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Digital dawn: open online learning is just beginning

Universities are traditionally seen as exclusive institutions for the few, not the many. But that is changing as a new wave of online courses throws open the doors of academia to all. Led by world renowned…

Physical attendance at lectures may become a thing of the past. Flickr/Matt From London

Universities are traditionally seen as exclusive institutions for the few, not the many. But that is changing as a new wave of online courses throws open the doors of academia to all.

Led by world renowned American institutions like MIT and Harvard, this push to democratise learning is being taken up in Australia too.

A new way of learning

In contrast to traditional higher education, which closes learning off from the world, open learning is transparent and accessible to anyone with internet access.

Such openness could do a lot to improve standards at universities whose business models are driven by bums on seats, rather than mastery of a given subject.

It might also lift the morale of academia. Academics who are in control of what they teach, and who teach students who seek them out, may regain their professional freedom.

Around 7,000 online students recently earned the first certificates awarded by MIT and Harvard through their Edx partnership. That’s more than twice the number of degrees that MIT awarded at this year’s commencement.

Another 147,596 observers signed up to marvel at what an MIT course is really like. Substantially greater numbers are expected for the spring course offerings.

Their first MIT course, Circuits and Electronics, was tough. University level maths and physics were prerequisites, and the exam would give many nosebleeds.

But the high standards mean graduates are justly proud of the MIT and Harvard brands on their certificates.

New kinds of learning

Sal Khan, founder of the non-profit education provider Khan Academy, said in his recent MIT commencement address:

“The revolutions of our generation — in business, education, social structure and even politics — are not being catalysed by generals or politicians, but by highly empowered individuals like yourselves. [They] can see with clarity how the assumptions of previous generations no longer apply.”

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are in an experimentation phase. The spectrum ranges from the talking head, through to student centred learning, to the largest ones using best practice, research based instruction. Apart from being open and massive, MOOCs differ from traditional open university courses in the branding, and in the low cost, high flexibility delivery models.

Key innovations of the new wave of American MOOCs include the Khan Style Video, and the simulation lab. The Khan Style Video creates a remarkable intimacy between teacher and student.

The simulation lab is an environment in which exploration is encouraged, risks can be taken, and mistakes are forgiven. If you think this sounds too much like fun, remember that the pilots on your next flight may have qualified in a simulator.

The next step

MOOCs will take off, according to Udacity and Edx, once their student behaviour databases enable learning feedback cycles. The promise of datamining learning is one of the reasons it is researchers, and research universities, that are leading the new wave.

Harvard President Drew Faust said:

“Harvard and MIT will use these new technologies and the research they will make possible to lead the direction of online learning in a way that benefits our students, our peers, and people across the nation and the globe …”

Edx builds on the MIT OpenCourseWare project. It adds purpose designed best practice learning strategies, student community, labs, assessment, and certification.

But a pivotal unknown is how employers will use this certification. Will they favour traditional degrees? How will they use the information in the MOOC databases about an individual’s capabilities and mastery?

A technological wave

Stanford University President John Hennessy told his colleagues that when it comes to higher education: “There is a tsunami coming”.

Let’s hope not. Nevertheless, panic over MOOCs seems to have been a factor in a recent bizarre series of events at the University of Virginia in which the Board fired and then rehired the University President.

Universities are trying to understand whether MOOCs are just healthy competition or are a disruptive innovation. Higher education would not be the first sector to be hit by a bigger and faster technological wave than it expected. If the tsunami hits, the aftermath might follow the established pattern of disruptive innovation; the organisations that do well will either serve small, high-value markets, or develop new low cost models with broad reach.

Or perhaps achieve both, like the Minerva Project is attempting to with its $25 million in venture capital. Indeed, disruptive innovation case studies suggest the advantage lies with independent spin-offs that are free of regulation and legacy assumptions.

Australian leaders

According to The Australian, Deakin University plans to embed MOOCs in their curriculum. Announcing their “cloud learning” strategy the Vice Chancellor said:

“The universities which continue to succeed will be those which embed the opportunities of the internet in their culture and in the way they enhance the student experience.”

Is Deakin’s strategic plan to become a consumer of content produced by others? If so, how will this affect the roles of the teaching academics? Perhaps course creators will position themselves as independent professional consultants, analogous to how many young researchers on fellowships already find themselves.

In the absence of a crystal ball, it’s unclear where the treasure and effort being expended will leave higher education once the dust settles. In places where higher education is publicly funded, new government policies will be required to promote innovation. Since quantity has low marginal cost, perhaps the new wave will reorient policies towards quality.

