Rethinking education: The effect of digital tools

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Digital Education

Following Jacques Coetzee’s excellent post on how people have used crowdlearning to redefine both learning and teaching, we thought it would be a great idea to showcase a few useful services and tools, and, importantly, discuss how the nascent online learning sector has changed education at its core.

The matching of information with interest lies at the heart of what has made the internet indispensable. Google is successful because it connects a searcher with the information they need. This information varies greatly, often meeting a curiosity, entertainment or practical need. A number of tools have been developed to take this one step further, curating or packaging information to provide not just information, but help you to turn that information into knowledge about particular subjects.

MIT Open Courseware

Whether we are talking about the Khan academy, where one talented man made video tutorials to assist with the maths curriculum and garnered a huge following, or Mentormob, that curates learning paths for you through online content, there are various steps people can take should they have the desire to. Information has met distribution tools and channels that allow individuals to learn at their own pace, often at no cost.

So how do these tools measure up in terms of the formal, peer-reviewed and structured learning that universities, colleges and technicons provide? Do they simply provide a new subset of methodologies for distance learning, which is not a new idea, or do they pose a challenge to the way things are currently done?

The internet can positively affect educational programmes
Much like the media and publishing industries, the internet has had a meaningful effect on the way educational institutions can perform. While I wouldn’t argue that contact learning is something we can or should give up, it is worth considering what the scale that a distribution system like the internet offers for education. Live chat, video lectures and video conferencing, online quizzes, interactive image displays and screen sharing tools can bridge the gap that the absence of a teacher in front of you creates. Institutions such as the UCT Centre for Educational Technology, running out of Cape Town, South Africa, have been exploring this for some time.

Beni American Unviersity

There are a number of other practical examples where universities are working with this very idea. MIT has long been offering course materials online for free, albeit with no accreditation attached. Beni University in Nigeria is launching a hybrid model that will be 70% online and 30% offline. MIT and Harvard have launched an online learning initiative that they hope will “improve education on our own campuses through online learning, while simultaneously creating a bold new education path for millions of learners worldwide”.

The role of universities and accreditation
In light of start-ups and universities offering innovative educational models, it is worth exploring some questions about the existing educational institutions. As Sir Ken Robinson has discussed, current models will struggle at scale. The Oxford University Student Union has been running a project to interrogate some of these ideas. It asks if students should “think of themselves as consumers of education, investors in education, seekers, partners, initiates, takers-up of a baton or challengers of an established order?”

We need to pay careful attention to in this space how peer-reviewed accreditation fits in with new and innovative models for education, given the obvious benefits – flexibility, reach and scale. In our field, for example, we’ve found that our course material needs to be updated so regularly that it can be challenging to fall in line with accreditation bodies’ approval cycles.

So this discussion is one that encompasses not just questions of what is possible in terms of new models for informal or “hobby” learning, but how these models can be integrated to make structured and recognised programs available to those who may not have had access to them previously. Whether this is because of cost, work commitments or a lack of infrastructure as is the case in many developing nations. Mobile connectivity and access to not just information, but knowledge, in Africa specifically, has the potential to be a powerful equaliser.

For me these positive and necessary developments require much further discussion.

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