The digital education revolution

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By Ayesha KhannaOctober 28, 2013 | The Straits Times

Silicon Valley is abuzz with investments in education start-ups. The National University of Singapore has also just announced that it plans to put many of its courses online. But whenever there is potentially disruptive innovation of the kind we're witnessing in education today, there will inevitably be a period of experimentation and uncertainty. Indeed, it is not always clear what works and what doesn't. Fortunately, there are some models worthy of serious study. Moocs (massive open online courses) are a good example.

Massive online courses

COURSERA, the immensely popular Mooc launched last year, offers an online library of college courses taught by professors from top universities.

Since its inception, a staggering 4.7 million students worldwide have signed up to view lectures. Coursera is partnered with 87 leading academic institutions such as Stanford, Duke and Yale, and boasts over 400 courses in seven languages.

Using a combination of video lectures, online quizzes, homework assignments, and forums, courses are interactive and provide the student with grades, feedback and the ability to collaborate with peers. The best part: It is absolutely free, and a certificate costs only between US$30 and US$100 (S$37 and S$123). By comparison, an Ivy League university course costs thousands of dollars and was previously only available to the fortunate few admitted to the university's gilded halls.

Yet a growing number of critical observers feel that Moocs are ineffective platforms for education. Providers acknowledge that about 90 per cent of those who take Moocs never watch all the lectures, seldom do the homework and don't debate projects on the forums. They resemble couch potato auditors more than serious students. However, the mathematics is impressive even at a 10 per cent completion rate. For Coursera, this means that about 470,000 students have benefited from its offerings, a number far higher than most universities can teach in decades.

Over half of Mooc students come from growth markets such as Brazil, China and India. For that twenty-year-old in Bangalore sitting at his computer after working 10 hours at a call centre, Coursera is an unprecedented opportunity to learn from the best and compete in the global workforce. He will quickly become your or your child's competitor.

College and career

PARENTS of school children beware: Universities will increasingly take Mooc results into account in judging applications. For the first time this year, admission forms at Massachusetts Institute of Technology have space to list the Moocs and associated grades that applicants have taken. When facing the choice to study hard to get 10 A*s on the GCSE or to get nine A*s and do well on one college level Mooc, the applicant who wants to stand out on a college application will choose the latter combination.

Admissions officers will value the college-readiness of a high school student that excelled at a Mooc taught by a highly regarded professor. These courses are harder than the GCSE and underscore exceptional talent in a particular field such as Robotics or Art History.

If the first wave of disruption in education is the prevalence of high-quality online courses and the decoupling of physical campuses from course work, then you might not be surprised when young people begin to ask: Why should I apply to college at all?

The "unbundling" of the college degree is the most radical revolution in the nature of education. We will soon consider a university certificate alone to be a second- best assessment of a student's skills. Instead, as LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman describes it, the future of education will be a "fully networked certification platform". Scores from a variety of online courses offered by Moocs, employers and universities will be collated and augmented with your social influence, portfolio of projects, recommendations from colleagues and clients and work experience. The result will be a much more accurate picture of your true capabilities and value in the job market.

A company housing a person's "digital lifelong diploma" will collect and format all digital education activity, creating a seamless picture for employers.

Employers already agree that college assessments are poor indicators of performance at work. Google, for example, recently revealed that it gives grade point averages (GPAs) increasingly lower weight in assessing candidates. High GPAs and job success have shown little correlation.

Given the media coverage and investments from venture capital firms, colleges are enthusiastically jumping onto the e-learning bandwagon. But teaching effectively using web and mobile delivery is a skill that most colleges sorely lack. The result is that the "online" version of the course is nothing more than a collection of lecture videos and materials. Somehow, in all the rush to adopt new technologies, the tendency is to underestimate someone who is still core to the success of the education revolution: the teacher.

Flip teaching model

THE most effective digital learning model for colleges and schools is the flip teaching model. This involves students receiving instruction at home through online lectures, and then attempting homework in class where the teacher can mentor and aid them.

They can also collaborate with other students. The instructional tools used at home are modular and interactive to aid knowledge retention. The focus is on mastering the content through constant practice quizzes.

In addition, educational systems such as Knewton Adaptive are capable of personalising the teaching and quizzes by identifying a student's weaknesses and strengths while tracking skills development.

Khan Academy, which offers online courses for millions of school-going children, has been particularly adept at creating a system of learning that in- corporates the flip teaching mod- el. It has been piloted in Califor- nia and now increasingly across the US (80 schools in Idaho just signed up for Khan Academy courses).

The best part of this model is its blended learning approach, in- volving a combination of class mentoring with virtual instruc- tion. This allows the teachers to focus on student learning rather than lecturing.

But let’s not forget that Mr Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, came to the public eye for one reason: he is an ex- ceptionally gifted teacher. The courses he videotaped from his closet and put on YouTube were even watched by Mr Bill Gates when he wanted to teach his son maths.

The lesson is that whenever on- line and mobile courses are intro- duced in colleges or schools, teachers must be given sabbaticals to rework their current approach into the flipped teaching model. At North Carolina State University, for instance, prospective teachers can now take the Flipped Class- room Training Programme, a trend that will be increasingly favoured by schools and parents alike.

The blended and flipped teach- ing models represent the future of education. But in order for it to be done well, colleges should take the opportunity to work with their own teachers and outside ex- perts to create classes that pro- duce measurable improvements in school performance.

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