Over the past two decades, the rate at which new content has been emerging and knowledge changing has rapidly increased. This has meant that by the time a learner graduates from a traditional undergraduate course, the environment in which they need to apply their learning would have transformed significantly. This changing educational landscape has been further proliferated by online learning providers in the form of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC) which have been around for nearly a decade now. Services such as Coursera & EdX (and many others too) offer a diverse range of courses from some of the best institutions in the world, which allow learners to continue to upskill themselves once they have left formal educational institutes. Even with the ability to take these courses from the comforts of your home, at a time of your convenience they have not received the desired uptake.
By 2019, MOOC users crossed the 110 million mark, which is significant but it masks the retention rates and diversity of global participation.
“By the end of 2018, over 900 universities around the world had announced or launched 11.4k MOOCs, with around 2,000 new courses added to the list this year (down from 2,500 courses in 2017). The number of available MOOCs has grown dramatically in the last few years due to scheduling policy changes, but since user growth hasn’t kept up, each course is getting fewer users.”
In other words, it did not turn out to be the gamechanger one hoped it would be. Having explored over two dozen of these courses, since 2012, in a range of subjects ranging from ‘Assessment’ to ‘Artificial Intelligence’ I have been intrigued with this concept of on-demand online learning and the challenges to its uptake. I tried to understand why these courses were not as popular as it was with me to facilitate on-demand learning. These are some of my observations on why it didn’t garner a bigger interest:
- It was expensive for learners in many parts of the world (a single course with certificates costs anywhere between $30 – $100)
- Poor internet connectivity and data costs (the providers realised this and later made the functionality of downloading videos)
- Not valued by employers as initially hoped (this is changing and will change more as we emerge from this pandemic)
- Cast in a poor light by academicians at traditional universities (this is also changing rapidly as service providers are now catering to learners’ needs as opposed to the initial criticism that they are solely focused on their investors)
All the above factors compound and add to the confusion of the final factor — awareness. Learners who are most in need of access to these courses seemed to not be well aware of them. However, we have now entered new times. It may be the worst of times, in general, but of course, with change comes the opportunity for growth. This coupled with the high tuition fees, traditional college was already not making much sense. With a significant global population having to now work and study from home, many universities are now beginning to embrace the online learning model.
It is rather unfortunate that it had to reach this point before ‘mainstream’ education recognised the value of having education personalised and delivered to learners as and when they need them. We will now potentially begin to see the framework of education, in general, and higher education especially, change. The focus will move away from standardised content to focus on each learner as we begin to leverage the technology to personalise learning. This is an opportunity for us, as learners, to sketch our own portrait.
We actualise our potential when our passions are ignited and we get to choose what we want to learn. This has been a guiding principle in all of the schools I have been involved with. Over the many years since its birth, online course providers have also been adapting to learners’ needs. The course provider is able to collect real time data on learners’ preferences and how they fare in lessons, enabling it to improve its subsequent iterations based on the experiences and feedback of thousands of active learners. As teachers, we have wanted to personalise education for our learners. We have craved for it and did our best at every chance we got. The realities of modern teaching, and the associated tasks, places an inordinate demand on teachers but maybe, now, we can use technology as a springboard to get closer to that aspiration.
With developments in AI, a new concept of online learning – adaptive learning – has emerged. It works by gauging individual learner needs and fine-tuning the learning process to serve those learners. This works by breaking down the elements of a concept to its basic points and then having the learners have a go at these points. So a learner begins by taking a diagnostic test and answering a few questions which helps the system understand and create a benchmark for that learner. It may then skip ahead or revert to the basics depending on how ‘correct’ the learners answers are. This helps the algorithm to understand which basic element a learner is struggling with and targeting to get the basics right in that aspect before moving on. This concept of adaptive learning, in various other terms and iterations, has been around for a while but recently it has become more intuitive and seamless with the integration of technology. What is even better is that, unlike a human teacher, this algorithm can work with hundreds of students simultaneously and the knowledge gained from it will be used to update the knowledge base of the algorithm as a whole. Imagine if we could update the collective wisdom of all teachers in the world as each teacher learns a new thing about a concept or a learner? That is what we are potentially heading towards.
Does this mean that teachers, schools and universities will be redundant? They will not be redundant if they can evolve with the times. This current pandemic crisis we are in is the fork in the road. I believe the way we teach and learn will change and teachers will have to be in constant learning mode. Teachers are essential to facilitate learning and help a learner situate that knowledge in context. Machines and algorithms can only be an aid to those who teach, not replace them. At least not at this point and most certainly not when it comes to the many other Areas of Development of our learners (Social, Emotional, Physical and Spiritual development)
This brings me back to the current situation we find ourselves in – at home, cut off from social interactions. This, I feel, is the catalyst that was necessary to propel online education forward.
There are many things wrong with where we are in the world right now. These are very strange times. However, as you find yourself socially distancing from friends, relatives and colleagues, I encourage you to take this opportunity to deep dive in an online learning experience and see for yourself. There is a wider element in me proposing this to you – unless we as learners take ownership of our learning – what and how we learn – we will not flourish. Technology offers a means for us to do that. It is up to us to mould technology the way we want, based on our own interests, idiosyncrasies and goals to create our own portrait and actualise our potential.
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