Democratizing Higher Education: The Rapidly Changing Face of Online Learning

November 08, 2012

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Imagine a world in which the best possible quality in higher education is available to all students, even those in the most remote parts of the planet, and you enter the world of MOOCs. There certainly has been a very intense buzz lately about the efficacy and future potential of MOOCs as the new wave in higher education reform. For those that don’t already know the moniker, MOCCs are “massive open online courses” offered by and in conjunction with some of the highest ranking, most elite universities in the U.S. The rapid rise of these online courses does not diminish the importance of institutions of higher learning, but it surely has begun to shake things up.

Up until now we characterized online learning as “non-traditional” however, there is a paradigm shift happening, as the undemocratic costs of higher learning have reached the breaking point. MOOCs offer a rapidly growing alternative. The trend is overwhelmingly gaining popularity as a way to level the playing field in a world where elite universities have the monopoly on the highest quality education at equally exorbitant prices.

And this is where it gets interesting. Many of the most respected and esteemed universities in the U.S. such as Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford, U.C. Berkley and numerous others are involved in collaborative programs with developers to create new web-based interactive learning studies taught by award-winning professors and professionals at top levels in their respective fields. In addition, all of these courses are offered for free or a nominal fraction of the price. Suddenly, the highest quality of education becomes available to students around the globe. With the ability to source free online resources and open-sourced textbooks the price falls even further.

Want credits and a college degree?

Now that we understand the high points of MOOCs we can move onto the controversy surrounding online learning, which has been founded on the fact that although these courses teach an exceptionally high skill set, they do not push students any closer to an academic credential as they receive no official credits for course completion. But, things are changing. The next wave of learning-to- credits is being explored by the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Richard DeMillo who is trying to put together a massive, open online seminar in conjunction with other universities, which will actually offer acceptable credits.

An interesting article on MOOCs appeared in September of this year on the website The Chronicle of Higher Education. In it the author Kevin Carey predicted that,”… Some accredited colleges—don’t forget, there are thousands of them—will start accepting MOOC certificates as transfer credit. They’ll see it as a tool for marketing and building enrollment. This is already starting to happen. The nonprofit Saylor Foundation recently struck a deal whereby students completing its free online courses can, for a small fee, take exams to earn credit at Excelsior College, a regionally accredited nonprofit online institution.”

It is interesting to note that Mr. Carey serves as the director of the education-policy program at the New America Foundation, a non-profit public policy institute, which describes itself as,“…New America emphasizes work that is responsive to the changing conditions and problems of our 21st Century information-age economy — an era shaped by transforming innovation and wealth creation, but also by shortened job tenures, longer life spans, mobile capital, financial imbalances and rising inequality.”

Providers such as edX, Coursera, Udacity, Class2Go, Khan Academy and Udemy are exploring how to translate students completed courses into campus credits, by using their earned MOOC credits as a substitute for Advanced Placement. There is also the idea that eventually these online courses will work their way into acceptable credits at universities, which will go towards a final degree. Not unlike the programs in place for transfer credits.

Who makes the money?

And let us not forget that people like profits! But what is fascinating here is that some of the burgeoning startup MOOC providers see eventual profits through creating a database of students who have taken online courses and helping them to get jobs by selling these lists of qualified students to recruiters in their specific geographical areas. Take an MIT course from your home computer in Mumbai and come away with the technical expertise needed to get a job right around the corner!

Connecting directly to these new provider platforms is the very idea that quality education is the most important way to enrich entire communities and to ensure that everyone prospers. This is really nothing new, though it seems to have been pushed to the back of the file drawer. An interesting paper appeared back in March of 2010 published by The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government/ University At Albany –State University of New York, titled A New Paradigm for Economic Development: How Higher Education Institutions Are Working to Revitalize Their Regional and State Economies, by David F. Shaffer and David J. Wright. In it they make the very clear point that,”…The twenty-first century paradigm, in contrast, is shifting toward putting knowledge first. For states, increasingly, that means connecting their higher education systems more closely to their economic development strategies.” For the entire paper see: http://www.rockinst.org/pdf/education/2010-03-18-A_New_Paradigm.pdf

What about quality?

While there is no substitute for the valuable teacher-student interaction, many online courses have begun to make use of social platforms, which allow students to have real time chats, discussion boards, and the ability to set up meetings and join groups in their own communities. This might be one way to alleviate the isolation of online learning.

Many of these institutions have “virtual office hours” and specific online forums that enable students to ask and answer thought provoking questions. Compare this to the normal stadium seating-400 student- classrooms, where not everyone is able to ask a question and not everyone is able to follow at the same pace. The structure of these new online courses offered in multiple languages, allow accessibility to information, which is ever available and can always be replayed until it is understood. In addition, many of these courses use teaching assistants to monitor the various discussion boards as well.

Enter Digital Badges.

And finally a system is being developed in which electronic images or Badges would be earned for completed courses of study, which could follow students throughout their lifetimes, be displayed on various digital forums and used for college applications and later as résumés. These would actually serve as portals of information that students can use providing opportunities based on achievements and competency accrued in “earning their badges.” With companies such as Disney-Pixar, Intel and NASA, Carnegie Mellon and the Smithsonian– to name a few, currently working to develop digital badges, there is a good chance that securely acknowledging and crediting learning achievement is just around the corner.

The badges are going to be loaded with metadata which will include; why the badge was awarded, the skill or achievement it carries and which school or institution awarded it, the teacher who verified the badge, and even the score the student received on the final exam. The badges will carry the power to legitimize learning, which is taking place online, all the time, all over the world. It reinforces the fact that collaborative learning in the classroom and especially online, can be a life long pursuit, and there is no turning back the clock.

For more discussions about the changing nature of higher education check out: http://edfuture.net/blog1/course-topics/

Jeannie Winston Nogai
Owner / Winston Nogai Design
www.jeanniewinston.com / E: jeanniewn@gmail.com

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7 Comments

Filed under Credentials, Education, Politics, technology

7 responses to “Democratizing Higher Education: The Rapidly Changing Face of Online Learning

  1. Thanks–a nice thoughtful piece; stands in contrast to a lot of the hype we all have been seeing on the mpre traditional websites. MOOCs and other things certainly signal that we are on the cusp of a huge change in higher ed and I have no doubt that some new systems will eventually come on stream to try and reel some of this all in. Right now it’s sort of the ‘wild west,’ isn’t it?

  2. Pingback: Democratizing Higher Education: The Rapidly Changing Face of Online Learning : The eLearning Site

  3. Yes, I absolutely agree with you. It is the next logical step in the evolution of interconnectedness. It feels like one of those rare, crystalline moments in time, in which we are aware that the pace of advancing to the next phase has accelerated. I find it very exciting! Glad you enjoyed it.

  4. Bridgett J

    You touched on a topic that I feel will continue to blossom in the future. The democratizing of higher education will ultimately result in a global cohesiveness among the world’s populations.

  5. I really like looking through a post that will make people think.
    Also, thank you for permitting me to comment!

  6. My brother suggested I might like this blog.
    He was totally right. This post truly made my day. You can not imagine simply how
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  7. It’s nearly impossible to find experienced people on this topic, however, you
    sound like you know what you’re talking about! Thanks

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