ICT and Education: MOOCs and all that

Master, Wardens, Mr. Alderman, Freemen and Guests, it is a great honour to be here in London with the Company of Educators. The Franklin lecture tonight highlighted some significant challenges for the UK Higher Education sector: I am afraid that I would like to say a few words about yet another challenge that may be facing the sector. I was at the University of Southampton for 25 years and then led a research initiative for the UK Research Councils for 5 years. During my career at the university, I heard many times about how Information Communication Technology or ICT was going to transform education. I think that this time it may be for real.

First a word about technology. The two major ICT trends in the past 30 years relevant to the education sector are Moore’s Law and the Internet. Gordon Moore, one of the founders of Intel, observed that the number of transistors on a chip was doubling every 18 months. This has led to an amazing industry in which computers have got faster and cheaper for over 30 years. Now it is literally possible for people to store their whole life – photos, videos, emails, documents – on silicon. The second major trend is the growth of the Internet from a small academic research network to a network of networks that literally circles the planet. There are now over 2 billion Internet users and, importantly, the ‘non-PC’ Internet – connectivity of smart phones and many other devices – is the fastest growing segment. The future ‘Internet of Things’ when you will be able to interrogate your fridge from 30,000 feet in a plane is not far away.

Now a word about timing. It is important to introduce technology ‘at the right time’. For example, Microsoft produced tablet computers many years before Apple without achieving significant widespread take-up. It was the continued miniaturization of silicon technology coupled with the increasingly widespread availability of WiFi and broadband connectivity that has led to the remarkable success of the iPad. The connectivity needed to be there so that users could easily use a tablet to browse the Web, to watch videos, to look at shared photos or to scan their email. I think a similar convergence of technologies might now have arrived in education. It is certainly true that the issue of MOOCs – an acronym for Massive Open Online Courses – is now obsessing the US HE sector. Let me explain in more detail.

The term ‘MOOC’ was first coined by two academics called David Cormier and Bryan Alexander in respect to a course given in 2008 at the University of Manitoba in Canada. The course had 25 local, tuition-paying students but it also had 2,300 registered students from around the world who could participate in the course for free. The course content was made available in various ways – on the Web, via RSS feeds, blogs and wikis, for example. However, the online course that has really set universities in America buzzing was a course given at Stanford University in the autumn of 2011 by Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun. Let me quote Sebastian Thrun’s reaction to giving this course:

One of the most amazing things I’ve ever done in my life is to teach a class to 160,000 students. In the Fall of 2011, Peter Norvig and I decided to offer our class “Introduction to Artificial Intelligence” to the world online, free of charge.

We spent endless nights recording ourselves on video, and interacting with tens of thousands of students. Volunteer students translated some of our classes into over 40 languages; and in the end we graduated over 23,000 students from 190 countries. In fact, Peter and I taught more students AI, than all AI professors in the world combined.

This one class had more educational impact than my entire career. Now that I saw the true power of education, there is no turning back. It’s like a drug. I won’t be able to teach 200 students again, in a conventional classroom setting.’

There are now other examples. At MIT in the spring of 2012, an online version of their traditional ‘Circuits and Electronics’ course had 155,000 registered students, of which some 7,000 completed the course. Dean Agerwal commented that this was ‘as many as would take the course in 40 years at MIT’. Another on-line course at Stanford, ‘Introduction to Databases’ had 60,000 registered students with over 6,000 finishing. Jennifer Widom, in an essay about this experience – ‘From 100 students to 100,000’ – talks about the ‘flipped classroom’. This is when traditional lectures are replaced by self-paced study of short videos covering individual topics and the scheduled class time is devoted to much more interactive activities with the lecturer’s involvement.

In the USA, the stunning success of these massive, free, online courses has led to something like a land rush in the online education space. Academics Sebastian Thrun and David Evans have set up a company called Udacity with the support of $5M in venture capital funding. Two other academics at Stanford, Daphne Koller and Andrew Ng, have set up Coursera with $15M VC funding. In an effort to provide a non-profit alternative, MIT and Harvard have joined forces to set up EdX with $60M in funding promised from the two universities. Berkeley has now joined the EdX consortium. Will these developments present a serious challenge to second-tier universities in the struggle to extract money from students for their courses? Or will this all prove to be a ‘Dot-Edu’ analog of the Dot-Com bubble?

There are many questions still to be answered. To raise just a few:

  • What is the business model for the for-profit start-ups Udacity and Coursera?
  • What is the business model for the non-profit EdX?
  • What sort of qualification do students who finish the courses obtain?
  • How do universities make their brand visible to the world – or are the individual lecturers the important ‘brand name’?
  • How do you maintain quality yet automate the assessment and grading of 100,000 online student assignments?

In spite all of these unanswered or partially answered questions, MOOCs are arousing much enthusiasm – and great trepidation – in American universities.

Online education has been with us for many years and in the UK, the Open University has been one of the pioneers. So why could MOOCs be a game-changer at this time? I think there are several possible factors that indicate that this time it could be different. Some of them are:

  • The success of the Kahn Academy in demonstrating the effectiveness of short 10 minute segments as a more effective way of teaching than traditional 60 minute university lectures.
  • The Cloud now allows both the volume of the course content and the number of students to scale in a cost-effective and friction-free way.
  • The Internet and Web 2.0 technologies now allow students to spontaneously form online, self-help groups.
  • Automated testing and grading technologies are now beginning to make possible a genuine personalized learning experience.

At this moment of time, the long-term impact of MOOCs is certainly unclear. However, there is certainly the possibility that with increases in university tuition fees in many countries we could see a dramatic change in the HE sector. I have not seen much interest in MOOCs yet in the UK and it may be that a wise policy is ‘to wait and see’. An alternative view could be that UK universities are missing the MOOC boat. One of the few business management books that I liked when I was Dean of Engineering at Southampton was a book by Andrew Grove, former CEO of Intel: ‘Only the Paranoid Survive’ …

I now would like to conclude by asking you all to raise your glasses to the Company of Educators and its Master Martin Cross.

Tony Hey

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s