Massive open online courses are getting bigger as Hong Kong universities embrace the changes

New technology and ever-increasing choices make it easy for people to attend low-cost or free lessons via web classrooms

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 April, 2016, 6:00am

Everybody’s e-learning. What used to be called online learning is quickly adapting to suit today’s obsession with smartphones and tablets. Bite-sized downloadable video lectures targeting specific interests – from technology and business to physics and music – are being consumed in ever greater numbers.

Welcome to the MOOC (massive open online course), sometimes called OER (open educational resources).

HKUST uses data from MOOC users to improve the learning experience

“Worldwide, OERs and MOOCs are being offered free of charge, as a philanthropic and altruistic movement, and as a testing ground for offering effective learning online,” says Dr Yuen Kin-sun, director of the Educational Technology and Publishing Unit at The Open University of Hong Kong.

“We’re still at an early, rather anarchic stage, where many courses carry no or only a nominal cost, and are frequently delivered by leaders in their field.”

According to MOOC aggregator Class Central, there are now about 4,200 MOOCs offered by more than 500 universities around the world, with the number of students who signed up for at least one course hitting more than 35 million in 2015, roughly twice as many as in 2014.

“The boom is basically due to the advancement of IT, particularly high-speed internet connections, and lightweight affordable handheld mobile devices,” says Yuen.

“More and more content is available, and tools for e-learning – text-to-speech, dictionaries and communication tools – are becoming more widespread.”

Established universities including the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, City University of Hong Kong and The University of Hong Kong all provide free online courses. Most are available on one or more global e-learning “marketplace” platforms such as Coursera and edX – which claim more than half the global market – or smaller hubs such as NovoED, Udacity and Udemy.

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There are a few MOOC platforms being developed in China, including XuetangX by Tsinghua University and CNMOOC by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University, according to professor Pong Ting-chuenat the Department of Computer Science and Engineering,HKUST.

“There are also platforms developed by the Open Universities in China and other private organisations.”

The latter category tend to be more focused platforms: from the music, art and photography of CreativeLive to Lynda, which hosts scores of online video tutorials. Many such offerings are free to stream, but sometimes incur a cost when you download lectures, often in HD and with bonus content.

Some e-learning courses feature Google Hangouts, and most offer apps for phones and tablets. Upcoming technology will take them – and education in general – to a whole new level.

It’s largely about speedier internet connections, which could soon get so fast that devices will eventually be capable of bringing lifelike experiences, regardless of the learner’s location.

Get a surgeon, engineer or music teacher to don a pair of Google Glasses – or anything with a point-of-view camera – and any student can see what they’re doing in real-time, and join in.

Due to commence in 2020 and expected to be widely used by 2025, 5G mobile signals – offering web connections for smartphones that will be 100 times faster than 4G – look set to change the way MOOCs approach e-learning.

“Online access of educational resources, especially video and HD content, will be much faster and viable,” says Yuen.

“Communication among students, and between teachers and students, will become ubiquitous and instant.”

One-to-many seminars, fully interactive and globally accessible, seem a mouth-watering prospect for educators. Imagine an e-learning course on global history virtually attended by students from across the planet? Or learning a language from native speakers in their native land via real-time e-learning?

But remote collaboration and telepresence can go even further than that.

“5G’s low latency communications enable the tactile internet, which can be exploited for virtual reality-based education,” says Dr Eddy Chiu, manager at the Communications Technologies Division, Hong Kong Applied Science and Technology Research Institute.

“Virtual reality could benefit online training that requires high-definition visual/audio and real-time response.”

For instance, two mobile virtual reality users on 5G will be able to collaborate as if they were in the same physical location.

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Simple 3D visualisations of objects will become possible, but virtual reality headsets also bring another massive advantage to students; the chance to experience something. Why learn a language from a book when you can “visit” a foreign language school and receive not only language instruction from native speakers, but also cultural instruction? Why read about coral reefs when you can swim through one in your own home?

Hoping to use VR to transport visitors to some of the most extraordinary environments on the planet, London’s Natural History Museum last year hosted David Attenborough’s Great Barrier Reef Dive, a 360-degree journey through the world’s largest coral reef. All visitors needed was a Samsung Gear VR headset. Create VR landscapes of specific periods in history and even virtual time travel will become possible.

“VR is good for introducing more stimulating interactions in the learning process,” says Pong. “Other technologies that would have an impact on e-learning include augmented reality, ‘gamification’ of learning, big data in education for learning analytics, and machine learning.”

That all means e-learning that’s more involving and fun, while using each students’ interaction with a digitised e-learning platform – their speed of learning, knowledge retention, and response times – to analyse how best they should be taught. It’s the smart classroom – and it doesn’t even require a physical classroom.

For now, the MOOC movement is largely altruistic; extending education to the previously disadvantaged is often the primary objective, even in developed countries.

“A lot of MOOC teachers had been teaching more students in a certain MOOC course than the total number of students they taught over their 30 or 40 years of teaching,” says Hau Kit-tai, Choh-Ming Li professor of educational psychology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong, who also believes MOOCs introduce ongoing choice to education for the first time.

“As MOOCs are free, they allow more window shopping, with students trying out one or two lessons before making a long-term commitment,” says Hau.

“This is much better than a student paying a high tuition for a certain programme, then finding out very quickly that the programme is not something she or he wants.”

Not surprisingly, some worry that new technology and endless choice threaten the very existence of the classroom.

“Schools should take this opportunity to conduct activities that they have been dreaming to do, but cannot do because there is insufficient time in traditional teaching,” says Hau.