‘Self-learners’ creating university of online

Richard Woods

A few months ago Daniel Conn was scouting the internet wondering how and where he might obtain a degree. At 26, having skipped university when he left school, he was, as he puts it, “a bit unsure of my study skills”.
By chance he discovered a website called Open Learn, an offshoot of the Open University (OU), which is in the vanguard of a new era of education. Short-circuiting tuition fees and over-priced student flats, Open Learn offers expert material, accessible via the internet, free to anyone, anywhere.

Unlike traditional “distance learning” courses, you do not have to register and pay to receive course materials. You just click and pick from a vast array of subjects — say, an introductory course on life in the Palaeozoic era to one on the meaning and value of textiles in Ghana.

Although it is not designed to deliver a degree, it is a start. “I found the material to be very engaging and reassuring,” said Conn, who tried units on IT and computing.

“I wanted to see how I would cope. I studied for about a month. I couldn’t put it down.”

He was so encouraged that he signed up for a full OU degree course, which he started this month. “A week in and I don’t regret it,” said Conn, who plans to study in the evenings and at weekends while continuing to work as an administrator at a garage in Brighton.

While Open Learn is a natural evolution for OU, what is striking is how some of the most prestigious universities in the world are moving in the same direction, making first-class educational resources available for free. This month YouTube began carrying material from 45 universities in Europe and Israel on a strand it has dedicated to education.

“YouTube EDU is a global classroom where . . . everyone can watch and engage with a range of videos that have been uploaded by some of the world’s great universities,” said a spokeswoman.

Even more far-reaching, in many users’ eyes, is the light-speed expansion of iTunes U — a sort of university in the sky hosted by the online music store. There you can find lectures by professors at Oxford, Cambridge, Yale, Stanford, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and many others.

Among last week’s most popular downloads were lectures entitled Einstein’s ethics; your brain on jazz: neural substrates of spontaneous improvisation; and building a business: entrepreneurship and the ideal business plan.

In just a year of posting material on iTunes U, Oxford has seen well over 1m downloads of lectures or other academic works. “Podcasts that were scattered on the university’s departmental sites are now on iTunes,” said Carolyne Culver, head of strategic communications at the university. “We are getting many more downloads.”

Word is spreading fast as a glance at Twitter last Friday revealed. Tweeter drdav99 wrote: “just found out about iTunes U. this is incredible”. Another tweeter, known as bfalke, claimed: “iTunes U may be one of the most amazing tools on the internet.”

As governments struggle to fund traditional university places — and this weekend 170,000 UK students starting a new university year are still waiting for loans to come through — is the internet ready to open up the cloisters of academe?

At the very least, it is reinvigorating the idea of life-long learning. If you have ever wondered who Euripedes was or where you might find a quark, you can now find a suitable lecture to listen to on your way to the office or sitting at home in front of your PC.

This time last year Marianne Talbot was embarking on a standard series of lectures on philosophy at Oxford University. Her words are still echoing around the world.

“It was a perfectly ordinary lecture I gave to an audience, but the university asked me if I’d mind if they recorded it and made a podcast,” said Talbot last week. “The next thing I knew it had hit No 1.”

Her talk, “A romp through the history of philosophy from the Pre-Socratics to the present day”, had topped the list of most-downloaded items on iTunes U.

“I got congratulatory e-mails from the techie people and I was tickled pink. I started thinking: how many \ is that? Presumably more than 20, but is it 100?”

Talbot, director of studies in philosophy at the department for continuing education at Oxford, had no idea how far her lecture was spreading. “Apparently the number of downloads is 5,000 a week,” she said.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s difficult to wrap my mind around the fact that throughout the world 5,000 people are downloading my lecture every week.”

Talbot admits she was fortunate to choose an engaging title in a subject of wide appeal. Nevertheless, she describes the potential of such open access as “awesome”.

The government, she notes, is no longer going to subsidise educational courses for people who already have qualifications (unless they are aiming for a higher qualification than they already have). So if you have one ordinary degree, you will get no financial help taking a second one. Such restrictions may well promote the use of open educational resources (OER), as iTunes U and its like are known.

At Cambridge, Nicky Clayton, professor of comparative cognition in the experimental psychology department, has also been surprised by the power of the internet. She was chosen to make a short film about her work as part of Cambridge’s 800th anniversary celebrations.

“The main message they wanted to get across is that although Cambridge is 800 years old and steeped in beautiful tradition, it’s not all old hat and cobwebs,” she said. So she decided to combine her research into animal behaviour with her passion for dance.
The result is Bird Tango, a short film that starts with Clayton dancing and segues into the intelligence of crows (who are arguably as smart as chimpanzees) and the antics of blue manakins, an Argentine bird so fond of dancing that it would have Alesha Dixon, the Strictly Come Dancing judge, lost for words. Since the film was posted on YouTube’s educational channel last month, more than 15,000 people have viewed it.

“I didn’t realise what a success it would be,” said Clayton. “I’ve been thrilled. It seems to appeal on different levels. It’s great for attracting general interest.”

Although OER is still in its infancy, the numbers are already impressive. In little more than a year more than 845,000 people around the world have accessed Open Learn through iTunes U and downloaded nearly 8m items. In the past month downloads have averaged 400,000 a week.

At MIT the Open CourseWare site is attracting 1.2m visits a month — many from students at other universities looking for additional resources, but many also what MIT calls “self-learners”, often working professionals who want to further their education.

One small study, by the University of New York in Fredonia, even claims that downloading a lecture can be more effective than attending one in person. Researchers compared 64 students, half of whom attended a lecture and half of whom received it via a podcast. In a subsequent test, those who downloaded the podcast performed better — possibly because a podcast allows you to replay difficult parts as and when you want.

Where might it lead? Most academics are not inclined towards cannibalism, let alone self-cannibalism. In an echo of the dilemma facing the newspaper industry, the OU is particularly sensitive to the threat of freely available material undermining its fee-paying business. Although it makes thousands of items available through Open Learn and iTunes U, its full courses, with guidance from tutors, remain separate.

Oxford is equally sensitive. “The Oxford education system is very much focused on the tutorial system, usually one or two to one,” said Culver. “You can’t replicate that in podcasts.”

Nor is the university going to make all its lectures freely available. “That’s not an aspiration,” said Culver. “We just try to find things the outside world will be interested in.”

Although some universities see iTunes U as little more than a handy tool to promote their wares, others are going much further. MIT, which charges students more than £20,000 a year, has put almost 2,000 complete courses online. Even though they can be downloaded for nothing, MIT does not believe this will undermine its position. Rather it calculates that the openness will enable potential students to understand the value of its teaching.

Although 40 years old this year, the internet is still in its infancy, according to John Naughton, professor of the public understanding of technology at the OU. When printing was at the same stage — 40 years after the arrival of the Gutenberg Bible in the mid-15th century — nobody predicted what an enlightening, subversive impact it would have on education and many other aspects of life.

Where OER will lead is unclear. All one can say with confidence is that its reach will undoubtedly grow.

Meanwhile, as Conn contemplates his studies in Brighton he is in no doubt about the value of what is already available on Open Learn.

“Okay, you don’t get a qualification from it,” he said, “but if you’ve got enthusiasm for anything you can search . . . And even if you don’t want to pursue a course, you’ll still get a rough understanding of what you wanted to know.” (Richard Woods, The Sunday Times) http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/life_and_style/education/article6869552.ece?token=null&offset=24&page=3

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