MOOCs: Democratizing Education

  • The top 250 colleges in the US cover only three per cent of the current US student population.
  • Outside the elite institutions, though, the other 75% of students in the US —over 13 million of them—are enrolled in the 4,000 lesser-known institutions.
  • City College of San Francisco enrolls as many as the entire Ivy League combined.

When we talk about college education in the US, top ranked institutions get all the attentions. The quality of education that students get in the lesser -known institutions is usually left out of the conversation.

Role MOOC Can Play

We all know how technology has changed the way we listen music, read books and newspapers, watch TV. Now it is higher education’s turn to get disrupted by the latest technology.

Technology-enabled Massive Open Online Course is disrupting the traditional education. The likes of Coursera have already started offering courses on MOOC platform.  Udacity is the latest educational start up which has entered online education filed.  Using the economics of internet, Udacity is offering university-level education at low cost. Udacity claims to have connected some of the greatest teachers to hundreds of thousands of students all over the world.

What Is MOOC?

A massive open online class is usually a series of video lectures with associated written materials and self-scoring tests, open to anyone. That’s what makes them MOOCs. The M part, though, comes from the world. As we learned from Wikipedia, demand for knowledge is so enormous that good, free online materials can attract extraordinary numbers of people from all over the world.

The Birth Of Udacity

Last year, Introduction to Artificial Intelligence (AI), an online course from Stanford taught by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun, attracted 160,000 potential students, of whom 23,000 completed it, a scale that dwarfs anything possible on a physical campus. As Thrun put it, “Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.” Seeing this, he quit and founded Udacity, an educational institution designed to offer MOOCs.

The Future Of MOCC

The size of Thrun and Norvig’s course, and the attention attracted by Udacity (and similar organisations like Coursera, P2PU, and University of the People), have many academics worrying about the effect on higher education. In a New York Times OpEd, Mark Edmundson of the University of Virginia focused on the issue of quality, asking and answering his own question: “[C]an online education ever be education of the very best sort?”

The top 50 colleges on the US News and World Report list only educate something like 3% of the current US student population. The entire list, about 250 colleges, educates fewer than 25%. The very things the US News list of top colleges prizes – low average class size, ratio of staff to students – mean that any institution that tries to create a cost-effective education will move down the list. This is why most of the early work on moocs is coming out of Stanford and Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As the academic and games designer Ian Bogost has said, moocs are marketing for elite schools.

The fight over MOOCs isn’t about the value of college; it isn’t even about the value of online education. The fight over MOOCs is really about the story we tell ourselves about higher education: what it is, who it is for, how it is delivered, who delivers it.

It is also about democratising the education, and making it accessible to hitherto untouched section.

In order to achieve its objectives, MOOCs need to ignore many questions that are associated with elite schools. These questions are:

How will we teach complex thinking and skills? How will we turn adolescents into well-rounded members of the middle class? Who will certify that education is taking place? How will we instill reverence for Virgil? Who will subsidize the professor’s work?

MOOCs ignore a lot of those questions as they are not trying to replicate what traditional mode of education is doing. MOOCs expand the audience for education to people ill-served or completely shut out from the current system.

MOOCs try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like “How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?”

Nobody could kill an idea whose time has come. Napster was killed by the then powerful recording lobby. But the idea survived. Now MP3 music is available on various platforms including Pandora, Spotify, Itunes, and Amazon.

Similarly, educating a thousand people at a time, in a single class, all around the world, for free is an idea which is set to transform the traditional education. Udacity may or may not survive, but as with Napster, there’s no containing the story it tells.

Yes, in the short run, many flaws will crop up in MOOCS. Unlike traditional mode of education, it will be a hell lot difficult for online education to hide its flaws. These flaws may make it look like as a terrible idea. But what will work in favour of online education is blistering public criticism. Open source software and Wikipidia have improved thanks to public criticism.  Hopefully, it will do the same to online education. But then, democratizing education, and making it accessible to hitherto untouched section is too big an idea to be stopped by anything.

Adapted From: Napster, Udacity, and the Academy


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