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Open sesame! Taking university education to the world via the web

The word “open” has grown educational wings over the past decade. From the British Open University, which enrolled its first students in 1971, the concept has expanded to mean various ways of relaxing…

What does it mean to be truly open? D Sharon Pruitt

The word “open” has grown educational wings over the past decade. From the British Open University, which enrolled its first students in 1971, the concept has expanded to mean various ways of relaxing the traditional barriers to entry, study and success in higher education.

So what does it mean to be open?

There are four ways of being open:

  • location: you can study anywhere; you don’t have to be on campus
  • time: you can study at any time; you don’t have to be in a scheduled class
  • entry: you don’t have to have special qualifications to gain entry
  • fees: you don’t pay

But there have been three key limitations on open education:

  • do you get feedback and evaluation?
  • do you get certification for finishing a subject?
  • can you use your education to get a degree?

A new player

Both open publication of research and open learning have been the subject of much discussion in recent months.

But in one sense the train is already out of the station, and gaining momentum. One of its drivers is a Stanford professor of Robotics and Computer Science, Sebastian Thrun. Last semester, in a moment of epiphanous madness, he joined Peter Norvig(head of research at Google) to put one of his Artificial Intelligence courses online, free, to anyone anywhere.

The course attracted 160,000 enrolments (roughly the total enrolment of the UK Open University) from 190 countries, and 23,000 completed it. It provided frequent feedback and tests, with two examinations (mid-semester and end-semester), all handled by software. Students who passed the course received a letter of completion. And all this was totally cost-free to the student.

The students also provided creative input. They established two large Facebook pages for course discussion and interaction, and nearly 2,000 of them translated the course materials into 44 languages. And the solutions to the very frequent quizzes, now on Youtube, provided feedback and commentary. The course designers implemented a version of problem-based learning and made it work online.

Thrun has now walked away from his tenured post at Stanford to set up a new online university called Udacity. Its mission is “democratizing higher education”.

It will provide free, online courses, and so scores 4/4 on the open education scale. Its first two courses will be an introduction to computer programming, for which students will learn to build a search engine in seven weeks, and programming a robotic car. Students who successfully finish will receive a letter of completion.

What went before

Udacity is a further development of MOOCs, or Massive Open Online Courses, where a regular university course is made available free online to anyone, but only the enrolled students have proper feedback and assessment. Both Udacity and MOOCs exploit the idea of a “flipped classroom”: the content is presented to students outside the class, usually through multimedia, and much of the learning depends on collaborative discussions built by the learners themselves.

Udacity joins some increasingly impressive online offerings like the Kahn Academy with one million student visits a month, Carnegie-Mellon’s Open Learning Institute, and fully online fee-paying universities like Western Governors University.

Of special interest among these is MIT’s MITx, a program that expands on MIT’s decade-long commitment to open courseware and free online learning. MITx will develop online learning materials. Learning will be free for anyone. Certification for successful completion will be available for a “modest” fee. MITx will not, however, give access to an MIT degree, which remains a residential on-campus learning experience.

Opening doors

What does all this mean for the open education movement?

Udacity ticks all four boxes in the open criteria list, and two out of three in the questions list: the only one still missing is a degree.

This marks a moment of transition. Serious, quality-assured, credentialed online learning is available free to massive numbers of students. Full online degrees, in contrast, can be costly: an online USA MBA can cost between $30K and $120K.

These models of online learning, with different mixes of openness, will now battle it out. As they do so we will pay close attention to their quality control, their pedagogical flexibility, their business models, and their aspirations in the degree market. So will universities, with increasing unease.

Wood from the trees

And what does it mean for education that isn’t open?

Degree-awarding institutions have a huge advantage in face-to-face instruction, and facilities like laboratories, which (until the adoption of virtual and remote labs expands) are needed for some disciplines. They are also able to pursue non-deterministic problem-based learning.

Much, but not all, of the quizzes, testing and assessment in Thrun’s AI course was based on multiple choice questions and commentary. But it’s altogether another question if you want your students to develop thinking in messy question spaces where the parameters are not controllable, and there may not be a single “correct” answer.

Established universities will probably move more parts of instruction to online mode – the parts amenable to this treatment – following the model of Udacity. They may consider giving credit for completed subjects from such institutions. They will also, if they can distinguish digital wood from pre-digital trees, get the cleverest people they can to focus urgently on what all this means and where it might be going.

Udacity is only part of the story. But it’s a story which bodes fair to change many aspects of learning – fast, radically and in unexpected ways.