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Online learning could provide answer

(L-R) Debate moderator Mr. John B. MAHAFFIE with Prof. 8Pai Obanya Organizati8on: West African Examinations Council (WAEC),8 Dr. Piotr Mitros Organiz8ation: edX, Dr. George Siemens Organi8zation: Athabasca University and Mr. Franc8isco Marmolejo Organization: The World Ban8k. Debate during the World Innovative Su8mmit for Education (Wise) in Doha, Qatar, two w8eeks ago, titled: "Can Moocs democratise 8higher education?"

(L-R) Debate moderator Mr. John B. MAHAFFIE with Prof. 8Pai Obanya Organizati8on: West African Examinations Council (WAEC),8 Dr. Piotr Mitros Organiz8ation: edX, Dr. George Siemens Organi8zation: Athabasca University and Mr. Franc8isco Marmolejo Organization: The World Ban8k. Debate during the World Innovative Su8mmit for Education (Wise) in Doha, Qatar, two w8eeks ago, titled: "Can Moocs democratise 8higher education?"

Published Nov 12, 2013

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Johannesburg - For Africa to accommodate students who will reach university enrolment age over the next 12 years, the continent would have to build four universities every week with a capacity for 30 000 people.

Undergraduate application numbers in South Africa alone show that hundreds of thousands of prospective first-year students will not be accommodated in the country’s universities next year.

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Apart from the limited space in higher education institutions, financial constraints stand in the way of many people accessing tertiary education.

In developed countries, where higher education institutions are also unable to accommodate all prospective students, Massive Open Online Courses (Moocs) are becoming a popular alternative.

Moocs, which are usually free, are seen in some quarters as complementary addition to Open Distance Learning (ODL).

However, unlike with ODL, where the institution sends a student study material and the student returns assignments to be marked by tutors, Moocs are more about self-paced peer-learning.

During the fifth World Innovative Summit for Education (Wise) in Doha, Qatar, two weeks ago, the impact Moocs are having on universities and the long-standing shortcomings of the higher education sector were debated.

The tertiary education co-ordinator at The World Bank, Francisco Marmolejo, said there were only about 200 million people in higher education globally. By 2025, this number is expected to exceed 250 million.

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“The number of people benefiting from higher education is very low and that’s a huge problem,” he said.

Marmolejo said there was increasing pressure on the higher education sector which would continue to grow in the coming years.

He said the waves Moocs were causing in the sector weren’t all bad as a huge appetite for learning and technology provided an opportunity to feed that appetite.

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“The disruption is a good wake-up call for higher education.

“There’s a lot of dissatisfaction about higher education. Think about the fact that 40 percent of youth around the world are unemployed.

“Considering the demographic trends, more people are going to be demanding a better higher education. This is a good opportunity for us to discuss ways in which we can improve the way we teach,” Marmolejo said.

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The associate director at Athabasca University’s Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute (Tekri) in Canada, Dr George Siemens, said Moocs would lead to “dramatic, substantial and systematic” changes in the higher education system.

He said the rise of Moocs was a reflection of wider technological, geographical and economic trends.

“Moocs is a holding term and a reflection of larger trends,” he said.

Siemens said Moocs were also a response to a growing demand led by the knowledge economy.

He said the traditional notion of what work or a job was, which was more labour oriented, was no longer the case and work was now knowledge-based.

“Universities have been completely ignorant – they’ve failed to respond to this transition. They don’t realise the profile of students entering the system is completely different to 15 years ago,” he said.

The panellists agreed that Moocs would have a larger impact on teachers. Dr Piotr Mitros, chief scientist at edX, one of the largest Moocs platforms, said as it stood, universities weren’t structured to develop and improve teaching.

He said universities placed more emphasis on research than teaching because lecturers got more credit and recognition for their research than their accomplishments as teachers.

Mitros said educating through Moocs, on the other hand, was not about delivering information, but guiding students through what they were learning, so mentorship was essential.

Professor Pai Obanya, an international education strategist at the West African Examiners Council, said the psychological guidance from teachers for young and more mature students was paramount.

“Education policies have always marginalised the key actor – the teacher. We have to avoid the mistakes of the past. We have to emphasise the pedagogy above the technology,” he said.

Predicting how education, with the impact of Moocs and other factors, would change in the future, the panelists said Moocs would be one aspect of a diversified education system.

“We’ll see a diversified education system because we’ll be serving a broader range of students,” Siemens said.

He said education would no longer be about going to university to get a degree.

“Learning will be increasingly attached to digital devices around us,” he said.

Siemens said the question now was how this learning would be captured as a degree in order to validate a student’s qualifications and capabilities.

Obanya said for Moocs to take off in the developing world, all the necessary infrastructure – the hardware and the connectivity – would have to be in place and currently, in most parts, it wasn’t.

“The digital divide is a reality in developing countries. It exists because there are those who have and those who don’t have,” he said.

Obanya predicted this gap would only get wider “as conditions in the so-called third world are not getting better”.

When Professor Asha Kanwar, president and chief executive of the Commonwealth of Learning was hosted by Unisa last month, she spoke about the effect Moocs was having on ODL – a more common phenomenon in South Africa with Unisa being the oldest open university in the world.

She said trends in higher education – the unprecedented demand, the escalating costs and the unimaginable pace of technological change – had led to the creation of Moocs.

Kanwar said when looking at information and communication technology trends in the Commonwealth member countries, the digital divide was the widest in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia.

“In spite of this huge expansion in higher education, the participation rates in the developing world were far below those in the other countries.

“For example, in south Asia, they remain at about 15 percent and in sub-Saharan Africa, the percentage drops to below 10,” she said.

“In addition, Africa is the most youthful planet in the world with 65 percent of its billion people under the age of 35.

“If we are to accommodate the children who will reach enrolment age between now and 2025, we will need to build four universities with a capacity of 30 000 every week,” Kanwar said.

She said ODL institutions could modify the Moocs model. She said the free and open source Moocs platforms could be configured to enhance the learning experience of large numbers through peer-to-peer and teacher-student interaction.

In addition, ODL institutions could use the learning analytics, a component of the Moocs platform, to improve teaching by providing more personalised and customised learning pathways.

“The data generated through learning analytics can be used to develop effective and flexible systems for credit transfers and the recognition of qualifications.” - The Star

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