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Coursera Vs Harvard: How Informal Education is Changing the World
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Coursera Vs Harvard: How Informal Education is Changing the World

As tuition fees increase at universities across the globe and debt from student loans threatens to last decades aft...

Coursera Vs Harvard: How Informal Education is Changing the World

As tuition fees increase at universities across the globe and debt from student loans threatens to last decades after graduation, developments in technology are making education more accessible and less structured. The communications revolution is continuing to break down the geographical and financial barriers of conventional models of higher learning. Established universities are being challenged and some are choosing to adapt accordingly. As technology progressively facilitates — and arguably democratises — university life, the physical school, professor, and textbook are no longer the only ways to break into the ivory tower.

 

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What began informally with websites and social media, i.e., posting lectures on YouTube, has now burst into the mainstream with the help of bigwigs from established universities. There are now a wide variety of online courses available at no cost — if you don’t count Internet service charges and advertisements. While simply watching a lecture online doesn’t pose any real challenge to traditional education models, the same technology, when formalised by educational platforms like Coursera, does. Coursera currently offers 673 online courses from 110 partner institutions, many taught by professors from the most reputable universities around the world, all free of charge.

 

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How is this possible? While in the future Coursera plans to offer university accredited courses that will charge tuition fees, at present their revenue comes from “verified certification fees” with additional services including connecting students with employers, tutoring, sponsorships, and future “premium services.” Most Coursera offerings do not provide accreditation, although five math and science courses (one offered by the University of Pennsylvania, and two each from Duke and the University of California, Irvine) have been approved for college credit by the American Council on Education.

 

Co-founder of Coursera Daphne Koller:

 

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While Coursera does not yet offer degree programs to directly compete with “real” universities on equal footing, the same technology used by Coursera, including Skype-style voice over IP programs, is being applied at institutions the world over, supplying more choice and access to students by eliminating geographical boundaries. Elusive, finite, and expensive course books are also being replaced by electronic resources, giving a whole new meaning to the practice of cutting costs by sharing materials.

    

What is described above is just one example of how technology and the communications revolution are changing the face of education by making it more accessible – in geographic, economic, and other practical terms. Prohibitively expensive tuition fees in the US and their increase in the UK are serving to usher in the era of Coursera and similar for-profit companies like Udacity and Udemy, as well as Harvard and MIT’s non profit open learning project edX and “edupunk” platform P2PU.

 

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Looking at the situation from a historical perspective, we can see how the invention of the printing press in the mid 15th century resulted in increased literacy and helped the spread of education beyond the European elite. It happened again with copy machines and later digital materials, providing more access to materials and freeing up teachers to concentrate on teaching rather than the drudgery of making copies. Once again, new technology is opening doors and challenging the exclusive ownership of education by conventional institutions. Free and accessible education is part of an overall societal move towards openness, as typified by Wikipedia and Wikileaks. While they may reside in the “digital ghetto” of academia at present, Coursera and their ilk could be the future of higher education. The establishment ignores them at its own peril.

 

Coursera Goes Mobile

 

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