October 7, 2012 / The Daily Star

I’ve always been gravely disappointed by the commuting infrastructure of Dhaka. Minus the traffic and heat, finding a CNG or a bus seat in itself is a challenge. For someone who lives far from both work and university, my mornings begin with worrying about how I can make it to class on time. While the rest of the world is inventing antibiotics and growing money, having to worry about something as fundamental as a bus ride to class can be quite frustrating. Which is perhaps why I was super excited when Coursera happened.

Initiated by two professors from Stanford, Coursera is a free, online tool that offers courses on humanities, social science, mathematics and engineering with topics as interesting as Gamification and Model Thinking under its belt. With affiliations from star universities such as Penn, Princeton, Michigan and Stanford, Coursera has opened up avenues for students from ‘round the world to learn under some of the best teachers of our time via the Internet. Khan Academy with its K-12 and college curriculum was a groundbreaking phenomenon in the field of Education 3.0 that goes beyond classrooms, blackboards, lectures and textbooks to engage students in a self-absorbent learning curve. Since 2001, MIT’s OpenCourseWare has been offering upto 1900 courses online under the Creative Commons License to allow students – regardless of socioeconomic condition and geographical parameters – to experience Education 3.0. The principle of all aforementioned resources is simple, that is creating a space where learning goes beyond its usual limitations and essentially, is more open-sourced, more engaging, more self-driven and more accessible than ever.

This automatically raises questions on strategy. If in theory (and until very recently, in practice) a face-to-face teacher and student communication is essential to effective learning, why and how has online education become so popular? Bill Gates at a Techonomy conference pointed out how the idea of students traveling to campus and sitting inside classrooms is fading away, and people are leaning towards ‘no-barrier’ learning, thereby adding more flexibility to the process.  Over 5.6 million people were enrolled in at least one online course, mentions a 2010 Sloan Survey on Online Learning. A 2011 Forbes article identifies the future of education in mobile, Internet and cloud technology where having no money will not necessarily mean having no education. In 2012, David Brooks writes in the New York Times how online education makes distribution and absorption of education more meaningful. Students aren’t constricted by 3 credit hours and can invest as much time and resources as necessary to absorb, scramble and synthesize information. Star professors are no longer ‘exclusive’ and everybody, regardless of everything, gets to learn.

While the hype is certainly not overkill yet, important questions must be raised. Most of the aforementioned tools use simple video tutorials coupled with a series of online quizzes, assignments and term papers to design their free courses. This inadvertently puts a lot of responsibilities on the students. While a rigid structure forces discipline, having something as open ended as online learning tools can often be too heavily dependent on the student’s motivation to learn. Sure, one can always debate that learning should be founded on motivation; yet, in a capitalistic market, whether this motivation is standardized enough to evaluate an average student’s academic growth is a critical concern. Additionally, because the tools are still heavily dependent on Web 2.0, whether those who aren’t as tech savvy are scratched off, leading to Discrimination 5.0 is something that needs thought.

Essentially, of course, the same accessibility that made online learning popular can become its greatest challenge. Because such tools were meant to support those that cannot afford higher education or less, it therefore requires a thriving student market in the developing world to prove its worth. Internet accessibility and bandwidth are still dubious, and whether staring a 9.1-inch screen is as effective as a physical classroom for students who are most vulnerable to dropping out has not been put to test. Furthermore, technology can only be fascinating when it is used to its full potential, which requires literacy and training – and so, tools can lie in a toolbox forever unless someone or something shows its maximum usage.

Accountability also needs to be placed under a microscope. How responsible will educators be when it comes to Education 3.0? Since students come from more varied backgrounds and hence, has varied needs, standardization of evaluation parameters are difficult to determine. What determines a good teacher from a bad one, a good college from a mediocre one? What distinguishes a spontaneous student from a shy one behind a computer screen, and how does employers perceive their value? The future that we imagine is equally daunting and exciting, and we are fast heading towards the tipping point.

Mobile technology has proven its usability beyond what was perceived and has shown how short our learning curves can be. Online education, still new and experimental, has just as much potential; however, should not be overstated without taking responsibility. Learning is an incredibly exciting process and should continuously be explored to make it as effective, effective and fun as possible!

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