Online learning takes on global approach

(File photo by Nick Lachance).
(File photo by Nick Lachance).

Imagine being in a classroom with students from the U.A.E., China, Mexico and various other countries around the globe learning about the same subject in an interactive fashion from the comfort of your home.

And it’s free.

Kevin Leyton-Brown, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has taught such a class with the introduction of massively open online courses (MOOCs) at UBC. UBC, in conjunction with Coursera, an online course provider based in the United States, has opened up a few MOOCs, including Leyton-Brown’s course on game theory.

Leyton-Brown’s course, however, is also taught with Matthew O. Jackson and Yoav Shoham from Stanford University. MOOCs have also been introduced at the University of Toronto (U of T) and McGill this past year.

“I’ve been kind of amazed about the breadth of reach that the courses have had,” said Leyton-Brown. “I have more students in Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, and the Palestinian territories than I teach here at UBC.”

“They’re [MOOCs] reaching out to just far corners of the world, it’s really just amazing to me,” he added.

The course that Leyton-Brown teaches employs the use of videos, discussion boards, interactive projects and quizzes to assess and educate the students.

If a student finishes the course from beginning to end, they will receive a signed certificate from the university.

Credits, however, are not given for the completion of MOOCs.

“Ultimately what you get out of it is that you get to learn from it. For most people taking the course, that’s what it seems they really want,” Leyton-Brown continued, adding that about 130,000 people enrolled in his class when it first opened last fall.

“One thing that I’ve really learned for this is that different people are trying to get different things out of it.”
The University of Toronto was the first university in Canada to set up an agreement with Coursera to release a MOOC in July 2012. In January, U of T and McGill signed a consortium with edX, the online course provider for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University.

“On average, if you look at statistics that are reported by other universities, about five per cent of people actually finish all of the assignments for a MOOC, and in this particular one [course at U of T], for the people who started at the beginning and finished it was about 10 per cent, which is about twice as high as you see in other MOOCs,” explained Cheryl Regehr, the vice-provost of academic programs at UofT.

Regehr noted that the purpose of these courses is not necessarily for the certificate that the student receives at the end, but for people to engage in higher learning.

“It might be some use to their workplace, but in large part people take them because they want to expand their own knowledge base,” she continued. “So it’s the learning, not the certificate, that has the greatest value.”

While education becoming easier to access online, Leyton-Brown warned that a future with completely online postsecondary education would be not as effective.

He sees MOOCs as a “supplement” to the course material already instructed in-class or as a continuing education course.

“I think it’s going to become another tool in the arsenal. I really can believe that a MOOC is somewhere between a textbook and a class,” he said. “We talk about MOOCs being courses, but we really think about them as textbooks. They’re really just self-study devices.”

Leyton-Brown added, “There’s just something kind of compelling about getting into room, interacting with other human beings, getting feedback on your work, in a way that really a MOOC is never going to provide.”

Leyton-Brown claimed that just like the emergence of the Internet didn’t completely remove the prevalence of television, the use of online courses would not remove the importance of in-class study.

“We usually overestimate the short-term impacts of technology and underestimate the long-term impacts and I think that it is true here as well,” he concluded.

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