which is the largest OER organisation in the world, offers 20,000courses online and millions of learners across the world.

While the digital learning revolution began in the UnitedStates, Europe is now finding its feet. Given the high stakes, itis vital that Europe now assumes the vanguard of this educationalrevolution.

A threat?

However, for Europe to fully seize the opportunity, there isneed for enhanced support from Brussels, member states and, indeed,a sea-change within Europe’s higher-education sector. Keyinitiatives such as last year’s ‘modernising higher education inthe EU’ strategy presented by the European Commission, and theCommission’s e-Inclusion Awards, are a great start. But, more isneeded to improve take-up of online learning.

One key challenge is making more of our higher-educationinstitutions ‘fit for purpose’ for the digital age. Whereas theyused to have a knowledge monopoly in higher education, they nowshare their role in developing and spreading knowledge with manyother institutions and individuals.

Some in the higher-education community fear that theirinstitutions will increasingly become certification factories ifinformation is available freely for all and if the learningcommunity can be found online. The concern is that students willstudy online for free, after which they will shop around forhigher-education institutions that are willing to test to a givenstandard and – if they pass – provide them with an appropriatediploma.

I do not see why this is a threat, especially given Europe’sambition to increase dramatically the percentage of its populationwith a tertiary education. Online learning offers the opportunityto teach many more students than we do now: a higher-educationinstitution could potentially have one million students, includinglifelong learners who find it difficult to take part in on-campuscourses, instead of the typical 10,000 currently.

Loss of HE monopoly?

The business case for higher-education institutions would bedifferent, of course, forcing them to change from a system oftuition fees to one of course-completion or certification fees.However, as long as they have a thorough system of testing andprovide high-reputation certified diplomas, offering onlinelearning might even be an advantage, allowing more time for otherinstitutional work, such as research.

For some, the real danger is if higher-education institutionslose their monopoly on certification. The answer here must be toenhance the quality and reputation of Europe’s institutions.Students generally attend an institution not only because they wantto learn something, but also because a diploma helps them withtheir future career. The greater the reputation of the certifyinginstitution, the more valuable the diploma will be.

Going forwards, people may well be less willing to pay fortuition at an institution with a poor reputation, preferring toattend a free, virtual one. They will continue to pay, however, fora diploma or certificate from high-quality institutions. Thesediplomas prove reliably what they have learned and at which level,providing a valuable ticket for a future career.

In general, the European higher-education sector thus has littlereason to view OER as a threat. On the contrary, OER can helpprovide education to rapidly increasing numbers of Europeans, andpotentially new revenue streams from others across the world, basedon Europe’s long-standing reputation for high-quality knowledge andteaching.”

Anka Mulder is the secretary-general of Delft University ofTechnology and global president of OpenCourseWare. The world’sfirst Open Education Week was held in Delft on 5-10 March.

This opinion piece was also published on EuropeanVoice.com


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