The High Promise Of World Class Online Learning - And The Challenges

The High Promise Of World Class Online Learning - And The Challenges

Online courses from world class institutions are a dream come true for students and continuous learners. It has the potential to democratise knowledge and education. But mind the pitfalls.

Exploring what the online knowledge industry has to offer is fascinating. If you are well connected to the internet and have a couple of minutes to spare then just log on to or and you will know what one is talking about.

As kids born before the mid-1990s in the developing world, most of us were limited to textbooks and library reading. Those were our primary sources of getting quality exposure to the world around. With the advent of cable television, TV channels like Discovery and Animal Planet further added to our knowledge.

Travel then was limited to and around places where we lived. International travel was out of question for most of us. It was in our 20s that we travelled for work, higher education and leisure. That is when we got a chance to see and listen to what expertise sounded like in far off places. That is when we got a chance to learn about multiple sides of many unheard stories.

With a boom in knowledge economy, things are changing rapidly. The courses offered on websites like Coursera, Ed-ex and Novo-ed range in topics from every-day thinking to complex analytics techniques for interpreting genomic data. The fields covered cross the boundaries of humanities, natural science, sociology and what not. These courses are taught by experts who hold no less than a doctorate and are doing some exceptional work in their field of interest.

Some of these courses are experimental in nature while others are tested with time as they have been taught in classes and on web for some time now. There are some courses that need pre-requisites and some that don’t, but most of them need one qualification and that is ‘undying curiosity’.

There are options to audit the course which means you need not do all the course assignments. There is also an option to complete the coursework and get a certificate of accomplishment. This option typically has some fee associated with it. Taking a step further, you can get a course completion certificate that is valid for course credits if you complete all the assignments with a certain grade benchmark. Now isn’t that just great?

Many universities like Stanford, Purdue, MIT, Texas A&M have their own websites where they offer their courses and course material, sometimes free and sometimes at a fee. In India there are similar initiatives like the NPTEL (National Program on Technology Enhanced Learning).

The High Promise Of World Class Online Learning - And The Challenges

Now all this really sounds like knowledge standing at your doorstep and you might think of getting through by just opening the door. Sadly, that’s not the case; there is a commitment of time and sincerity involved. Most of the offered courses run on a fixed schedule and it is up to the entrant to find time to go through the video lectures, do the assignments or participate in workshops. But this may still not the hardest part. For a curious cat, the curiosity can be compelling enough to progress.

The harder part is shopping, picking and sticking to the coursework of interest. The feeling is similar to visiting a superstore where all you want to buy is a bottle of coffee but there are 50 options in all price ranges and you end up spending 15 minutes in the aisle for selecting a bottle of coffee. There are overwhelming numbers of courses on these websites and the fact they are free does not really stop you from entering and exiting one at any given point in time.

Sometime this flexibility can pose a challenge in effectively selecting a course of interest and at other times the free nature of the course can encourage you to exit one for an alternate course that has just started and seems more interesting than what you are currently taking. Thus planning for courses based on your current focus of interest is very important else you might actually end up learning everything about nothing at the end of time and this can lead to discouragement from taking advantage of this amazing resource in the future.

Having said that, if you just want to cruise through some material of interest from past offered courses, that is possible too. Most websites keep the video material and weekly quizzes accessible after the course end date.

All that has been said so far concentrates on the aspect of continuous learning. Continuous learning is definitely the most important offering that comes with the bloom and busting of the knowledge economy. However, there has to be some thought given to how it can be leveraged while it is free and inexpensive.

Imagine teachers in remote areas of the world getting introduced to a teaching workshop designed by Rice University in USA. Imagine parents and teachers taking child psychology courses offered by experts in the field. Imagine a curious child using just a portion of vacation time to take a decision making workshop for kids offered by Harvard. Imagine a parent who has never been through college, taking courses of their interest just to get a flavor of how their kids went about learning during their higher studies. Imagine students pursuing higher studies in India supplementing their coursework with these online courses for deeper understanding. Imagine a person who has not had a chance to pursue higher studies taking courses and credits at his will and convenience to fill in the gap. Imagine the liberty to learn what you want and as a when you want to.

There is huge potential of leveraging these resources at all levels of education and curiosity around the world. Learning and knowledge sharing becomes so much easier. All you need is a device and a broadband connection. The thought of what vision these tools can build in a child, who otherwise would never have known how anything beyond his/her district boundary looks like, is very exciting to say the least.

Shweta Aroskar is a Senior Business Analytics professional working in Houston, Texas.

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