Student - March 14, 2013

Learning alone together

Free courses, taught by interactive methods and available to anyone on the internet. More and more universities are offering them, including several Dutch ones. But Wageningen University has different ideas about its future online.
Text: Linda van der Nat and Rob Ramaker

Taking classes with top teachers from the comfort of your bed? It is possible with MOOCs.
Lectures from the very best teachers, no fees at all, and nothing to stop you studying in bed in your pyjamas. Sound like a good deal? If so, you were born at the right time because there are hundreds of courses on the internet offering precisely that. They are called MOOCs, or massive open online courses, and they look exactly like normal university courses. Just like university courses they are only offered once or twice a year. The only difference is that now you follow lectures at your own tempo and they are chopped into short films of 1 to 3 minutes, followed by a quiz to test your understanding of the material. If you run into problems you can put questions to teachers and other students on forums. Your homework is checked by a computer or by your fellow students. And if you pass the exam you get a certificate.   
Hundreds of MOOCs appeared last year alone. Most of them are in the fields of IT, maths and physics, but you can also find courses on biology, ancient history and law. These courses attract mass interest: a typical MOOC attracts about 50,000 students but big crowd pullers like Artificial Intelligence get 160,000. Compare that with the hundreds (at the most) attending conventional classroom-based lectures.
The big drivers of the MOOC are the top American universities. That ensured that it spread fast, says Anka Mulder, secretary and director of Education at the Technical University of Delft and an expert on online education. 'The involvement of Harvard, Stanford and MIT sends a signal to other universities: if they are doing it, they must have their reasons.'
Since the beginning of this year Dutch universities have started following in their footsteps. The first to offer free online courses were the Universities of Leiden, Amsterdam (UvA) and Delft. In practical terms this means investing money in giving away their knowledge free of charge. That may seem a strange thing to do, but there are a number of good reasons for doing it, says Mulder. 'The first one is idealism. If you offer good education, it is important to make it accessible to as many people as possible.' But then she also believes the universities benefit from it themselves: 'MOOCs increase your visibility: hundreds of thousands of students all over the world see them.' Mulder also expects to see the development of MOOCs throwing up innovations which will trickle into conventional education. 'That makes us pioneers of those kinds of educational innovations.'
Sceptical
Educational experts in Wageningen are skeptical about MOOCs. 'They don't fit our way of doing things,' says Michèle Gimbrère, senior educational policy advisor. 'Neither in terms of content nor in terms of methodology.' The 'massive' scale clashes with Wageningen's philosophy of small classes and intensive interaction with teachers, for example. Nor can Wageningen afford to spend millions on an experiment; it does not have such deep pockets as Stanford, which has received one billion in donations in the past year. At the most, Gimbrère would see a role for MOOCs as a visiting card: 'You could perhaps use them to show how good Wageningen expertise is, and to give students a chance to sample the educational atmosphere here.'
This does not mean that Gimbrère sees no future at all in online education. It is just that it should involved smaller groups of students and a higher level. 'That is why we are aiming for distance learning,' says Gimbrère. Individual courses are already being offered by this route but there are more ambitious plans. 'We are developing two programmes which can be followed almost entirely through distance learning,' says Gimbrère. 'They are Wageningen programmes with real interaction.' Students, many of whom are working professionals, pay tuition fees just like any others.  In their form and wide range the courses resemble MOOCs, explains plant scientist Jan-Kees Goud, who adapted two courses for distance learning.  'We provide learning materials at MSc level. They come in the form of computer-based modules, videos, recorded lectures, discussion forums, online collaboration and supervision.' Goud himself is very satisfied with distance learning so far. 'It works very well: the results are better that those obtained through classroom-based courses. They are very highly rated in evaluations too. Well above 4 on a scale of 5.'
Low success rate
To highlight the differences between the two approaches to distance education, Gimbrère points out the low success rate on MOOCs. Less than 10 percent of students on the majority of the courses reach the finishing line. In the most successful course 20 percent get through. These are disastrous pass rates compared with those of regular university courses.
Anka Mulder does not let this deter her. 'But a MOOC has a different objective than an online version of a complete degree programme,' she says. In Mulder's view there is a place for both MOOCs and distance learning programmes. 'For example, the TU Delft will be offering an online Master's programme from September. It has very different requirements than a MOOC.' So Mulder looks at the success rates in a different way too. She gives the example of the artificial intelligence course, on which about 14 percent of the 160,000 participants passed: about 22,000 students. More than a professor reaches with a conventional course in the course of an entire career. Mulder: 'If people complete a course in numbers like that, that is a great success.'
Of course she does see some practical challenges in online education: 'It is better not to do the exams online yet. We want to make sure that the person doing the exam is who he says he is.' She also wants to look into how you can offer practicals and the social interaction of a university course online. She does not think online education will end up replacing 'campus education', but expects that they will both improve under each other's influence. Mulder is therefore wary of the 'my course can't be given online' reflex. 'People often think risks, but for the time being I am thinking opportunities.'
Hype
Meanwhile, the hype-generating machine is in full swing in the United States. In his New York Times column last January, journalist Thomas Friedman sketched a utopian vision. MOOCs, he reckons, will offer a good higher education to the disadvantaged all over the world. Eventually they will undermine the idea of a university and a degree altogether. Soon students will not attend just one university but will put together a degree from an à la carte menu in the form of a list of popular courses.
Technical journalist Nicholas Carr tempers such expectations, pointing out that new media always evoke great but unrealistic expectations. Not only were the internet and computers going to revolutionize education, but before that great things were expected of the television, the radio, the phonograph and even - believe it or not - the modern postal service. MIT professor Seymour Papert announced in 1984: 'There won't be schools in future. I think the computer will blow up the school.' 

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