A revolution in digital learning

Anka Mulder says online courses are the only way to meet growing need

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 January, 2013, 5:05am

The global economy will need to create some 600 million jobs over the next decade to preserve social cohesion and ensure sustainable growth, the World Economic Forum has estimated. In the midst of ongoing economic fragility across much of the world, this poses a monumental challenge, and will thus be one of the topics discussed at the forum's annual meeting in Davos later this month.

Education is key to delivering this agenda. This is perhaps truer now than ever:

  • In high-growth economies, including China and India, there are rapidly rising numbers of higher-education students.
  • In developing markets like Africa and the Middle East, human capital development is key to the next stage of growth.
  • In developed economies, such as Europe and North America, recovery will be powered in large part by the creation of employment opportunities requiring high skills.

But as the global pool of education and knowledge expands, and demand for access to it increases, traditional means of sharing it are under unprecedented strain. Unesco estimates that, by 2025, there will be at least 80 million more people seeking higher education.

To meet this new demand through conventional means would require construction, each and every week for the next 12 years, of three universities or higher education colleges, each accommodating 40,000 students. That's not going to happen. So how can this issue therefore best be addressed?

Much of the answer lies in realising the full potential of digital technology and the internet. They already provide access to vast resources of information, most of it free. But not all this data is reliable, and even credible information is only a stepping stone to real knowledge.

That's why, a decade ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology made all its educational materials available online - for free. About 300 educational institutions have followed since, including Delft University of Technology, where I am secretary general. Together, these institutions created the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which now provides some 21,000 courses.

Instead of searching the internet for information, learners across the world can now access focused courses, along with support materials such as sample tests that organise information into coherent blocks of knowledge. This has played a pioneering role in what is nothing less than a global educational revolution.

Despite the major benefits, this development has not been without critics. Some, for instance, scorn online learning as exclusively "virtual", but for many (if not most) young people, digital communication is the new reality.

Other critics have justifiably pointed out that online programmes are often not interactive and focus too much on content. And that content cannot be equated with knowledge and that learning needs interaction between students and teachers.

However, as pressure on higher education intensifies, the reality of campus-based study is that teachers often find themselves mere content providers to hundreds of students in a lecture hall. The personalised, interactive learning experience that critics of online education uphold as an ideal is simply not what many students get today.

Moreover, in the past two years, major steps have been taken in open and online higher education that deal with exactly the questions of how to enable the learning process, provide structure and facilitate interaction online.

Taken overall, digital technology and the internet are thus key to tackling several of the grand global challenges in education. As with all upheavals, the full implications of this revolution are not easy to predict. However, it can only be positive for human development and advancement across the globe at a time when both are badly needed to help ensure social cohesion and sustainable growth.

Anka Mulder is secretary general of Delft University and global president of OpenCourseWare