Edx has $60 million in the bank, and the funding taps are wide open: the Gates Foundation has awarded them $1 million to develop flipped classroom courses for colleges serving low income students. The Foundation is also helping the online, tuition-free University of the People gain accreditation.

The future higher education

Is the future of higher education one dominated by international teaching stars providing cutting-edge courses to whoever wants them?

For learning requiring quality personal interactions, perhaps not. But at the low value end of the spectrum, for example where large lecture classes are the norm, it’s perhaps just a matter of time.

Why learn from the best in your country, when you can learn from the best in the world for a fraction of the cost? It’s no contest.

One thing is clear – this will not go away. The key players include great universities committed to innovation on the planetary scale. They dream of reaching a billion students. The new wave is already breaking over universities with lesser agendas, and will continue to for decades.

Surfing, anyone?

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43 Comments sorted by

  1. Nicola Coalter

    logged in via email @amity.org.au

    Sounds exciting. I'm certainly going to be checking the courses/units on offer. iTunes U already offers so many opportunities to experience higher education lectures for free and the concept of making education, by leaders in their fields, accessible in this way demonstrates the changing nature of the way people operate in the world of technology.

    What could be more powerful that learning a subject in a flexible way from the best minds in the world regardless of where in the world you are? ...as long as there is coverage!

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  2. Mandy Lupton

    Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

    Hi Craig, could you clarify the meaning of 'student behaviour databases'? I'm guessing it's how students are tracked when they use learning management systems...?

    Also, I'm intrigued as to what the experience was like for you in studying an MOOC course. Were you involved in online tutorials and the like, or was it more an individual study experience?

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    1. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Mandy Lupton

      Based on the public domain information, it seems that the Edx and Coursera software track everything a student does. For example, a student's path to arriving at a correct answer for an assessment item, such as a circuit construction lab.

      From the educator's perspective, this is a goldmine of information about how people learn. From an employer's perspective it is potentially valuable information about a candidate's specific strengths and weaknesses.

      Participating in the MOOC was a wonderful…

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    2. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Thanks, Craig - I'm tempted to enrol in a course myself :)

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    3. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Craig
      I am glad you noticed also the value of 1 billion DATA to be collected.
      They can choose the smartest man on the earth as well .

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  3. Mat Hardy

    Lecturer in Middle East Studies at Deakin University

    Wow. How many "The internet will replace universities" type stories can The Conversation run?

    As for Deakin, the strategic plan seems to be more about how many buzz phrases from management consultants can be strung together in one document. The concept of "the cloud" (sooooo 2007) seems particularly poorly understood, yet has become something of a mantra chez nous.

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    1. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Mat Hardy

      The jury is out on whether "the internet will replace universities", but there are some Big Fish trying to change the Higher Education game. Surely, it's a good idea to continue the conversation about that.

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    2. Andrew Smith

      Education Consultant at Australian & International Education Centre

      In reply to David Glance

      Universities and their role is not beyond question e.g. in past they were a physical resource base with lecture theatres to communicate knowledge and libraries for storage.

      Not only is much of the same available online, but much if not all research can now be conducted off campus by researchers whether individually, in teams and/or within a commercial or independent science and technology organisation, e.g. CSIRO, CSL etc.

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  4. David Healy

    Retired

    I agree that MOOCs and other on-line paradigms may not be effective for "learning requiring quality personal interactions". That's true for all disciplines some of the time, and for some disciplines more than others.

    Had to chuckle at this: "At the low value end of the spectrum, for example where large lecture classes are the norm, it’s perhaps just a matter of time."

    PERHAPS?!! I completed my first degree in 1968, and this was old news then!

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  5. Gavin Moodie
    Gavin Moodie is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Adjunct professor at RMIT University

    Scores of the same article were published in the 1960s about the impact of tv on universities, with exactly the same argument: why listen to a local lecturer when the best in the world can be heard on screen?

    The proponents of this argument have yet to explain why tv teaching did not take over the world in the 1960s and why online learning will be different.

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    1. Thomas Stace

      Senior Lecturer in Physics at University of Queensland

      In reply to Gavin Moodie

      At the risk of stating the bleeding obvious, TV delivery in the 1960's didn't offer any level of interactivity beyond the "off" button, let alone the chance to discuss content with other participants.

      Perhaps more importantly, TV didn't really change the marginal labour input requirements: assessment was done manually by the lecturer (or an assistant) for every student.

