Insight: online courses to transform university education, not replace it

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:50pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 December, 2013, 12:50pm

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Chinese Culture; Shakespeare's Hamlet; Text, Performance and Culture; Improving Your Image: Dental Photography and Practice - these are just a sample of courses about to start on a computer near you.

I am a new convert to the power and potential of Moocs - massive open online courses - as a new channel for lifelong learning and a disruptive force in higher education.

With the clarity of the teaching that is possible with Moocs, and the range of courses on offer, it is no wonder traditional academics are nervous.

Students may find Weike Wang, of Shanghai Jiatong University - who is about to start his course, the Journey of Mathematics, on the Coursera platform - more helpful in understanding abstraction in maths than a fleeting face-to-face lecture, particularly with the rewind functions and interaction that is now possible on the web, and his personable delivery.

Online courses dominated the discussion at the recent British Council Global Education Dialogue in Beijing, on the impact of digital technology in higher education, an event co-organised by the National Academy of Education Administration.

Pioneers who are delivering from Hong Kong, the mainland, and Britain, debated their role with enthusiasts and sceptics from universities across the mainland.

The event brought some clarity as to the impact the courses may have. On the positive side, they have great potential to extend learning to those who might not have had the chance to get the education they desire - perhaps mainlanders who missed out because of the Cultural Revolution. Some are now flocking to the US-based Coursera platform, or Tsinghua University's new as eager adult learners.

Online courses, like Open University platforms, can also reach communities in remote rural areas, including those who could never afford to go to a physical university. Or they can be used by universities that face gaps in academic talent.

What they are unlikely to do is replace traditional campus-based education, because of the other benefits universities bring in terms of interaction between professors and students, and among student peers.

Instead, they can supplement that experience. Students can use them as a learning resource to return to, while the lecturer can spend more time engaging directly with them in tutorials, rather than repeating basic course content in the same lecture, year after year. The latter can be done through a podcast or, for more seminal topics of wider interest, an online course.

In Hong Kong, the many general topics that are now available on platforms such as Coursera and edX from the US, or Britain's Futurelearn, are a great resource for Liberal Studies at school level, or the general education that is now part of four-year degrees. They are also very good for adult learners

Professor Chow King-chuen, of the University of Science and Technology's department of biochemistry, delivered one of the first home-grown online courses, the Science of Gastronomy, on Coursera, last summer.

He was surprised that 83,000 signed up, about 14,000 watched the videos, and about 6,000 completed the assignments.

Chow shared sound advice in Beijing. Online courses may have arrived, but not all academics should do them - only those with suitable presentation skills to justify the investment production costs of US$250,000.

They are an opportunity for lecturers to explore topics they are interested in beyond their traditional disciplines, and to develop their teaching skills - the sort of engagement that works in an online course may make them better lecturers.

But they are not timesavers for academics. Instead of teaching tens of students in a lecture theatre, he faced thousands online, and spent many hours each evening responding to their messages.

As more universities get involved in delivering online courses, it is important Hong Kong's institutions do not get left behind. They have a chance to collaborate in the creative use of digital technologies, to share their best both at home and globally, and enhance the learning of their students.

It is unlikely that Moocs will force universities to close, as some in Beijing feared. Instead, they may be the next stage in their attempts to reach out beyond their ivory towers. Katherine Forestier is director of the consultancy Education Link Limited


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