Benefiting from online learning

Dhaka,  Monday,   2016-09-21
Published : 21 Sep 2016, 20:01:06

Benefiting from online learning

M. Rokonuzzaman
Bangladesh's budget for the education sector has been increasing and has reached almost Tk.490 billion in the current year. In the national budget for the fiscal year 2016-2017, allocation for the education sector appears to be above 14 per cent. In addition to allocation of public fund, individual families are also allocating a significant portion of their total expenditure to cover educational expenses. Despite such increase in the allocation of fund, the quality of education has been a growing concern. To reduce the cost and improve the quality, it may be prudent to explore possibilities of the integration of technology and innovation in our educational service delivery process. Particularly, smart phone and nationwide deployment of fibre optics network to offer affordable broadband connections are opening the door to innovation in educational field and its integration into our process of delivering educational services.

There have been a number of initiatives across the world in the area of online learning, particularly by taking the advantage from computing, smart phones and broadband connections. One of the notable examples of online learning is Khan Academy. As of 2015, Khan Academy had 9,000 such video lectures. These videos, hosted via YouTube, also contain many other features such as progress tracking, practice exercises and a variety of tools for teachers in public schools. Mr. Khan's tutoring charisma in explaining abstract concepts in a quite easily understandable way appears to be the main attraction behind high popularity of Khan Academy lessons. A personalised learning engine to help learner track what they have learned and recommend what they can do next appears to be handy. An adaptive web-based exercise system that generates problems for students based on skill and performance appears to be worthwhile to engage learners. To encourage students to improve their performance in such self-managed evaluation, Khan Academy introduced badges as part of a programme to promote gamification of learning in 2010. Target users of Khan Academy content appear to be high school students, who need a bit of extra outside the classroom help - with short lectures to address concise content. It is a system that offers students self-paced learning opportunity. Practice tests are to see the level of mastery of a student, and gamification encourages students to improve learning performance further to get higher-level badges. Khan Academy's approach is to identify the topics a student has not mastered in classrooms thus far, and it provides individualised instruction for the student to plug those holes. But such plug-in does not appear to be replacement of conventional institutional teaching. It rather complements classroom teaching giving the scope of getting added clarification on a list of short topics that an individual student can pick at his/her own pace. Good side of it is that students of all categories benefit from Khan Academy learning materials. Top students love piling up badges, patches and energy points and even unlocking avatars. Struggling students enjoy it even more, because they are making progress and understanding life. 

MIT'S EXAMPLE: In the history of online learning, MIT's (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) initiative of open course material created a bang in 2001. There were questions hovering around the justification of MIT's decision of making its core competence open for all: contents faculty members deliver in the classroom. There was perception among some of us that many institutions across the world would be able to catch up MIT, as its intellectual content became open for all. But in reality, no tangible change happened over the last 15 years. 

Another global notable example is emergence of MOOCs (massive open online courses). According to The New York Times, 2012 became "the year of the MOOC" as several well-financed providers, associated with top universities, including Coursera, Udacity and edX, emerged. Coursera has a root at Stanford University; and edX emerged as a joint initiative of MIT and Harvard. It was perceived that MOOCs would be growing as a strong substitute to campus-based education. Particularly, students from developing countries would prefer to earn Corsera's or edX's credits instead of spending money and time to attend their local institutions. In many seminars, iconic figures like Prof. Clayton Christensen spoke in favour of emerging disruptive force making online learning a strong substitute for campus-based education-giving hope of having relief from many limitations of brick & mortar-based academic programmes.

DISILLUSIONMENT: It seems that hype of online course materials after reaching the peak of inflated expectations have slid down to the trough of disillusionment. Summarising the learning of MOOCs over first three years, "Stanford researchers who were at the forefront of the movement have concluded that online learning has not been the cure-all that many educators had hoped for." Completion rate of MOOCs courses, offering of high-level online classes from major universities, is extremely low.  "We see people struggling and there really isn't any mechanism to help them," said Mitchell, Stanford's vice-provost for teaching and learning.

It appears that faculty members in classrooms perform more than delivering the content. Often unnoticed, the major contribution faculty members make is to inspire minds of students to prepare for learning. 

Based on new technology core, although online course materials increase the accessibility of content, but expecting it to grow as a strong substitute to campus-based learning appears to be far from realistic. The purpose of campus-based education is not just limited to delivery of content. The most important role it plays appears to be invisible, that is, the association of faculty members and fellow students to develop the tacit capacity to sharpen insights, create the appetite for learning, groom behaviour to associate in creative problem solving collectively, and prepare the mind for long-term dedication to excel in areas of choice. 

With the rapid penetration of the Internet, smart phone, and computers, there has been a growing aspiration that distance from anywhere in the world will no longer be an obstacle for quality education-as long as some one has the Internet connection. Online course material is being perceived to be strong substitute for the hassle of reaching the campuses and sitting in the class to listen to lectures-giving relief to learner. In comparison to online learning, campus-based education has many limitations, like the need for physical presence in the classroom. For any reason, if a student fails to show up in the class, opportunity of learning for being absent in that class is lost forever, as that class will never be repeated during that current semester. Moreover, lecture delivery is not adapted to the need of individual learners. There is also very limited scope of drawing faculty attention, as 35 or more other students are sharing the faculty time. Despite those limitations and rapid growth of technology, there is no sign that online learning could be a disruptive force to campus-based learning. 

ONLINE VERSUS CAMPUS-BASED INSTITUTIONAL LEARNING: Online learning material similar to MOOCs, or Khan Academy programmes, is not a substitute to campus-based institutional learning.  For pure content delivery and reaching people who otherwise would not have anything, these are very useful additions. But they do little to motivate the learners or to foster discussion and higher-level thinking-critical component for increasing learning ability.

With the increasing challenge of developing life-long learning capability among students, it may be a good idea to divide the job of education. Conventionally, faculty members have been spending large chunk of their time in delivering content, and only a small fraction for the purpose of motivating, nurturing creativity and developing high-level thinking ability among students. On the other hand, growing role of automation in workplaces is taking away routine jobs; ability of performing them could be acquired by grasping pre-recorded content. Rather the ability of performing jobs for idea generation and work process improvement, which could not be taken over by machines, is getting higher demand in the job market. It may be the time to take help from technology to deliver pure content. In campus-based education, faculty members should rather focus on developing soft abilities among learners. Instead of looking into online learning material as a substitute, it will rather be prudent to integrate them in formal classroom-centric teaching and thus freeing faculty time to concentrate on developing softer abilities.

Moreover, such online course materials could be improved by integrating different features of experimentation and collaboration in the virtual space, by taking the advantage from emerging technologies like virtual reality and   interfaces.

Instead of looking into online course materials as a substitute to campus-based education, we should integrate them as a complement to deliver pure content. It will allow us to free faculty time for inspiring, fostering creativity, building thinking ability and nurturing other soft capabilities among students that are critically needed to prepare them for lifelong learning.

M. Rokonuzzaman, Ph.D is Professor, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, North South University.

Editor : A.H.M Moazzem Hossain
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