      The fact that there are tens or hundreds of thousands of students at least signing in to the trial courses on offer demonstrates…

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    2. David Glance

      Director of Innovation, Faculty of Arts, Director of Centre for Software Practice at University of Western Australia

      In reply to Thomas Stace

      Yes, I was going to state the obvious as well. Although I am one of the people that watched Open University on TV on Saturday mornings back in the 70's. I thought they were great. It is clearly chalk and cheese in comparison to what is on offer today.

      The exams on Coursera are done on an honour system - I believe that there is some consideration on other sites of having local centres where you could do exams and be accreditted. I personally think that this is what "other" universities could do - i.e. not generate content but accredit existing MOOCs.

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    3. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Thomas Stace

      The course I did was a "trial" and the assessment was run on an honour system. A certain amount of cheating was documented. Edx have not yet announced how they will handle certification, although an announcement is imminent.

      Reliable certification is a complex issue, but I don't think it's a show stopper for two reasons.

      1. Perhaps the majority of employer valued IT certifications are already provided through online courses by Microsoft, Cisco, etc.; hence the decline in enrolments in university…

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    4. David Healy

      Retired

      In reply to David Glance

      Yes, local centres are the way to go, with biometric ID required to enter the test site and strict on-site security to guarantee the integrity of the testing process. Security costs money, but it's not an optional extra.

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  6. John Thompson

    logged in via Facebook

    I undertook a MOOC course offered by the University of Michigan mainly to experience it and to find out how 'distance learning' had progressed since the Good Old Days. It was a very good experience with a reasonable sense of involvement with my other 50,000 'classmates'. I didn't take up the offer to join a local (Melbourne) discussion group but I did have some interesting email conversations with some other participahnts around the world. I could see how productive internationalcorrespond relationships…

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  7. John Browne
    John Browne is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Surveyor

    For those of us who live in rural and remote areas, this is a significant change in access to higher education. The availability of distance education through institutions such as USQ has made a difference in accessibility over the last few decades but the advent of MOOCs is a major leap forward. And all you need is bandwidth and study time.
    Let's hope that professional organisations will eventually recognise the certifications provided by these institutions.

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  8. Rob Crowther

    Architectural Draftsman

    Two statistics I tend to remember are (and these are estimations) 75% of learning occurs when you find a quiet spot and think about it and/or do some exercises with self directed exercises being superior to those provided in the text.

    and...

    92% of all learning is informal.

    Putting the two together, 8% of learning is whilst at school/ TAFE/Uni, 23% is when someone instructs (often in the workplace), and 69% is by yourself when you read or play around with something.

    This system is still about obtaining pieces of paper that certify theoretical learning which hopefully underpins further, self initiated learning. I think its true value will be if it can somehow move onto to helping people with the 69% of learning that occurs in private which everybody tends to ignore as inconsequential but is actually the most significant part if one is not in academia.

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  9. Geoff Rollins

    logged in via Twitter

    I've studied at university level three times. The first (Bachelor of Information Systems) was fully on campus and I didn't enjoy it at all. This may have been more a reflection of my age and maturity, but I found it so disengaging and boring. The second time was a Graduate Certificate in Maritime and Logistics Management which wasn't online but was distance based. I found this one a bit isolating. By far the best experience I've had is my present field of study; Master of Teaching, which is fully…

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    1. Mark Amey

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Geoff Rollins

      I've had similar experiences. It's a fabulous experience, as a young person, to attend campus lectures, tutorials, etc, but, as an older person I simply don't have time, or rather, the schedule, that allows attendance in person. My last two qualifications were entirely online. I was amazed at the way students quickly adapted to virtual tutorials/discussions where interactions may have taken anywhere from minutes to days.

      As for examinations and the potential for cheating, I guess it depends on…

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  10. Muvaffak Gozaydin

    logged in via Facebook

    Great Article from all the way from Australia .
    I will touch the issuies noboddy touched yet.

    1.- Technology has advanced so much one or only several universities online programs are enough for the world, such as 1 billion people.
    Though it is the target of only MIT + Harvard.
    But if we have Stanford, Yale, Princeton then it is enough for the world .

    Today if General Motors and Ford Motor Company provides cars at $ 5.000 a piece, nobody would set up any more car manufacturing plant ..Right…

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    1. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Walton

      Sorry Russel
      I could not get it. What is LOL

      I meant the article in fact the mentality comes all the way from Australia.
      I appreciated that an Australian thinks the the way I think in the western Europe .
      Even many Americans are not progressive thinkers.
      They prefer to be classic.
      I want to declare to whole world
      " the MITx + Harvardx is the greatest revolution ever happened in the world "
      I do not appreciate anybody who does not think like me. Very selfish .

