The Future of Education: Global

Part 2 of 3 – you can read the first here

Rome

Beyond local: global

Thinking about how education is shifting from a local to a global stage, Kathryn Skelton’s presentation about her work at FutureLearn, an online course platform, was very relevant. I have researched MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) before, particularly around their quality and impact, and was particularly interested to hear more about the goings-on at one of the biggest MOOC platforms in the world.

FutureLearn has 150 university partners around the world and over 5 million learners. 77% of their learners are based outside of the UK, 60% is female and the majority of learners (40%) is between 26 and 45 years old (based on data from Skelton’s presentation).

Looking at FutureLearn’s global reach, having 77% of learners outside of the UK is impressive. However, it would still be good to look at the spread of those learners across the world. While MOOCs are often praised for giving access to education from top universities to people around the world, people from countries outside of the Western world might experience barriers when dealing with a Western-oriented platform. To illustrate, earlier this year I was working on a design project with 4 other people. They were all from China and as we discussed the cultural awareness of different online platforms, they mentioned their frustrations with certain platforms allowing for ‘quick access’ with platforms like Facebook, which is not allowed in China. Being inclusive through something so small can make a difference for the user experience from the start.

Talking about the impact of their global reach, Skelton fondly shared one of her favourite impact stories, which is around a course on Ebola. Around the height of the outbreak, the FutureLearn team noticed around 20 learners in Sierra Leone signed up for the course. One of them was actually working in an Ebola treatment centre. He accessed the course on a mobile phone and shared the mobile phone and course around the centre, so in the end 40 people in the centre finished the course. This directly helped them with their understanding of Ebola and work on the ground. The course had directly impacted people in their day-to-day at a distant location.

“Skelton feels strongly that collaboration between universities is important as they can learn from each other’s failures in this process and learn to think bigger together”

In order to create effective courses, FutureLearn continuously works with universities and facilitates collaboration between them to improve design, learner experiences and outcomes. They work with a learner-centred approach with the aim to create quality online courses. Skelton feels strongly that collaboration between universities is important as they can learn from each other’s failures in this process and learn to think bigger together. This way the load can be shared between organisations

I have often been sceptical about the quality of online courses, so I was intrigued by FutureLearn’s learner-centred approach to course design which is based on Diana Laurillard’s Conversational Framework. It is good to know that they keep developing their approach in order to create better quality courses. Skelton also acknowledged the balance that needs to be struck between scaling and efficiency of the courses and their quality and outcomes.

Online courses are not easy to do. Often there is a lack of external motivation, due to a limited level of communication with peers and instructors, and also a difficulty surrounding quality feedback and assessment due to its large scale. This is often why most online courses are actually done by those who are already highly educated and not those, as some originally assumed, who can’t afford to get their education in traditional ways. At FutureLearn, this is also the case with 35% of their learners working full time, 18% unemployed or not working, 13% full time students, 13% retired, 12% employed part-time and 9% self-employed. It seems that most online courses are currently used for professional development.

“Online courses are not easy to do. Often there is a lack of external motivation, due to a limited level of communication with peers and instructors, and also a difficulty surrounding quality feedback and assessment due to its large scale.”

While this might seem like failing its original intentions, I like the approach to this situation from Diana Laurillard who wrote about how online courses could be used to help cascade knowledge downwards, particularly in the context of tackling “the large-scale educational problem of developing the primary-level teachers needed to meet the goal of universal education” (abstract). For example, a regional school leader takes an online course on topic X. This person is most likely highly educated and has the skills to finish the online course. After finishing the course, the regional leader can then organise a workshop on topic X for head teachers of different schools. Then, these heads can again give a workshop on topic X in their own schools with other teachers, who can then take the knowledge and directly impact their learning and students. In this way, while only the district leader took the online course, the information was cascaded down to different levels.

“Online courses also give universities the opportunity to bring the world into the classroom”

Besides bringing universities and their courses to people worldwide, as in the Ebola example, online courses also give universities the opportunity to bring the world into the classroom. Through these kinds of courses, students can interact with people from all over the world, which can be particularly relevant for those disciplines with an international focus.

All in all, I think that online courses could have an important role to play in changing the education landscape, however I don’t think it has just yet. How do you feel about MOOCs? Have you ever taken one and if so, what was your experience like? And how do you feel about this shift from local to global education?

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