Free and Open Education: Part 2

Free and Open Education

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A Report Card -- Part 2

When most of us come across something offered for free, we react with skepticism. Through experience, we’ve learned to read the fine print anytime we see the words “free offer.” There’s always a catch, right? However, a remarkable revolution is taking place in online education, and the number of truly free resources for learning currently available is staggering. The term for this movement is open education, and it encompasses everything from video tutorials to classes to educational software to books. In other words, open learning is about the tools as well as the content, and to illustrate, this TED talk by Rice University professor Richard Baraniuk offers an introduction to open-source course material.

What most learners may be familiar with are the free online sites, such as Khan Academy for both young and old learners as well as sites like Coursera, Open Culture and Academic Earth, which offer courses taught by university faculty at prestigious institutions like Harvard, MIT and Stanford. We decided to take a closer look some of these initiatives and found that free doesn’t always mean free of controversy. In Part 1, we looked at the Khan Academy phenomenon, and in Part 2, we examine the exponential growth of free options for older learners.

A Free College Education?

Instead of suffering through a stressful application process to get into the school of your choice, you can now just visit YouTube to hear top-notch professors give the same lectures they deliver to students at prestigious institutions like Yale, MIT, Stanford and Harvard--free of charge.The number of these MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, that have become available in recent years is impressive. For example, the Open Yale Courses YouTube channel lets you view entire semesters of lectures on a broad range of subjects, from Freshman Organic Chemistry to Political Philosophy to Game Theory. MIT has its own channel as well, and it even made all of its course content, including lectures, assignments, online textbooks and exams, freely available through its MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW) website. In fact, schools across the globe are posting their courses online, and the website OpenCulture has a list of over 500 such lectures available from not only the aforementioned universities, but also from renowned centers of learning as Oxford, UC Berkeley and Stanford, to name a few. But how do these new online offerings really stack up to a traditional college education? We decided to take a closer look.

The public response to these initiatives has been overwhelming. The Open Yale Courses YouTube channel has over 90,000 subscribers and over 13 million video views. Just one lecture, Lecture 1 of MIT’s Introduction to Computer Science and Programming, Fall 2008, has been viewed over 1.1 million times on YouTube. And investors have been responding to the demand with for-profit startups like Coursera, which has partnered with colleges and universities to deliver free online content. Coursera alone now has over 200 courses and 1.3 million registered users in over 196 countries. These numbers prove that is there is strong interest for this type of educational content, and participating schools should be commended for providing access to educational resources that were only available to a select few. Some are even suggesting the the launch of sites like Coursera spell the doom of traditional higher education, as evidenced by recent articles with the titles like "Is Coursera the Beginning of the End for Traditional Higher Education?," and "Online Higher-Education Startup Coursera Is Taking Over the World."

It’s hard to not feel inspired by Daphne Koller, a Stanford professor and one of the founders of for-profit Coursera, as she describes in a June, 2012, TED talk her admirable goal of bringing the best courses to as many people as possible -- free of charge. In the video, she makes the point that the only way to scale up a class taught to 100 students in a lecture to as many as 100,000 students is through technology. She calculates one extremely popular machine learning class taught by her Coursera co-founder, Andrew Ng, would have taken hundreds of years to deliver in a traditional classroom environment. And she includes testimonials from students who for various personal reasons would not have had the chance to enroll in these types of classes without free, online access. She also describes how students are also connecting with each other through Coursera, both online across time zones, and locally in study groups and meetups.

Do MOOCs Deliver a Quality Educational Experience?

Coursera claims its pedagogical techniques, or teaching methods, are backed up by research. It includes the following components:

  • Retrieval and testing, which involves embedding interactive questions within video lectures to gauge how well learners are engaging with the content.
  • Mastery Learning, which allows students to go back and work through lessons at their own pace before moving on to new lessons.
  • Peer review, which is used in situations where there are no clear right or wrong answers, such as humanities classes, and where computer grading is impractical.

Coursera claims that its active learning approach results in increased interaction, engagement and learning. However, these methods are not endorsed by all educators.

