Friday, April 11, 2014

There’s no turning back on digital education

The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 25/2/2013

Today I AM scheduled to speak at Effat University about the digital age in education. I don’t pretend to be an expert on such things, but if the University of Newcastle taught me anything it’s that old-school book learning is giving way in a big hurry to digital technologies and new media.
I was earning my doctorate at a time when digital technology began to make headway by leaps and bounds in academia. Not only has digital technologies reshaped our lifestyle, but how we learn. We have shed ourselves of the burden of communicating via written memos and even the telephone by embracing Facebook, Twitter and video teaching and conference calls.
We are no longer confined to the classroom. Distance, time and space are no longer an issue to gain knowledge. Does anybody still use the inter-loan library system where our local library can order you a book from another library hundreds of miles away? Not often. That is how quickly the infrastructure we take for granted as a learning tool has changed as we locate the materials necessary to gain knowledge.
For many of us who researched our papers as much from data on the Internet as books from the shelves of the university library, it was pretty exciting to see that Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) partner to develop its Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) program, which is better known as edX.
The fact that Harvard and MIT have dived into the digital classroom pool says a lot about the future of education. In a nutshell, the program is your basic online course with video linkups, text, exams given on the honor system (and perhaps a few exams in the future in which a video cam will watch you take the exam on your laptop inside Starbucks or your bedroom). Hundreds of thousands of students worldwide can take the same course.
Imagine hundreds of students in a discussion forum during a single course asking and answering questions in real time as the professor and teaching assistants sit back and allow the students to chart the direction of the discussion.
It’s too early to tell whether MOOCs will be a success for Harvard and MIT. But in one early course, 154,763 students registered for a class and half had dropped out before the first problem was addressed. By the end of the course a little more than 7,000 had passed.
That’s not particularly encouraging, but we are talking about MIT, after all, and anything from MIT is going to tough sledding. We also must consider the curiosity factor among students who want to test the waters, but are not necessarily prepared to engage in a virtual classroom.
But the barn door has been left open and there is no way to shut it now. For one, public and private universities are always vying for funding, and there is no way these institutions will pass on the opportunity to tap into more tuition revenue. For another, students will soon take accredited courses from prestigious universities without the expense of travel, accommodation and time by studying from home. As rapidly as we have glommed onto Twitter, Instagram and Facebook as a means of instant shorthand communication, online education will also in a matter of a few short years become the norm. Tablets equipped with a camera will be the next textbook.
Much of this can only be accomplished with corporate sponsorships, and already the leading computer and software corporate leaders are partnering with schools to provide equipment and services. There is a danger there of marrying corporations and education. Giants like Google already play a large part in our public discourse, especially in how we govern free speech issues (Google and YouTube often play the role in what is appropriate speech and what is not. We can look no further than the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh) films and cartoons for such evidence). Having such companies be the engine that drives education may prove problematic, but not enough to dissuade students from enrolling.
Students will look for ways to obtain an education more efficiently, so the demand to transform the way education is delivered and accessed will force universities to respond by incorporating social media — from variations of the Facebook template to standardized video lectures — into the learning process.

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