Muskens: Improvements in distance education open learning to all

The Internet has helped those without ready access to many courses learn from a distance, says Jane Muskens.

I remember years ago when the B.C. Knowledge Network first aired. Some of its content was considered distance-education and regardless of whether you were a student or not, you could watch the lectures/shows.

That was probably the first foray into this kind of open distance-leaning in the province.

Although the B.C. network was launched in 1981, earlier modes of open learning via television were established through Britain’s Open University in 1971.

Since then, the Internet has become the venue of choice for open online education.

But last year, a significant shift took place in access to higher education.

Sebastian Thrun, a Stanford University computer science professor, created Udacity which is an online school which offers massive open online courses.

What makes these courses so unique is the interactive component,

which is similar to a video game. They integrate the lecture with interactive course work, including tests and quizzes.

By the end of 2012, Udacity had 475,000 students.

Following the success of this online school, Coursera opened its virtual doors in April 2012. This online learning centre began by offering free online courses from four universities. Today it has 37 participating universities, which include UBC, the University of Toronto, Stanford, Princeton and Columbia (to name a few). By the end of the summer, it had more than one million students.

While Udacity tends to offer a computer courses, Coursera provides courses in a number of fields, such as education, finance, the humanities, law, medicine, and business to name just a few.

Although most of the students I know are enrolled in classes at Okanagan College and are focused on receiving an Okanagan College credential, I can see where these online courses would be attractive to those who might not have the same opportunities as Canadian students.

This kind of open access learning has the potential to provide higher education to the masses, and in particular, those citizens where access to post-secondary study is limited. This means that education could be provided to a number of marginalized groups, such as the working poor or women in nations that don’t support education for females.

The only barrier students face is access to a reliable computer and the Internet.

As for traditional colleges and universities, I doubt they will fade away. A number of students profiled on these online learning sites are currently enrolled in a university and are accessing an online course for further study.

Although distance learning has improved over the years, there are still many learners who need the classroom environment to be successful. For a number of reasons students need and want the personal experience you get from being in the same room with other students and interacting with a professor.

Young adults completing undergraduate degrees, diplomas and applied training programs (such as trades apprenticeship) usually mature through their college experience.

I doubt they would have the same growth experience if they did their program online.

Last week, I signed up for my first online course, a history course titled The Modern and the Postmodern. It’s a 12-week course taught by Professor Michael Roth, who currently teaches at Wesleyan University, located in Middleton, Connecticut.

Without thses types of courses, my chance of taking something like this for free would be negligible.

Jane Muskens is the registrar at Okanagan College.