The Case For Open Online Education

The world is changing. Textbooks are being replaced by e-books, blackboards are being traded in for Smartboards, and overhead projectors are losing out to digital slides. Two of these three tools can currently be accessed online by students who are given the privilege to do so by their professors. But with the growing popularity of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), this privilege is beginning to spread to a much larger population of students around the world. McGill recently announced its decision to join Harvard and MIT in offering online courses through the edX consortium, a non-profit MOOC enterprise offering free multi-discipline university-level courses. McGill’s choice to join in the development of a changing education paradigm can only be beneficial – both for itself and for a global student population.

In the official press release announcing McGill’s decision to join the edX consortium, Provost Anthony Masi stated, “This [decision] will allow us to provide individuals from around the globe with access to world-class educational experiences and will yield valuable insights to help educators better understand how they can leverage IT-enabled technologies to enhance teaching and learning.” With the world becoming increasingly technology-dominated, the decision to cater to a digitally-oriented generation allows for widened access to, and quality of, education around the world. As the MOOC technology continues to grow and develop, more sophisticated online tools can be cultivated, thus improving different aspects of the world of digital education.

But how does McGill benefit from MOOCs, and why join now, when the phenomenon is still in its early stages? Perhaps one of the most promising opportunities McGill has opened up is expanding its global exposure by offering a glimpse of McGill to the world. By joining as early members of the edX consortium, McGill has supported its reputation as a forward-thinking school on the cusp of innovation. McGill attracts an ambitious and promising student population, and by taking the initiative to seize this opportunity, the ongoing growth and development of MOOCs will only further enhance McGill’s image.

Untapped Reserves

In the broader sense, an available and effective online education system can be seen as a valuable tool for creating a more widely employed generation. Many less industrialized countries are currently experiencing a dramatic youth bulge, having the potential to either be a valuable economic resource, or a massive liability to stability and prosperity. At the African Union 2011 Summit held in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea, it was noted that high youth unemployment continues to be a growing and impending threat to stability in Africa. The high unemployment rates are largely due to limited access to valuable education in these areas, resulting in a stagnated employment bracket for ages 15 – 24, despite the age group’s growing size (as stated by Julius Agbor in Sub-Saharan Africa’s Youth Bulge). The ongoing spread and development of MOOCs can open up huge educational opportunities to these youth, taking steps in the right direction to provide them with the tools necessary to become valuable members of society for the world and their communities.

The less industrialized world’s youth holds incredible untapped potential. In a few lucky cases, this potential has been seen and pursued by top educational institutes. For example, in 2012, fifteen year-old Kelvin Doe, a self-taught engineer from Sierra Leone, became the youngest person to ever participate in MIT’s Visiting Practitioners’ Program. Doe spent his childhood searching through trash cans for metal scraps and putting them together to build batteries, generators, and other such tools. For example, in Doe’s community, houses typically only have light for one day a month; Doe constructed a battery to provide more light to these houses. He came into view through his self-built radio station, on which he broadcasts under the name “DJ Focus.”

This incredible story is both inspiring and eye-opening. Doe reached out to his community and the world through his radio station. He found a way to use his natural engineering skills to work our technology-dominated world to his advantage and make a positive difference in his community, despite the very limited resources. With the rapid growth of platforms like edX, it is obvious that MOOCs have the resources to offer educational services to a broader population in a widely accessible manner. Just imagine the possibilities that could be opened up by developing a digital paradigm to reach out to these corners of the world where there are without a doubt many youth with just as much potential as Doe.

Dropout Rates and Appetizing Tastes

A common argument against MOOCs relates to the currently high drop-out rates associated with online education, leading to the logical question of whether MOOCs are really feasible. As with any new paradigm shift, MOOCs have a learning curve and are at an early stage in their life cycle. As time goes on and as more MOOC student data become available, courses can be tailored to decrease these rates, such as greater student-professor interactions and incentives such as accreditations. Over the long run, the current drop-out rates serve as a barometer of long-term improvement in the quality and content of MOOCs, thus making them even more valuable.

There is one more positive effect of this decision, albeit somewhat counterintuitive. If the trend of online education continues, are we, the paying student body, going to become obsolete? On the contrary, MOOCs will, in the long run, increase the desirability and prestige of a traditional in-class education. The growing ability to spread education to remote corners of the world is both exciting and revolutionary. However, there is little comparable value to physical interaction and working with people of diverse backgrounds. If played right, McGill has the ability to provide a taste of its incredible variety and attract those with the most potential to attend. As more people have access to McGill’s MOOC datasets, the prestige associated with earning a traditional spot will become proportionally attractive and competitive. The students who are admitted to McGill as paying students will strive to make the most of the campus community, interacting with other ambitious students and gaining life experiences that simply cannot be simulated through a computer screen.

Ultimately, McGill’s participation in the MOOC movement holds significant promise for current and future students around the world. As edX flourishes, the worldwide population of educated youth and young adults will as well. A more educated population, particularly in areas where valuable education resources are currently lacking, opens up considerable potential for socioeconomic improvement and development. Along these lines, McGill’s contributions to a growing digital education movement will solidify its name and reputation as an innovative and forward-thinking school, one which the best students from around the world strive to attend. As students at McGill, we should be extremely proud that our school has chosen to become a part of this opportunity. We already know the variety of academic programs McGill has to offer. Let’s give the world a taste of it too.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of The Bull & Bear.

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