Online Learning: The world at our fingertips?

Online learning platforms have become increasingly popular over the past couple of years. There are few people who have not learned something on YouTube: whether it’s how to play a guitar tune, bake a cake or assemble a table, almost everyone has watched online videos in order to learn basic skills. 

However, more structured, user friendly and advanced websites designed specifically around learning have been sprouting all over the internet in recent years, and their simple, hugely accessible platforms will almost certainly revolutionise the education sector in years to come. Having a computer as a teacher is now a reality.

One of the most well-known and successful platforms of this type is Khan Academy, which fuses educational videos made by Salman Kahn, its MIT-educated creator, and an intuitive lessons programme which not only teaches maths, but allows users to instantly practise what they have learned. Khan Academy’s huge success is due to Khan’s incredible capacity to explain, together with a thoroughly well-developed and easy to use interface. Essentially, Khan Academy makes learning fun. Khan’s vision is that students can practise what they have learned at school in their own time and at their own pace; and it seems to work.

However, Khan Academy is focussed mainly on school children learning maths. Increasingly, well-known (mostly American) universities have been investing in what are known as MOOCs (Massive Open Online Course). The name says it all – these are advanced courses, explained part by video and part by a computer system which test students’ skills in courses which are marketed for a huge online audience. This is the case with edX, Udacity and Coursera, all websites which offer university-level courses (usually ranging around two months in length). The courses offered are mainly associated to science subjects: computer science, mechanics and solar energy are all popular courses, although one can also learn about topics such as Philosophy or “The Ancient Greek Hero”. Each site has its own particular interface, but the concept is generally similar all around; interesting yet rigourous courses taught by real university lecturers. 

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Ted, well-known for its thought-provoking videos on a wide range of topics, has not been slow to react, and has launched Ted Ed, where purely educational videos are posted, with the option to dig further, or practise specific skills. iTunes U has been offering free university lectures for a number of years. Other sites have skipped the whole video element, and have focussed purely on practical learning. Such is the case with CodeAcademy‘s incredibly user-friendly interface which has been teaching people around the world about computer code since 2011, whilst Duolingo teaches users a number of different languages whilst they help translate the web. 

edX, a MOOC originally set up as a joint venture by Harvard and MIT, states that its mission is to ” bring the best of higher education to students of all ages anywhere in the world, wherever there is Internet access”. Most of these online learning platforms are non-for-profit, and crucially, they are absolutely free for users. The potential of such a vast source of free knowledge is enourmous. Add the development of mobile apps to the equation and the impact becomes explosive. 

But what is in it for the universities and companies investing all this money in expensive online learning platforms through which they are essentially giving away free degrees? Whilst the benefits of reaching such a huge audience with your image are clear, none of these MOOCs include advertising, which would be the most obvious source of income. Meanwhile, openly for-profit MOOCs such Coursera and Udacity, whilst not charging for courses, have begun to charge potential employers for access to the best online students. Both platforms are also considering charging a small fee for a certificate of completion. Meanwhile, a number of American universities are now considering accepting online credits as part of their degrees, which is surely testimony to the rigour of the courses offered on MOOCs. Google have already partnered up with edX to create MOOC.org, a platform which has not yet been launched but which hopes to draw a large proportion of online learners. 

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No doubt there are flaws to such initiatives. The self-discipline necessary to complete a rigorous course online is considerable, whilst some skills, in particular languages, are extremely difficult to perfect simply with a computer as a teacher.

Nevertheless, in an increasingly competitive job market, and with access to higher education becoming more expensive, it is not hard to see how free online courses could revolutionise the higher education sector in years to come; in a similar way to Wikipedia’s open, free access to knowledge, free online courses could soon become a fact of life. 

Crucially, Oxford need to get their act together and get involved in MOOCs and online learning, which may well soon be a benchmark by which to measure a university’s prestige and quality of teaching. You only need to take a look at SOLO or Weblearn to realise that Oxford have a long way to catch up when it comes to computer technology. MIT, Princeton and Harvard are not offering online courses out of pure kindness; they are fully aware of the potential that such platforms could have in future years. If we want to maintain our position among the world’s top universities, online learning is one of many areas in which Oxford needs to focus. And if it’s a problem of funding, then it is up to the government to decide where their priorities lie when it comes to education. If Oxford wants to remain a world leading university, we need to go online now.