Thursday, July 31, 2014
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The Global Classroom

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CALIFORNIA – When I taught at Stanford University in the 1970’s, I was always on the lookout for ways that technology could help to improve learning. The big innovation of that time was that my classes were broadcast around the San Francisco Bay Area. We even sent videotapes of lectures farther afield.

Today, teachers record and upload their lectures, and, thanks to the Internet, students anywhere in the world can watch them as many times as they want. Education – one of the last big economic sectors yet to be transformed by the digital age – is on the cusp of a revolution. And why shouldn’t it be digitized? The Web is the fuel of the twenty-first century, and it will propel students of all ages, from all corners of the globe, into a successful future.

For example, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) offer free or low-cost, high-quality higher-education classes to hundreds of thousands of people on the Internet, making it easier to learn whatever – and wherever – they want. I see similar opportunities coming to primary and secondary education in the future.

MOOCs enable an unlimited number of students to take courses on almost any subject, from computer science to music, taught by some of the world’s leading specialists. Some MOOCs have mass appeal, like those from the University of Alicante in Spain and the Humboldt Institute in Germany, both of which offer courses on the practical aspects of starting up a business. The University of Alicante is now on its second version and has already welcomed more than 30,000 + attendees.

Other MOOCs, like an upcoming one on cellular metrics offered by France’s Institut Mines-Télécom, are more tailored to niche audiences. MOOCs can also be creative or unique. Anyone who has ever wanted to figure out just how and why footballers get paid as much as they do can sign up for the Valoración de Futbolistas MOOC offered by the University of Valencia. In this program, one can learn all one ever wanted about how to assess a footballer’s value. Watching a football match might never be the same again!

Wherever youth unemployment remains high, MOOCs offer a new way to boost skills and employability. A key area should be support for teachers, particularly in computer science, especially in middle and high school curricula.

Fortunately, many governments are taking steps to promote the online education revolution. Malaysia’s government has announced a plan to provide lightweight laptops to primary and secondary schools nationwide, and has adopted free Web-based email, calendar, and document processing for ten million students, teachers, and parents. Providing Web-based services to students and educators enables access to information and makes it possible for everyone – regardless of financial resources, location, or influence – to become educated.

But much more needs to be done. Governments must expand national infrastructure so that students in densely packed urban areas and remote rural villages alike can get online. Public-private partnerships are often a good way to do this. For example, 10,000 Malaysian public schools should get 4G access this year through a collaboration with a local telecom provider.

Once students are online, there is no limit to what they can do with the vast amount of information available to them or how they will collaborate with and learn from one another. Imagine students in Malaysia working with students around the world on a weather project. They could conduct virtual experiments, work simultaneously to update data in a spreadsheet or document, and create a shared final presentation.

Where desktop or laptop computers are not widely available, students might use smartphones or tablets to augment their learning. For example, they could turn to sophisticated mobile biology apps that let them interact with a 3D version of a cell, or polling apps that they could use to conduct a psychology experiment.

Study groups can be far more accessible and flexible with the Web. It might be difficult for a child to go to a classmate’s house to study after school, because of bad roads, unsafe neighborhoods, or parents who are working and cannot provide a lift (or do not own a car). With sufficient bandwidth, students can now meet virtually via Google+ Hangouts or other social-media platforms and study together – or with the leading experts on the planet. Thanks to the Internet, distances no longer matter: the world really can be our classroom.

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  1. CommentedMatt Stillerman

    I wonder if either of the nay-sayers, Mr. Coppedge or "A Professor," have ever taken a MOOC? My guess is that they have not, or they would sing a different tune!

  2. CommentedNathan Coppedge

    I can't avoid the sneaking feeling that Massive Open Online Courses are a crude, inefficient solution to the problem. If we look back at Plato and Socrates, it seems evident that education is primarily a response to citizenship, and so it is more primary and adequate when citizenship fulfills our needs as students, than when an outside agent, such as an internet platform, does. Plato's Academy (citing The Republic) was a response to failures of citizenship. But in today's relative world, there is no need for a failure of citizenship, and organizations that do not make use of citizen functions are inevitably uncoordinated about genuine needs. Genuine needs occur through infrastructure, and that is where the citizen functions. Outside of citizenship is outside of infrastructure. By merely supplementing, or even neglecting people's needs as citizens, Massive Open Online Classes are proven to be inefficient compared to direct citizen-government functions. Perhaps people are judged to be too needy to function with government. But if government has already adopted charity programs for the disabled, and for worker's compensation, why not use charity as an incentive program, paying small sums for creative projects or community organization, etc. If these themes of compensation were more structured, like some research agencies and community outreach, much more meaningful things would be accomplished than online education. Corroboration would take place on a personal, vertically-integrated, and global level, without any intermediaries or secondary concepts of the economy. The major thing standing in the way, as I see it, is not really MOOCs, so much as the conventions of thinking about government and education. People get fogged over with an idea that government entails a certain form of thinking, or that education is never compensated. But, replacing some forms of charity with meriticious incentives could result in some major advances in social organization and research, with a minimum of information structuring. Add computers and it's ^2. But like square numbers, you can't get the total without adding up the parts. And the way to do that is to have people function individually, or to have computers function through correspondence, not individuals distending themselves over the internet by deference to a secondary system in which, just as in standard education, social and individual achievements are ignored.

