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MOOCs are democratizing education

By Evan Wade / January 13, 2014

MOOCs are democratizing education

Decades ago, when marketers and tech gurus were still selling the idea of the Internet to the general population, education was a key factor in a lot of their pitches. This revolution would allow teachers and students to communicate through text, voice and video, both in and outside of the classroom.

Educators could complete lectures, coursework, exams and even hold office hours from home in pajamas, and for less money than the current system allowed. Even in those early days of the web, people could see how the Internet would make education more affordable and accessible to the masses. And now, with Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) on the rise, even naysayers are starting to believe in the democratization of education.

A higher calling for higher education

MOOCs have the potential to provide the brains behind higher education to anyone with Internet access, but some people are still hesitant to embrace virtual learning. Although some MOOCs are free of charge, many programs require some type of payment, making users accustomed to the traditional brick-and-mortar education model wary to spend their hard-earned cash on an intangible classroom. But like most technologies in their infancy, it only takes the acceptance of some early adopters to make MOOCs the new normal.

Obviously, MOOCs have limits. Nobody wants to fly with a pilot who logged all their training hours on Microsoft Flight Simulator or an MD who has only operated via Touch Surgery, but many of the courses students take in a classroom can be done in their bedroom or a coffee shop. Such is the linchpin behind the MOOC argument.

From mathematics to coding to basic English composition, a virtual setting can potentially work every bit as well as — if not better than — the standard classroom when it comes to disseminating information. By allowing students to access their classes wherever, and potentially whenever they want, learning institutions can offer the same sort of flexibility other online-based businesses have touted for years.

In a live lecture setting, a student might log in from his home or dorm room, saving travel time and costs associated with an in-person education. Pre-recorded lessons offer an even greater degree of flexibility, allowing future students to enter the “classroom” at their leisure via a tablet or smartphone. Working students will certainly rejoice from this unprecedented convenience.

Many traditional universities have been offering MOOC-esque programs for years. During my time at Indiana University, several math classes offered generalized tutoring and prerecorded lectures via the University’s closed-circuit television network. Students would tune into a channel at a preset time to watch administrators go over the day’s lessons and take live help calls. If you were struggling with a problem on an assignment, you could simply call the number at the bottom of the screen and speak with the presenter over the air.

Unfortunately for me, they introduced a purpose-designed web portal to accompany the accommodating instructional advancement shortly after I left. I may have missed out on the interactivity of today’s web offerings, but future generations of students are fortunate to have access to something that could truly revolutionize the idea of higher education.

Take this recent New York Times write-up on the future of MOOCs, for example. Stanford Research Professor Sebastian Thrun, one of the bright minds behind a for-profit online education venture called Udacity, brings up one of the inconveniences of traditional classrooms:

“In a classroom, when you ask a question, one student answers and the others don’t get a chance … Online, with embedded quizzes, everyone has to try to answer the questions. And if they don’t understand, they can go back and listen over and over until they do.”

Although Thrun has a financial/professional incentive to tell people what’s wrong with today’s educational landscape, and he glosses over some key benefits of the traditional academia — office hours, student interactivity, etc. — his analysis of the situation does raise some good questions. If we can make higher education easier to access and more efficient in terms of how much students learn per lecture, why wouldn’t we?

Online colleges vs online courses

You’ve undoubtedly seen the commercials for institutions like University of Phoenix Online. You’ve probably also heard the charges that it, along with several similar schools, are so-called “degree mills”: for-profit institutions designed to push students through with little regard for the quality of their education.

We aren’t here to speak to those charges — there are plenty of sites, like Gawker, doing that already — but it is worth noting that the MOOC concept is quite different from the services that institutions like University of Phoenix offer. Unlike online colleges, MOOCs have the word “course” in the acronym for a reason. In many cases, people join in the interest of learning about one topic or picking up one specific skill, not gaining a full degree.

That said, there are definitely some similarities between MOOCs and online universities. Like many online colleges, the vast majority of existing MOOCs don’t offer much in the way of official accreditation — mostly because they aren’t designed to do that. But unlike online colleges, MOOCs wear their lack of certification on their sleeves. Their goal is to give individuals knowledge that can aid them in their day-to-day lives, not a degree they can print and hang in their parents’ basement.

This freedom from authorization allows anyone with something to say, and the correct resources to say it, to offer their own online courses. While Udacity is headed up by Thrun and David Evans, who the NYT article describes as “on leave from the University of Virginia,” neither school has its stamp on the program’s courses.

Coursera, a hugely popular and free online venture, takes a different path to the same means by “[partnering] with the top universities and organizations in the world to offer courses online for anyone to take,” according to their about page. Others, like the well-regarded Khan Academy, go about democratizing education by offering classes from the third-grade level and up, also free of charge.

The mobile connection

As amazing as MOOCs can be on a PC, it’s mobile devices that truly release the unbridled potential of virtual classrooms, both in the way students access educational content and the type of content they learn. Many of the classes billed at the top of Udacity’s home page have something to do with mobile application development, and Khan Academy offers much of its content via popular Android and iOS mobile apps.

The marriage makes sense in a lot of ways. From a hardware standpoint, tablets and smart devices are designed for visual communication. A software package designed for online courses could allow a professor to give a lecture from his tablet’s camera, all while mobile-device-toting students interact and ask questions through their own phone or tablet. Administrative tasks, like taking attendance and posting grades, could easily be done on the touchscreen as well.

Then there’s the mobility aspect, which is arguably the biggest asset mobile devices can offer on the path to democratizing education. As mobile networks continue to strengthen their spectrums, the ability to take a course anywhere with a detectable data signal is huge, especially in an on-demand learning environment.

Whether pupils are picking up a few missed credits towards a degree, brushing up on forgotten knowledge or just acquiring a new skill, the ability to make education work around our schedules is guaranteed to have a positive impact on our society’s collective intelligence. “Who has the time?” will no longer be an acceptable excuse for shelving your academic ambitions.