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The Learning Revolution

Anka Mulder, president of the OpenCourseWare Consortium, says traditional universities should embrace, rather than fear, the move towards online learning.

Human development has always been driven by knowledge, and by our capacity to impart this knowledge, cumulatively, to succeeding generations. But as the pool of knowledge continually expands, and demand for access to it increases, the traditional means of sharing it are strained.

UNESCO estimates that, by 2025, there will be an additional 80 million students seeking higher education. The way things are going, there is simply no way we will be able to give them all an on-campus education. To match this demand, we would have to build three universities to accommodate 20,000 students every week for the next 13 years – and that’s not going to happen.

Digital technology and the Internet have, of course, opened access to vast resources of information, most of it free. But not all information is reliable, and even reliable information is only a steppingstone to real knowledge. That’s why, about 10 years ago, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology created OpenCourseWare, making all its educational materials available online, for free. Since then, about 280 educational institutions have joined, together providing 21,000 courses in an effort to improve online education.

Instead of trawling the Internet for snippets of information, students can now access focused courses, along with support materials such as reading lists and sample tests, that gather, assess, and organize information into blocks of knowledge. This rapidly growing initiative is playing a pioneering role in what amounts to a revolution in higher learning.

Despite the benefits of providing educational materials online, the movement is not without its critics. Traditionalists justifiably point out that current online programs are often not interactive and focus too much on content, and that content cannot be equated with knowledge. Content needs interactive processing – among students, and between students and expert teachers. Yet, as the pressure on higher education increases, the reality of campus-based education is that teachers often find themselves in the role of mere content providers to hundreds of students in a lecture hall, particularly at the undergraduate level. The personalized, interactive learning experience critics of online education nostalgically uphold as an ideal is not the experience of every on-campus student today.

On top of that, a new generation of students is already well adapted to the digital age. Instead of writing letters, they send emails or text messages. They video-chat with each other via platforms such as Skype. They use web-based forums to search for and share useful information. They connect with friends via Facebook and other social media. They shop online and play games together online. They do not see this as impersonal.

While critics may scorn all this as “virtual,” for many young people, digital communication is the new reality. Any traditional learning institutions that imagined they could remain immune to this fundamental transformation have only to look around to see how mistaken they are. It is, in fact, some of the most respected universities that are leading the revolution. They see that this will help them innovate their educational approaches, and, in turn, enhance their reputations.

The Internet can help us face many of today’s challenges in education: allowing people from around the world access to educational materials that they would not otherwise have had; addressing the rising cost of education, and rising tuition fees in many countries; and, perhaps most importantly, enabling us to accommodate the increasing number of students seeking higher education.

For some universities, the open-education movement may make it difficult to compete. If students can find top-quality materials for free online, why would they pay high tuition fees for an education that may be of a lesser standard at a conventional institution? As competition grows, universities will, in all likelihood, be forced to increase the quality of the materials and resources they provide.

As with all such fundamental upheavals, the full implications are not easy to predict. The movement will almost certainly compel educational institutions, with their associated costs, to rethink their business models. It will stimulate healthy competition among these institutions by allowing easy qualitative comparisons. We may see situations in which those seeking a formal education increasingly blend online study with more limited campus-based experiences. Clearly, not all subjects can be taught purely online.

Ironically, and to the delight of traditionalists, it may encourage institutions to return to a place where teachers are not providers of content so much as enablers of real learning, providing mentorship and feedback, and helping students fully comprehend and absorb information.

However this all plays out, OpenCourseWare will be a major contributor to the advancement of open access to knowledge.


Anka Mulder is the president of OpenCourseWare, a consortium of higher-education institutions that advocates free online course materials. She is also the secretary general and director of education at Delft University of Technology, Netherlands.