Lessons from online learning

Students attending a university lecture Image copyright Science Photo Library
Image caption Will traditional university lectures one day be a thing of the past?

Every time a new medium comes along, visionaries proclaim that education is about to be revolutionised.

They did it when the cinema started more than 100 years ago. Then they said that radio would change everything. And TV. And the internet.

But so far, the education revolution has been rather slow in arriving.

Indeed you might say that teaching has changed little since a group of students gathered around Aristotle 2,300 years ago and argued their way to understanding.

Face-to-face lectures, seminars and tutorials in schools and universities with bricks and mortar have prevailed ever since.

University terms still reflect the agricultural year - with long vacations during the summer, so that mediaeval students could walk home to their country villages and participate in the harvest that was the dominant element of most economies until the 19th Century.

That's why "massive open online courses" (Moocs) have been such a jolt to the university system in several parts of the world. Moocs are, as the name suggest, online courses aimed as attracting mass participation.

Massive panic

It all started about two years ago, when two Stanford University lecturers in California put their artificial intelligence lectures on to the internet.

Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig were astonished by the impact - at least 140,000 people signed up for the online teaching. Though most dropped out during the 10 weeks of the course, among the 10,000 candidates who stayed with it there was an 85% pass mark.

Ten thousand is a lot more than are normally reached by a Stanford course. Thus was born the idea of Moocs.

Yet the three words "massive", "open" and "online" are pretty challenging to the conventional idea of a university. It is especially the word "massive" that has put a sense of panic into the cloistered calm of academe.

Universities have traditionally been about elites, and learning has (on the whole) been restricted to young people with a conventional school education just completed.

The internet enables university ideas (and maybe university teaching) to reach a far wider and less conventional audience of potential learners, studiers with far larger experiences than the normal teenage-to-20s students. With (perhaps) a far keener appreciation of what education might do for them.

So there is now something of a rush to Moocs by all kinds of institutions in all kinds of places.

Universities who have looked so snootily on the internet for quite a long time are now falling over each other to get their courses online. They are struggling to work out the implications of mass audiences.

The impact of really good lectures delivered by really good lecturers will come as no surprise to anyone who has been to one of those crowded live debates in London or New York, or attended a literary festival.

It's apparent that there is a heartfelt need for people to encounter ideas. Older "students" seem hungrier for this intellectual exposure than people in their youthful university phase.

And the top university lecturers find their internet-accessed popularity exhilarating - a new dimension to their teaching experience. Maybe a lucrative one.

Star professors

The potential of Moocs is very disruptive for conventional universities and for the people who work for them. Many questions are raised.

Are Moocs democratic or super-elitist? Will they empower a few superstar professors while reducing to insignificances those other teachers whose courses attract only a smattering of followers?

Image copyright AP
Image caption Moocs enable people to listen to a debate wherever they are around the world

Are teachers going to be rewarded according to the numbers who sign up for their courses? Will open access to whatever is taught at the great universities diminish the institutions themselves to the status of merely accrediting organisations?

How do you mark or assess the cascade of exams that may result from a great Moocs course? Robotic marking of essays is one (not impossible) suggestion.

Does mass popularity become a monetisable feature of the pay of a university professor?

How many online lectures do we need on basic subjects?

What happens to local, maybe not top-class, universities with an important regional role?

Moocs suddenly elevate teaching to number one position in the way a university may think of itself. What happens to the vital second leg of university work, research?

And after the rush to stake a Moocs claim is over, who is going to pay for all this?

It may well be that in the long run, online education might become a powerful adjunct to physical leaning. It might enable conventional students to revise, repeat and extend their study in their own place and time - in the bar, on the bus, in bed. Not quite as carried away as the original Moocs enthusiasts would have us believe, but it may be convincing.

Sex issue

Of course, Britain has long been a pioneer in open education. I once went along to see the remarkable serial social entrepreneur, the late Lord Young of Dartington, in his just-opened School for Social Entrepreneurs in Bethnal Green, east London.

He was then in his 80s. He was not the easiest of men. Seeking to make polite conversation before the interview began, I ventured a few tentative remarks about his great creation the Open University. It was a British innovation in high level lifelong learning from home that is now imitated all over the world.

"Everything's going your way," I gabbled. "The internet - who needs bricks and mortar universities?"

Lord Young intervened. "You're forgetting one thing," he said, raising a long finger in the air.

I leaned forward to learn this flaw in my argument. What was it?

"Sex," he said.

For the late Michael Young, university education was as much about experiencing physical interaction as it was about learning from professors and lecturers.

And that may be a lesson that the Moocs enthusiasts have to learn all over again.