“Human development has always been driven by knowledge, and byour capacity to impart this knowledge, cumulatively, to succeedinggenerations. But as the pool of knowledge continually expands, anddemand for access to it increases, the traditional means of sharingit are strained.
Rapid growth in higher educationdemand
UNESCO estimates that, by 2025, there will be an additional 80million students seeking higher education. The way things aregoing, there is simply no way we will be able to give them all anon-campus education. To match this demand, we would have to buildthree universities to accommodate 20,000 students every week forthe next 13 years – and that’s not going to happen.
Digital technology and the Internet have, of course, openedaccess to vast resources of information, most of it free. But notall information is reliable, and even reliable information is onlya stepping stone to real knowledge. That’s why, about 10 years ago,the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created OpenCourseWare,making all its educational materials available online, for free.Since then, about 280 educational institutions have joined,together providing 21,000 courses in an effort to improve onlineeducation.
Pioneers in online learning
Instead of trawling the internet for snippets of information,students can now access focused courses, along with supportmaterials such as reading lists and sample tests, that gather,assess, and organize information into blocks of knowledge. Thisrapidly growing initiative is playing a pioneering role in whatamounts to a revolution in higher learning.
Despite the benefits of providing educational materials online,the movement is not without its critics. Traditionalistsjustifiably point out that current online programs are often notinteractive and focus too much on content, and that content cannotbe equated with knowledge. Content needs interactive processing -among students, and between students and expert teachers.
Yet, as the pressure on higher education increases, the realityof campus-based education is that teachers often find themselves inthe role of mere content providers to hundreds of students in alecture hall, particularly at the undergraduate level. Thepersonalized, interactive learning experience critics of onlineeducation nostalgically uphold as an ideal is not the experience ofevery on-campus student today.
On top of that, a new generation of students is already welladapted to the digital age. Instead of writing letters, they sendemails or text messages. They video-chat with each other viaplatforms such as Skype. They use web-based forums to search forand share useful information. They connect with friends viaFacebook and other social media. They shop online and play gamestogether online. They do not see this as impersonal.
Emancipation of higher education
While critics may scorn all this as “virtual,” for many youngpeople, digital communication is the new reality. Any traditionallearning institutions that imagined they could remain immune tothis fundamental transformation have only to look around to see howmistaken they are. It is, in fact, some of the most respecteduniversities that are leading the revolution. They see that thiswill help them innovate their educational approaches, and, in turn,enhance their reputations.
The internet can help us face many of today’s challenges ineducation: allowing people from around the world access toeducational materials that they would not otherwise have had;addressing the rising cost of education, and rising tuition fees inmany countries; and, perhaps most importantly, enabling us toaccommodate the increasing number of students seeking highereducation.
For some universities, the open-education movement may make itdifficult to compete. If students can find top-quality materialsfor free online, why would they pay high tuition fees for aneducation that may be of a lesser standard at a conventionalinstitution? As competition grows, universities will, in alllikelihood, be forced to increase the quality of the materials andresources they provide.
Enablers of real learning
As with all such fundamental upheavals, the full implicationsare not easy to predict. The movement will almost certainly compeleducational institutions, with their associated costs, to rethinktheir business models. It will stimulate healthy competition amongthese institutions by allowing easy qualitative comparisons. We maysee situations in which those seeking a formal educationincreasingly blend online study with more limited campus-basedexperiences. Clearly, not all subjects can be taught purelyonline.
Ironically, and to the delight of traditionalists, it mayencourage institutions to return to a place where teachers are notproviders of content so much as enablers of real learning,providing mentorship and feedback, and helping students fullycomprehend and absorb information.
However this all plays out, OpenCourseWare will be a majorcontributor to the advancement of open access to knowledge.”
Anka Mulder is the president of OpenCourseWare, a consortiumof higher-education institutions that advocates free online coursematerials. She is also the secretary general and director ofeducation at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands. She willspeak on these matters at the NHOC in Rotterdam, November 26/27th.This article was published earlier on