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    2. Russell Walton

      Retired

      In reply to Muvaffak Gozaydin

      Muvaffak,

      "LOL" means "laugh out loud"

      Do you think that because Australia is a long way from Europe its culture will necessarily be very different from Europe's? For a promoter of internationalism your medieval attitude is incongruous. I'm assuming English is not your native language, so perhaps I misunderstood your tone.

      Don't forget the merciless laws of supply and demand, perhaps some of those cyber-diplomates will wish they'd chosen a "hands on" trade course instead.

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    3. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Walton

      Russel
      It seems you are much more educated than m e .
      I never said or mentioned that Australia ' s culture very different from Europe . But now I say it . Yes Australian culture is very different than Europe.
      Ausatralia is much more advanced than Europe regarding ONLINE.
      We do not hear from Europe and USA but we hear from all the way from Australia .That means too far away places .
      By the way I visited Australia 10 years ago and apprecited what you haved done.
      Plus We hired an Australian General Manager for a detergent company in Turkey .
      Excuse my ignorance , I am an engineer, please explain your last paragraph what do you mean . Best regards. I will visit you when I go to New Zeland nex year.

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    4. Russell Walton

      Retired

      In reply to Muvaffak Gozaydin

      To explain my last paragraph-

      My comments relate to the value any employer places on a graduate's qualifications, not to the value of non-vocational education in general.

      Here in Australia, as a result of the mining boom, people with trade qualifications and even unskilled workers are earning more than university graduates. So, if many more people gain degrees online,where are the jobs for them?

      Employers often criticise educational institutions for not producing graduates with appropriate skills, I wonder if online education will make the situation worse. My background is in business, so my perspective is from the capitalists's point of view.

      I hope that's clearer.

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    5. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Russell Walton

      Russel
      It is nice to exchange ideas.
      I am social capitalist. That means I am after profit,efficiency, productivity with social responsibility to society as well.

      Education is a wonderful subject I can write a book about it or I can disguss until morning.

      My own comments usually related to USA and sometimes Europe.

      I see MITx+Harvardx as a salvation of world HE.

      After working on online for 17 years recently I conluded that online must be done by only the top schools of the world…

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    6. Russell Walton

      Retired

      In reply to Muvaffak Gozaydin

      Muvaffak,

      I don't have the expertise in education practice and theory to have an informed opinion, particularly when there are so many political, economic and social factors involved. My only comments are, (1) that I'm sceptical as to whether a highly centralised education system is a solution to the dysfunctions of the existing decentralised model, there's more to consider than cost. (2) I'd also be concerned about the effect of an offshore directed education system on our research institutions.

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  11. david poole

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Great article. Some academics have been saying for the last ten years that it makes no sense to have so many producing and presenting the same material. Now, lets see some innovation. For example, very precise and targeted learning on line, supplemented by coaching and mentoring.www.projectcoach.com.au. Organisations who employ graduates would have to embrace it.

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    1. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to david poole

      David
      I checked www.projectcoach.com.au
      It is excellent. Fees are reasonable. That is good. Free is not good .
      How can you promote it in the world.
      Everbody need it.

      Can I translate the whole project to Turkish and promote it in Turkey at a reasonable price as well.
      mgozaydin@hotmail.com see me at Google muvaffak gozaydin

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  12. Mark Amey

    logged in via Facebook

    Craig, thanks for the link to the Khan Academy. What a terrific resource!

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  13. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    There is a problem with all types of learning, which is retention of information.

    Information can go into short term memory readily enough, but it may not be retained for long, and little of that information may go into long term memory.

    Putting information on a screen, and then getting that information into the long term memory of the student is a formidable problem.

    However, it would be interesting to know the results of any research conducted that compared traditional lectures to learning from a computer screen, to see which one had the best record for getting information into the long term memory of a student.

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    1. Craig Savage

      Professor of Theoretical Physics at Australian National University

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      A rigorous study was published this year that compared student learning of first year university statistics in standard lecture based courses with that in blended courses in which all the content was delivered by a sophisticated online system.

      It involved a diverse group of 3,000 students from 6 universities in the USA. Students were randomly allocated to either type of course. The blended course included 1 hour per week of face-to-face tutorial instruction.

      The result was that there was no significant difference in student learning as measured by pass rate, final exam mark, and a standardised statistics test. The detailed analysis is fascinating and might surprise both online and face-to-face advocates.

