BBC News

IMF launching courses on online university

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News education correspondent

image captionThe IMF wants to raise public understanding of economic problems facing governments around the world

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is set to join an online university network and will run finance courses which will be available free to students around the world.

This first step into the world of higher education will include the topical subject of debt.

The global organisation, responsible for promoting financial stability, is going to deliver courses in partnership with the edX online university platform, set up by Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The IMF will run two courses in financial policy, aimed initially at government officials, with plans to make this open to the public next year.

These online university projects, so-called MOOCs (massive open online courses), can attract hundreds of thousands of students for individual courses.

Fund of knowledge

So why does the IMF think it should be teaching the world about finance?

Sharmini Coorey, director of the IMF's Institute for Capacity Development, says the financial crisis has awakened interest in how public finances are run.

How are people meant to understand the big picture behind problems such as unemployment?

image captionBig screen in the IMF lobby: What does the public believe about the downturn?

"When the public can understand the questions, then the level of debate can increase. Informed debate can only be helpful," she says.

The IMF already runs training programmes for staff such as central bankers and finance ministry officials, and Ms Coorey says that the online university is a way of making this information accessible to anyone with an internet connection.

These are going to be uncompromising in their content - "based on the latest collective wisdom on macro-economics" - but are designed to give the public an insight into the issues facing their governments' finance ministers.

Following the semi-automated format of such courses, there will be online questions accompanied by discussion forums where students can share problems and get advice. Students will get a certificate rather than a degree.

Citizen bankers

The economic downturn has seen a deepening distrust between the public and the financial sector. The skyscraper graphics and trillion dollar budget conversations are a long way from translating into everyday financial dilemmas such as trying to afford to replace the car or organise a family holiday.

And the course has the underlying aim of improving public education on finances, taking the debate beyond the marble corridors of central banks.

image captionImproving understanding of finance could help to tackle public distrust of the financial sector

The IMF's deputy managing director, Nemat Shafik, last week highlighted how education and training needed to be much more effectively harnessed in the pursuit of economic growth.

She has welcomed how the partnership with edX will extend the reach of the IMF's educational role. These online courses will reach many more government staff, she says.

But making these courses public will also "empower citizens everywhere to understand the financial policy issues facing their own countries".

The edX online platform carrying the IMF courses is one of the flagships of the new wave of digital universities.

This not-for-profit partnership is already offering courses from more than 20 leading universities, but the IMF course is the first time that it will have been used to provide courses from an international governmental institution.

Spooked by MOOCs

Anant Agarwal, president of edX and previously a MIT professor of artificial intelligence, says the partnership with the IMF is another example of how online learning is breaking down barriers in learning, bringing in new types of organisation.

He expects other institutions, corporations or NGOs to move into this educational sphere.

After only one year, the edX platform has gained more than a million students in 192 countries. These range from ambitious but isolated students in Africa through to people already at university in the developed world.

Students in India and China have been helped to get places in MIT by their high achievement in edX online courses.

Much of the original attention surrounding MOOCs revolved around the involvement of some of the world's elite university brands.

This raised questions about whether the traditional degree course would be rendered over-priced and obsolete.

But the impact of online learning has been much less predictable.

It seems as likely to change conventional campus-based courses as much as opening up universities to remote learners.

Prof Agarwal says the idea of mixing online learning with conventional courses will become standard practice.

"This will incorporate the best of online learning with the best of learning in person," he predicts.

Downloading degrees

Coursera, launched last year by academics at Stanford, recently announced a huge expansion in a deal with 10 US state university systems, with 1.25 million students between them.

This will include universities producing online material for students on their own courses. Students now expect to use the internet to find information and they expect to have materials accessible whenever they want to use them.

image captionThe IMF is going to offer two courses, using the expertise of the training it already offers central bankers

If they attend a lecture they might want to be able to play it back on their laptop.

Another factor created by this type of online accessibility is the permeability of information.

Coursera has almost 3.9 million students following university courses and each and every one of them can peer over the fence to see how courses are taught in other institutions.

Sceptics point to the high dropout rates and the problems with accrediting such online courses, but it creates a level of accessibility that would have been impossible only a few years ago.

The introduction of courses from the IMF shows the unexpected blurring of boundaries around formal education. Who should be able to teach? Where should people go to learn, a library or a search on YouTube?

The sheer scale of the online sharing of knowledge has also been unprecedented. The free academic version of Apple's iTunes - iTunes U - has now had one billion downloads of lectures and course materials, drawing on a catalogue of 600,000 online academic resources.

This isn't just a parade of over-sized numbers, there are unexpected involvements at a grassroots level. A few weeks ago the Texas Association of School Administrators announced that it was going to use material from iTunes U for high school courses across 14 school districts.

If iTunes was first seen as the beginning of the end for CDs and record shops, it would have been harder to predict that it would also be the beginning for a new type of school curriculum.

It's going to mean some different kinds of questions for employers. Where did you get your qualifications? MIT, the IMF or the Apple Store?