    I find myself in a system in which government has paid me more money for nothing than I've earned from the sum total of my remarkable achievements. It would be value from nothing to be paid the same money in recognition of what I do as an individual. The MOOC platform is just an extension of the problem of ignoring theories of value in modern society. The only way to get value is to pay people for what they actually do. If that doesn't work, then you only pay them after they do it. If that doesn't work, then you pay them less money. The only way where paying someone less money doesn't work is when someone doesn't do anything at all. But in an information economy pockets emerge of people who do a lot of informational things, but aren't being paid any money except charity. A more efficient use of money would be to reward people for the things they're already doing, with the money you're already giving them, and using that as a platform for organizing theories of usefulness, value, and information, organizationally, socially, and thematically.

    The info-idealists building their personal pyramids should't suffer because of other people blundering and making mistakes. Re-hashing old problems has lost its cachet. Where linguists were talking about the need for 'new language' we now need 'new logic'. Even if it's not a philosopher's job, there is room for greater mutual recognition between economic concepts and social realities.

  3. CommentedEvin Dere

    Moocs are the future. Anyone willing to put in the effort can learn and then practically apply what they are learning. I'm 55 and am learning about the new technology available and a foreign language. I intend to explore the world and apply the new technology to a practical business application. It is also far superior to the quality of education I received at my university because of the medium and access to the best teachers.

    You can't beat:
    1) the cost,
    2) the quality of the teachers (some of the best in the world),
    3) the content (current and relevant, not from a textbook which takes a committee and time to change),
    4) the medium (at your own pace and the ability to save to your computer video lectures, notes, materials, etc. to review anytime),
    5) the community (global vs. your local university),
    6) a customized education making it relevant to one's end objective in taking the class.

    All are far superior than what most people in the world can obtain locally from their university.

    It's going to change the world and individuals from countries that don't have the means but have the will to learn will create and build on their education permitting them to improve their standard of living.

    Thanks to all the MOOC's and their supporters for really making a difference in the world!

  4. CommentedA Professor

    This author provides no PROOF that these MOOCs actually, effectively teach people anything. I'm amazed this article was even published, considering the MOOC experiment at SJSU failed miserably. The MOOC project was canned because more than half of the students FAILED. Deleting teachers and classrooms from the learning equation through MOOCS is not the answer. This article sounds like a commercial, not a well thought out opinion. MOOCS, to me, don't sound like they benefit anyone but the dotcom entrepreneurs who want to make a quick buck at our colleges' and students' expense.

      CommentedEvin Dere

      The old business model for universities was to make students second. The rule of publish or perish for professor's forced their priorities to put students second and prestige via publishing for the university first. We all knew we weren't the professor's priority. MOOCS put students first and expose students to other cultures and ways of thinking due to the large class size and global community. In time, universities will need to change their business model in order to effectively compete for student tuition, research dollars and prestige.

      CommentedDolph Connard

      In reply to A Professor:
      I can offer proof, in the way of personal testimony, that MOOCs do teach people.

      Two years ago, I could not have told you who Vint Cert was. As a result of one class, offered by the University of Michigan on the Coursera Platform, I became far more aware of many of the early pioneers of the internet. As an adult, I'm embarrassed to say that prior to that course, I had very little understanding of the role of DARPA, had never read Vannevar Bush's "As We May Think," or Dr. Englebart's "Augmenting Human Intellect."

      I learned of these men and the forces that contributed to the development of the World Wide Web, on a MOOC. I participated in the peer-review of hundreds of papers, written by fellow classmates from around the world, all from my office laptop.

      I am a person.

      Conclusion: People do learn from MOOCs.

      Education is being transformed by the technology the Mr. Cerf helped create. Your post reminds me of one particular way that the paradigm of pass vs. fail is shifting.

      In a traditional course, a professor may lecture to several hundred students per term, and given a normal distribution of results, some excel while others "fail." We would probable deem the class a success if the majority of the students achieved a "C" or better.

      Contrast that to a Massive Open Online Course that attracts 20,000 participants, and "passes" only 5%. Without even comparing the economic value of the "delivery system," i.e., free vs $250 per unit for a typical State University, it is not hard to see the potential impact of the MOOC, still in its infancy.



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