      The report is available from:
      http://www.sr.ithaka.org/research-publications/interactive-learning-online-public-universities-evidence-randomized-trials

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Craig Savage

      Very interesting, but the Ithaka website contains the following:

      “Potential is the operative word. While the research demonstrates that ILO-based learning systems need not negatively impact learning outcomes, the report also cautions that these systems are in their infancy and encourages vigorous efforts to explore uses of both the simple systems proliferating every day and the more sophisticated ILO-type system studied here. “I know of no online learning system available today that can deliver…

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    3. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Craig Savage

      I read ITHAKA Reports fully.
      Now it is established " online is as good as f2f if not better "
      MITx showed that MITx ONLINE is better than f2f.
      $ 50,000 fee paying students at MIT do not attend their f2f 6.002 class but follow it from MITx online that is 150 students out of 200 students registered for the course f2f .
      Please also read the comments who took 6.002 course at MITx .
      They say it is just wonderful

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    4. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Target of MITx+Harvradx is 1 billion people in the world.
      It is enough for the whole world.
      It is estimated there are 200 million higher education students in the world.
      Add to that any number who cannot attend the college due to cost and entrance barrier total say 400 million .
      So only MITx+Harvardx is enough for the whole world .

      So we should support MITx+Harvardx with all our heart.

      Please be aware:
      Not all online programs are good. In fact there is no online programs as good as MITx…

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    5. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Muvaffak Gozaydin

      "Plus a side asset thet will gain is DATA of 1 billion people in the world. That DATA 'tself worthed 10 b'll'on dollars "

      Perhaps students should read the fine printing before they enrol.

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    6. Muvaffak Gozaydin

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      Dale
      One does not need fine printing.
      President MIT and President Harvard said in their anouncement of joint venture of MIT+Harvard
      " we will collect 1 billion DATA and from that we we will learn
      ' how people learn '
      that is our research we will ıuse as well "

      No harm to me.

      Did tou know that Coursera and Udacity are already selling their successful students names to head hunting companies in the USA . They claim it is part of the financing of their free courses .
      Is it ethical ? As long as you say at the beginning it is ethical .

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  14. angelica laurençon

    logged in via LinkedIn

    I perfectly agree, the digital learning will be the only issue for the next generation 1 billion more young people in 2020 on the global roads trying to get know how, skills, knowledge beyond the institutional knowledge provider unable to recreate resilience and to think different.

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  15. Muvaffak Gozaydin

    logged in via Facebook

    First time I found myself amıng Australians.
    That is nice.
    I knew Auastralians knew so much about ONLINE .
    Now I also see that MITx+Harvardx is appreciated in Australia more than USA.

    Thanks billion.

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  16. Eric Glare

    HIV public speaker and volunteer

    Evolution feeds off of diversity whether it be biological or adapting our learning for our changing societies. Online learning is a logical progression but putting most tertiary education into the hands of a few providers and a very small pool of teachers is just going to reinforce the problems we already have - graduates know the theory but not the specific applications for the job they are hoping to get. Things like manufacturing and consumer law, building regulations, anti-discrimination legislation and anything that connects with culture - we can't even agree on spelling let alone anything with culture in it. There is enough difference between Australian states to deal with without going to the US to study. Ultimately we have to live and work in our real world, not a virtual one.

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    1. Mandy Lupton

      Senior Lecturer in Education at Queensland Univeristy of Technology

      In reply to Eric Glare

      Agreed, Eric. One thing that worries me is that the MOOCs represent a US-centric mono-culture. Those of us who work in fields where culture and diversity are seen as important need to design and teach our courses to relate to local conditions and accreditation requirements. We can still do this in a virtual world, i.e. in online courses, but for obvious reasons they can't be mass globalised courses. To take the example of sociology, the principles and theories relating to sociology might be the same across the world (though I'm sure that's arguable), but when we teach these we need to do so using examples from our own culture in order to engage students at the level of their own life experience.

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    2. Muvaffak GOZAYDIN

      President of ONLINE Learning Co non-profit

      In reply to Eric Glare

      Eric and Mandy

      First I should say I appreciate all very intellegent remarks in Australia .
      You should speak up more in the world. Or may be it is better to be on your own .
      You are the one to decide .

      I claim that university is a universal education for the world..
      Therefore almlost all countries in the world are sending their students to USA.
      universities. Mostly to top schools.
      Almost 40 % of the student body at top schools are foreigners, mainly Chinese, Indians, less Japanese now…

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