Once Coursera detractor, Tony Bates, an e-learning consultant and blogger, sums up some of these criticisms in What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs. He says elite universities treat MOOCs as a form of philanthropy for the “unwashed masses,” and the education offered is “second class” compared to what’s delivered to campus-based students. And while he has no problem with the concept of MOOCs, he finds the teaching methods of sites like Coursera outmoded, since it is “based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment,” instead of teaching critical and creative thinking skills. And he questions the quality of Coursera’s brand of computerized learning, which he says often contains errors and does not account for individual needs.

Once Coursera detractor, Tony Bates, an e-learning consultant and blogger, sums up some of these criticisms in "What’s right and what’s wrong about Coursera-style MOOCs." He says elite universities treat MOOCs as a form of philanthropy for the “unwashed masses,” and the education offered is “second class” compared to what’s delivered to campus-based students. And while he has no problem with the concept of MOOCs, he finds the teaching methods of sites like Coursera outmoded, since it is “based on a very old and outdated behaviourist pedagogy, relying primarily on information transmission, computer marked assignments and peer assessment,” instead of teaching critical and creative thinking skills. And he questions the quality of Coursera’s brand of computerized learning, which he says often contains errors and does not account for individual needs.

Another problem that is getting much attention is online cheating. Forbes sums up the situation in "Are They Learning or Cheating? Online Teaching’s Dilemma," which mentions that Coursera students have reported dozens of incidents of plagiarism uncovered through peer grading. Once case involved a student in a writing class copying and pasting directly from Wikipedia. Coursera is reportedly working on a system to address the problem, including plagiarism-detection software, and it has implemented an honor-code policy that will remind students that any assignments they submit must be their own work. An article article in Slate titled "Why Would Someone Cheat on a Free Online Class That Doesn’t Count Toward Anything?" suggests that peer review may be the best way to catch cheaters. But, what isn’t even clear, yet, is whether online cheating is more common than in traditional classrooms.

However, there is a undeniable drive to make this kind of learning into a compelling alternative to the traditional college experience. The motivation behind edX, a joint non-profit started by MIT and Harvard, is to provide a free online learning platform that matches the quality of a traditional, campus education. edX calls itself “The Future of Online Education for anyone, anywhere, anytime,” and its platform, MITx, was tested on actual MIT students. As described in the MIT Technology Review article titled "Is MIT Giving Away the Farm?," the goal is to improve the education of both online and campus students, with the latter benefiting from the additional time professors and TAs can spend with students instead of grading and lecturing. While MIT admits that the initiative is a work in progress, students have been directly involved with the design of the platform, which will be freely available as open source. Stanford also has it’s own platform online learning and research, Class2Go, which is it says is open and not constrained by any specific technology.

Should You Enroll?

It's too early to say whether a free, online education from Stanford or MIT ever offer the kind of prestige and opportunities that a traditional degree from those institutions provide. Coursera and other sites are already offer certificates of completion, and Daphne Koller in her TED talk mentions one student who found employment after completing Coursera classes. As mentioned in the article "How education startup Coursera may profit from free courses," these sites are looking into making certificates shareable on sites like Facebook and LinkedIn. Another site mentioned, Udacity, allows students to take tests at private locations where identities and mastery of subject matter are verified, which may increase the perceived value of completing their courses. The Fast Company article "How Coursera, A Free Online Education Service, Will School Us All" even mentions one young, unemployed lawyer with a degree from a prestigious school who found work as a programmer after completing Coursera courses on building databases. So, it seems employers may indeed be seeing the value of free, online education, especially for high-demand jobs such as the computer sciences.

However, like anything new, it’s impossible to predict how far current enthusiasm will last. USC professor and blogger, Lloyd Armstrong, is troubled by the high dropout rates of online courses, as he writes about in "edX: a step forward- or backward?" He also reminds the reader of the boom and bust of so many online ventures in the late ‘90s. On the other hand, the late 90s was an exciting time of change and innovation; many companies failed, but others, like Amazon and eBay, are still going strong. It’s also possible that entirely new, self-sustaining learning platforms will emerge that are not affiliated with any existing institution; for example, the University of Reddit, lets anyone sign-up and teach a class on their site.

Our takeaway? MOOCs may not be as evolved as the fantastical, personalized learning device in Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi classic The Diamond Age: Or, A Young Lady's Illustrated Primer--yet. But, if you have a passion for learning, and are limited by personal circumstances, the unprecedented number of free college classes currently available may be the deal of decade. Our advice is to take advantage of the phenomenon while it lasts.


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